In the hardest moments of our lives, when our suffering and loss shines brightest like a gaping wound, our voices break as we cry out with the question of Why? - "Why is this happening? Why me??" For those of us who believe God is in some way overseeing our lives, the questions behind the questions are often, “Are you even good? Do you even love me?” Feelings of sorrow, doubt, anger, and despair settle in like a dark cloud.
Chances are, when you have wrestled with the questions of why, you’ve encountered folks who claim to have it all figured out. They may say things like:
Everything happens for a reason.
There’s a lesson here.
God is testing you.
This happened because __________.
If you had done __________, this wouldn’t have happened.
__________ is what you should do now.
These folks, well-meaning as they may be, are looking to explain your pain because they are not comfortable with suffering and the emotions that come with it. Painsplaining – the attempt to explain another’s pain – is what people do when they are uncomfortable with suffering, grief, uncertainty, and hopelessness. Painsplainers are ultimately trying to meet their own needs – which is to get out of this murky territory as soon as possible so they don’t lose their way as well. We have all done it at one time or another – to ourselves and to others.
And yet, these so-called “answers” do not bring comfort. One of the great stories of suffering is found in the story of Job, who lost everything – his family, his livelihood, and his own health. His friends sat in silence with him as long as they could – a beautiful gift of solidarity: “They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.” (Job 2:13)
However, when Job’s grief turned to anger and he cursed his life, they broke down. This was simply too much. They speculated on what he or his family must have done wrong to merit God’s judgment. In doing so, they revealed themselves to be graduates of Painsplaining 101, where they were taught how to respond to people in pain:
You are the expert! Your voice is needed!
There is a formula for How God Works, and your job is to make it work in every situation, no matter what.
If you figure out who’s to blame, you can fix the “problem” of suffering. If only others will take your advice, you can save them!
If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Take offense if your advice is not received or implemented. Make false accusations if necessary. Long for God’s judgment to "break" the sufferer. Offer pat answers and wax poetic with pious language. This is how you prove your own righteousness and secure your own protection against suffering.
It’s so easy to judge them, and yet so many times we fall into these same traps. We forget that empathetic listening and presence are so much more meaningful to those who suffer than pat answers and poorly-timed theological "explanations," which are often incomplete or just plain wrong, and usually cause harm. Our fix-it mentality is often focused on our own discomfort with suffering, rather than on the sufferer's need.
Our fix-it mentality is often focused on our own discomfort with suffering, rather than on the sufferer's need.
What Job really needed was not rescuers (i.e., fixers) to get him out of his suffering, but companioners, who would enter into his pain and journey with him through it. This is the definition of empathy. In his Introduction to the Book of Job, Eugene Peterson writes:
Instead of continuing to focus on preventing suffering – which we simply won’t be very successful at anyway – perhaps we should begin entering the suffering, participating insofar as we are able – entering the mystery and looking around for God. In other words, we need to quit feeling sorry for people who suffer and instead look up to them, learn from them, and – if they will let us – join them in protest and prayer. Pity can be nearsighted and condescending; shared suffering can be dignifying and life-changing. As we look at Job’s suffering and praying and worshipping, we see that he has already blazed a trail of courage and integrity for us to follow.
As a result of all of this painsplaining, Job then has to find energy to defend himself and his right to his feelings to these friends-turned-judges:
I will not restrain my mouth;
I will speak in the anguish of my spirit;
I will complain in the bitterness of my soul. (Job 7:11)
What Job really needed was not rescuers to get him out of his suffering, but companioners, who would enter into his pain and journey with him through it.
He lets the painsplainers know what he thinks of their “help”:
What you know, I also know;
I am not inferior to you.
But I would speak to the Almighty,
and I desire to argue my case with God.
As for you, you whitewash with lies;
all of you are worthless physicians.
If you would only keep silent,
that would be your wisdom! (Job 13:2b-5)
It’s interesting to notice how, as a result of all this painsplaining, Job is pushed back to God (the “cause” of his suffering) as the only one who understands his pain as well as his innocence. He continues to wrestle with God: I didn’t deserve this! If you disagree, let me know what I’ve done. YOU explain what’s going on and why this is happening!
This terrible cycle of anguish–painsplaining–defense–prayer plays out for nearly 40 chapters. Throughout the whole thing, Job maintains his innocence as well as affirming God’s righteousness, justice, majesty, and power to save. Over the course of his many responses, he also offers some suggestions to his friends for how to actually support him:
Job’s Anti-Painsplaining Tips
Don’t respond out of your own fear of suffering and pain.
Don’t offer advice or help unless I ask.
Don’t correct my experience of pain.
Don’t throw me under the bus.
Look at me, know me, believe me – trust my experience of pain.
Don’t question my integrity.
Discern the difference between true and helpful in your timing of words offered to me in my suffering.
Don’t lord false superiority over me. We are equals in our attempts to understand my suffering.
Don’t presume to speak for God or his ways.
Beware of the tactics you use to justify your view.
Practice empathy by putting yourself in my place.
Don’t be a hypocrite in applying God’s mercy to yourself, and God’s judgment to others.
Stop talking and listen. You are not responsible for my words, feelings or experiences.
Consider your own selfish reasons for being so invested in explaining my suffering (Fear? Discomfort? Judgment?)
Comfort me as you would like to be comforted in your own suffering.
Plead for me, pray for me.
Don’t add to my isolation, loneliness, and suffering in your attempts to “help.”
Don’t attack me or add to my torment with your “wisdom.”
You are not responsible for my sin, therefore you don’t need to fix it.
Check your motives. Don’t attempt to use my suffering to your spiritual advantage.
Have mercy on me and be gentle with me, as a fellow human who is suffering.
Avoid the temptation to offer pat answers that are ultimately false or meaningless.
May we take Job’s words to heart and truly enter into the suffering of the people we encounter. May they be our teachers, for this is the way of wisdom and transformation. And may we each, in our own way, experience God’s presence in the process.
In my next post, I’ll take a further look at Job’s struggle, as well as God’s response – both to Job as well as his painsplaining friends. What is the “answer” Job receives in response to his suffering?