You are going to hear it in the next few days. Over dinner tables with family and friends; in the pew listening to your pastor; with a friend starting a conversation.
“What are you thankful for this year?”
Some will answer this question with joy: the elderly man grateful for another year after that health scare, the young professional who landed his dream job, the grandparents beaming at the arrival of their grandchild.
But some answer this question with a tinge of pain because it reminds them of persistent suffering rather than abundant blessing. The widow who sits with an empty chair next to her for the first time in 60 years; the infertile couple whose hearts are sick with deferred hopes of children; the single whose relationship just ended.
Yet, in the middle of these opposite realities, God gives believers an unqualified command:
“Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” – 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18.
How can we compassionately help others (or even ourselves!) rejoice in a season of sorrow?
1. Define Joy Biblically
Many of us believe that helping others “give thanks” or “rejoice” in suffering is insensitive because we have not defined joy biblically. According to Scripture, “joy” in sorrow is not like forcing a smile in an awkward family photo. Joy in sorrow is not rooted in a denial of the suffering in our own lives. It is rooted in the character and promises of God in the middle of the sorrow of our lives (Habakkuk 3:17-19; Romans 5:3-5).
Liberate your friends by defining joy biblically. They are not called to take pleasure in their suffering. They should lament. But that heart that laments may cling to the preserving truths of God’s character and steadfast love when all else fails (Psalm 40:11). Encourage them with the truth that sorrow and joy can exist in the same heart (2 Corinthians 6:10).
2. Help Them Wait on the Lord
Persistent suffering in the Christian life is often not a constant bleeding wound, but a tender bruise. Recognizing the seasons – like holidays – when that bruise is pressed is an important component of caring for and bearing burdens with another brother or sister in the Lord (Galatians 6:1-2). Perhaps you live with someone suffering in this season – how do you daily help them bear the load?
We must help our friends wait on the Lord. Waiting on the Lord happens when the twin truths of God’s sovereignty and our responsibility meet in the valley of some suffering in our lives. Scripture presents two responses to these truths that mark waiting on the Lord in suffering.
First, we must help those suffering to receive God’s promises by faith. We must encourage our brother or sister to commit their ways to the Lord and his ability to act on their behalf (Psalm 37:5-7), so that their heart in suffering can be one of a weaned child trusting its parents (Psalm 131:2). But this does not mean they are simply to do nothing. There is a second component to waiting on the Lord.
Second, we must help those suffering to be persistent with the Lord. God’s sovereignty over suffering does not mean we never pray for relief from it. Hannah prayed persistently for a child (1 Samuel 1:9-18), the church prayed for Peter’s release from jail (Acts 12:5), and Jesus honors the persistent widow (Luke 18:1-18). Partner with your friend in prayer. Let them know you are praying that God relieves them of their suffering. Encourage them to fight grumbling against the Lord by bringing all their cares before the Lord (1 Peter 5:7).
We help our friends to wait on the Lord when we help them to believe God’s promises in suffering and help them to pray for God’s deliverance from suffering.
But sometimes, nothing needs to be said.
3. Recognize. Listen. Pray.
Many of us will only have a minute window in the kitchen while grabbing a drink, a brief greeting in a crowded room, or a moment while the kids play outside. You won’t be able to look at a Bible or even be able to recite a verse. You won’t be able to stop and pray. You’ll have 60 seconds to demonstrate your knowledge, concern, and desire to help. What do you do?
Use those 60 seconds. Tell them what you know and what you’re doing. “I want you to know that I know this is a hard season for you. I have been praying for you. I’m with you and love you.”
Do not underestimate the impact of simple words of love and the power of personal private prayer. Those simple words might open doors that suffering and bitterness have jammed shut. Recognize their suffering. Listen to them if you are given the opportunity. Commit to praying for them privately. Watch God work.
Our tables at Thanksgiving are meant to be places of sorrow and joy, gratitude and groaning, weeping and laughing, truth and love. In short, our tables are meant to look like the Christian life. Make room at your table for both of these realities and you will find a richer feast in the goodness of our God and his Word.