Talking about suffering: Why pure motives don’t always make things right

Why am I sick?
Will I ever get better?
What am I supposed to be doing with my life?
It can take courage to ask these questions. But sometimes, it can take even more courage to answer them.

When you know the right answer should you give it questions about suffering #caregiver #struggle #chronicillness #writer #hope #chronic #faith #watching #prayer

Today’s post is the first in a series of articles called ‘Talking about Suffering’…

Talking about suffering is hard! (how do you know what to say?)

Figuring out the truths about illness, suffering and the big problems of life is difficult.

It’s a different sort of hard when you are not sick yourself. How often do you feel helpless in the face of such questions? How often do you feel ill-equipped to answer your sick friend’s frustrations?

Even if you ‘know’ the right response (whether that’s an answer, rebuke or piece of advice) you might not know ‘how’ to say it.

Is this you? It’s often me!

There are right answers to the question of suffering…

Let me give an example. If my friend suffering from a mental illness asks me: “Why does God allow this?”, there are many ‘right’ answers I can give:

  • God has a plan for everything – His ways are not ours
  • God suffered too and so ordains suffering for His use
  • God works all things for His glory, and all things includes both good and bad

Or perhaps my sick spouse is tired and angry because of their long term chronic illness, and is being ‘snappy’ and unkind to those around them.

There are several ‘right’ responses I could give:

  • Is this how God wants us to respond?
  • You are wrong in this situation
  • You should ask my forgiveness

But there’s a problem with giving these right answers..

Of course, just because I know the right answer doesn’t mean it’s the right time or place to give it. In the normal course of life it’s hard enough to know when to remain silent and when to speak – but sickness makes the situation even more complex!

Why is this?

If someone is sick they may be physically or emotionally unable to understand or accept our ‘answer’. Illness also creates a divide between the sick and the healthy. Our loved one has had their soul singed by deep waters which we have not waded in… and so our ‘responses’ can come across as insensitive or unhelpful.

How then do we speak into their situation? Should we?

When not to answer our sick friend’s questions

If our desire to answer stems from a selfish heart rather than a loving one, this is a signal that perhaps it is best not to answer. The reality is our motives are never going to be a hundred percent pure, but a few to watch out for are:

  • We like the feeling of being right
  • They have hurt us and we know that the truth will hurt them
  • We value the Right Way to Live more than we value Love
  • We are in a hurry and want to end the conversation quickly and tidily

Are any of these your primary motive for speaking up with the ‘right’ answer? If so… maybe, don’t.

But I want to help!

That said, often we want to answer for the right reasons. Some of these include:

  • A desire to alleviate their pain
  • We want to meet them where they are and engage with our sick friend
  • We long to show them God loves them (and so do we!)

What then? Is it okay to give the ‘right’ answer if we have ‘right’ motives?
Not always.

Why right  motives are not everything..

Let’s go back to my friend at the beginning. She’s struggling with a mental illness. None of the conventional treatment seems to be working, and she’s terrified that she’ll be battling her demons for the rest of her life. She’s scared that she will never be able to live ‘normally’ – and perhaps the reality is, she won’t.

I want to love my friend, and I want to comfort her. And so when she asks me, ‘why does God allow this?’ I respond with:
‘Don’t worry, God has a plan. It will turn out okay.’

Now maybe that is the answer she needs to hear. But do you see how it could be a very harmful response as well?

Technically, my answer is ‘right’ and my heart is ‘right’ – but there’s a lack of sensitivity here that simply makes the entire situation ‘wrong’.

Before we give the ‘right’ answer, there’s other things besides our own motives we need to think about. I’ll cover this in the next post! But for now…

//What about YOU? Have you ever given (or been tempted to give) a ‘right’ answer and later regretted it? Why?

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Author: Emily J. M.

Hi, I'm Emily. Two of my closest family members struggle with chronic illness, and I watch them. That's hard, and so I write about life as a 'Watcher', what it looks like to support them and find Hope.

5 thoughts on “Talking about suffering: Why pure motives don’t always make things right”

  1. Oh I have been so tempted to give the “right” answer only to regret it later. My problem is that I like to and want to rationalize everything, including suffering, but that only frustrates friends sometimes.

  2. Great post! Sometimes, we need to be reminded of the truth no matter how harsh it is… but other times, we need Watchers to just listen, to comfort without trying to explain, to not try to fix us all the time. Sometimes, we need to be shown the truth and helped to realize it for ourselves rather than just straight up told. 🙂 🙂

    1. Thank you Sara – it means a lot to get feedback from someone who is fighting the frontline battle (in a sense) – and I love your last line, it’s something I’ve really come to realise over the years and I’m actually touching on it in my next post in this series!

      1. Aw, thanks. Your posts are so eye-opening and helpful for me. Not many people talk about the Watcher side of thing, let alone my own caregiver or family members… it’s really helpful to see things from that POV.
        Looking forward to reading it! 😀

  3. Ah I know what you mean Brendan, it’s feels so good to try and reduce life down to something essentially explainable… and yet, when I do that I find I often miss the reality that the journey and the moment is just as important as the outcome and the explanation.

Thoughts? I'd love to hear from you, friend.