The year 2019 was not great for my family. Among the many trials of that year, our lowest moments came when my daughter was hospitalised, my husband broke his collarbone and a good friend passed away.
In hindsight, one could be grateful this all happened prior to the 2020 pandemic, but I digress. When my daughter was admitted to hospital with pneumonia, we were told a parent would need to stay with her and that we could expect to be there up to seven days. I was thankful I could stay but figured I needed a good book to pass the time, so I turned my attention to the shelves of the hospital bookshop. My brow furrowed trying to select the right book—there were so many options but none seemed to fit with how I felt. Eventually, I picked up a book called, The Question That Never Goes Away by Philip Yancey. Curious, I scanned the back cover to find the question: “Where is God when it hurts?” Given how I was feeling, the book had chosen me well. I bought the book but did not read it at all during our hospital stay. It was too difficult to read while my little girl struggled to breathe.
My child’s healing progressed each day and we were finally discharged from hospital. Grateful to rest in the quiet and comfort of familiar surroundings, our peace was quickly shattered when a call came through from my husband. He had come off his bike, broken his collarbone and required surgery.
During his recovery at home he picked up the book I’d purchased and read it cover to cover in a day. He insisted that I read it too. Reading through the first few pages I was taken with Yancey’s explanation of the etymology of the word compassion—a Latin-derived word meaning “co-suffering” or “with one who suffers”. It suggested more than kindness; that compassion had a meaningful physical and emotional impact on a person. Yancey refers to a university research study which recruited volunteers to test how long they could keep their feet in buckets of freezing water. Researchers observed that when a companion was allowed in the room with the volunteer, the volunteer could endure the cold twice as long as those who suffered alone. The researchers’ findings concluded “the presence of another caring person doubles the amount of pain a person can endure”.
When someone is suffering through a tough time, I always worry that I might say the wrong thing or otherwise make them feel worse. I tie myself up in a knot of self-doubt to the point that I either avoid the person or avoid the topic. With this new information, perhaps this fear was unfounded? It is a struggle to overcome that sense of inadequacy when someone is suffering—it is uncomfortable and awkward. However, I have learned that this discomfort may be crucial to honouring a person’s pain and understanding compassion. Yancey cites numerous tragic events that resulted in communities coming together to “be with the ones who suffer” and he demonstrates the many ways in which people have shown compassion to others in the wake of tragedy. The underlying message to those suffering, he states, is simple: “You are not alone.” I won’t spoil the book by sharing too much from its pages. Instead, let me tell you about Alex*.
My husband and I had a great friend, Alex, who passed away shortly before his 31st birthday. We met Alex through our local cycling club when we were all quite young. He was a generous person with a welcoming smile. He made friends easily and always made you feel like you were the most interesting person he had ever met. He was described by family and friends as the “labrador” of humans—always happy to see you. Alex’s funeral, however, was an anxiety-inducing event for the many cyclists who were his friends. I recall my husband receiving phone calls and text messages from friends who were unsure whether or not they should attend the funeral. Many were competitive riders who were once close yet had drifted apart over the years. The many reasons to miss the funeral were, at times, foolish—some weren’t riding anymore and had lost fitness, others now had grey hair and wrinkles and a few had divorced. However, I believe the real reason behind these vain excuses hid underneath the surface. The heartache was almost unbearable as the circumstances of Alex’s passing were beyond our understanding. Nobody wanted to feel the magnitude of such grief, especially not alone in the midst of broken relationships.
On the day of the funeral, we witnessed mates who had not seen each other in years put aside their insecurities and old rivalries to embrace and console one another. Side-by-side they comforted each other. My husband and I were comforted by their arms around us. Finally, we could “suffer with” each other and relieve some of the pain for ourselves but most importantly honour the grief of Alex’s family who found strength and encouragement in the presence of more than 400 mourners that day. I believe God moved all of us to rise above our insecurities in that moment because there were more important things at stake. God knew our hearts needed to be repaired with love and hope. He knew that together we could better endure this unspeakable pain. It wasn’t because of one person’s effort but rather the interwoven compassion of many, that in our discomfort we would find His comfort. Anxious, hurting, but side-by-side with our arms around each other, it was a blessing and, to me, tangible proof of God’s presence when we suffer.
Looking back on our daughter’s time in hospital with pneumonia and my husband’s broken collarbone, I am grateful for the many visits from friends and family. They were compelled to go out of their way and change their routine just to comfort us. Parents from school provided our family with homemade meals. Colleagues from work sent a heart-warming gift. Friends and family visited us. When my husband came off his bike, his mate took him to the hospital and stayed with him in the emergency department, visiting each night while I was home with our children. Our friend changed his plans, inconveniencing himself. Another drove our car home, safely stored the undamaged bike and blessed us with a pot of soup. Once again, a special out-of-the-way effort. The offer from family to mind our children while I visited the hospital was a godsend. My parents cleaned my house and cooked for us. The compassionate acts of friends and family going out of their way—without expectation of reward or recognition—combined to help us withstand a double-portion of heartbreak and distress.
From these experiences came an epiphany—true compassion is uncomfortable and difficult because it is supposed to be. Compassion is to “suffer with”. It honours the one who is hurt or suffering when we humbly and prayerfully show up for them in their time of need. We can welcome any feeling of inadequacy knowing that it is God’s effort, not ours alone, that will be used for good.
Galatians 6:2 says, “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ.” This goes some way to answering the question of, “Where is God when it hurts?” God shows up through us. When someone is experiencing hard times and we change our plans to help them, when we sit with them in their pain and when we help carry their burden, we bring God’s comfort to them. The Message paraphrase of 2 Corinthians 1:4–7 reads: “He comes alongside us when we go through hard times, and before you know it, he brings us alongside someone else who is going through hard times so that we can be there for that person just as God was there for us.” Yancey notes, “Jesus never delivered sermons about judgement or the need to accept God’s mysterious providence when people were experiencing the pain of tragedy. Instead he responded with compassion and comfort and healing. God stands on the side of those who suffer.”
The year I’d rather forget delivered a powerful lesson—to be with the ones who suffer, to accept that it will feel uncomfortable and to remember that God knits together our compassion so that it honours, carries and heals those who suffer. My prayer is for God to continue His work on our hearts to be compassionate, so there is never any question where God is—He will be seen when we show up for the lonely, make food for the exhausted, clean house for the grieving, mind children for the injured, pray with the heartbroken and sit with them in uncomfortable silence when there are no words.
*Not his real name.
Linzi Aitken is a risk officer for Risk Management Services in Sydney, Australia.