A Word from Bob: Welcome back! I hope you benefit from my third post in our blog mini-series on Half Biblical Ministry to the Suffering. In my first post, I asked: “When you were hurting, has someone tried to preach truth to your suffering heart without suffering with you?” Read more about it at: Half Biblical Ministry to the Suffering. In my second post, we explored 1 Thessalonians 2 and looked at 5 portraits of loving and compassionate biblical counseling. We contrasted that with counseling that presents truth without love. You can read more about it at: Counseling Without Loving Compassion.
Incarnational/Participatory Suffering: Grace Connection
Some folks take issue with the phrase “incarnational suffering.” They say, “Only Jesus was incarnated, so using that phrase means we’re attempting to take the place of Jesus or do something that only Jesus could do.”
That’s certainly not how I’m using the word—to take the place of Jesus. Instead, I’m using that word to suggest that Jesus is our model for relating to hurting people: with active, engaged compassion, with passionate participation in suffering. When we relate like Jesus related, then we point people back to Jesus.
For me, it’s similar to saying that the Trinity can be a model for how we do counseling. In saying that, I am not saying that I am like the Trinity or that I am Trinitarian! I am saying that as a Trinity, God is a relational Being. And being created in His relational image, our counseling should be relational, loving, soul-to-soul (1 Thessalonians 2:8; Ephesians 4:15-16; Colossians 1:28-2:1; Philippians 1:9-11).
So, what is the incarnational, participatory model of Jesus? Let me work my way backwards in answering that question. Let’s start with church history, move to biblical history (Paul in Romans 9), then move back to Jesus, then move back to our following the model of Jesus.
Bathing Each Other with Our Tears
In my book, Gospel Conversations: How to Care Like Christ, I share numerous examples of one-another ministry throughout church history. We have much to learn from our brothers and sisters from the past—that great cloud of witnesses and one-another ministers. Olaudah Equiano leads the way.
Equiano was born free in 1745 in Benin and then kidnapped at age ten along with his older sister. Sold and separated from one another several times during their trek to the slave ships, years later Equiano described one of their reunions.
“The only comfort we had was in being in one another’s arms all that night, and bathing each other with our tears.”
Ponder that: being in one another’s arms; bathed in comforting tears. People need our presence, not our platitudes; they need our connection, not our simplistic solutions. They need our presence that actively points them back to the presence of Jesus—through His Word and His Spirit.
In his life story, Equiano included words of confrontation to the slavers who continually separated him and his sister.
“Are the dearest friends and relations still to be parted from each other, and thus prevented from cheering the gloom of slavery with the small comfort of being together, and mingling their sufferings and sorrows?”
Equiano beautifully portrays the truth that shared sorrow is endurable sorrow.
God never intends for us to suffer alone. As we mingle our sufferings and sorrows, two become stronger than one, and the one is empowered to endure.
Participating in the Suffering of Others
Our calling from God as soul care-givers gets more and more intense. We are to enter our spiritual friend’s earthly story. Equiano illustrates this for us in these words to his long-lost sister:
“Happy should I have ever esteemed myself to encounter every misery for you, and to procure your freedom by the sacrifice of my own!”
Do we understand what he is implying? It is like what Paul said in Romans 9:2-3 when he was willing to trade places with his unsaved Jewish friends and willing to suffer being accursed—suffer hell, if it meant their salvation.
It is incarnational suffering: suffering that enters into the world and the soul of another person. It is participatory suffering: suffering that cares so much that we participate in the suffering of others to the point of experiencing their pain and being willing to take on their suffering in order to relieve their suffering.
Our movement toward incarnational suffering points people back to Jesus. Seeing our earthly story, empathizing with our earthly story, He left heaven, left the Father, came to earth, was born in our likeness, and then suffered on our behalf. That’s incarnational suffering (see Hebrews 2:14-18; 4:15-16). We are called to dimly reflect that compassionate love of Jesus. How?
Entering Our Counselee’s Soul and Story
I call it “grace connecting.” Grace connecting is more of a heart attitude than a counseling intervention or skill.
Grace connecting is the mindset of personal involvement with a deep commitment to another person’s maturity evidence by incarnational participation in their suffering—shared sorrow that suffers with and feels the pain of another person.
Grace connecting is a heart commitment to love another person. It is not a technique to be mastered, but a way of life to be nurtured by personal communion with Christ—who embodies grace connecting.
Where in the Bible do we find this calling from Christ to participate in the suffering of others to the point of experiencing their pain? Consider the oft-quoted Romans 12:15, “Weep with those who weep.”
Consider 1 Corinthians 12:26, “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it.” To “suffer with” is the Greek word sunpascho. Paul uses the same word in Romans 8:17 when he tells us that we share in Christ’s sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.
It means experiencing the same pathos as, joining in the same suffering with, embracing the same pain as, feeling the same feeling jointly. It is participatory suffering that chooses to leave the place of ease and chooses to enter into another person’s place of pain.
Pointing Others to Jesus—The Great Incarnational Suffering Savior
Christ calls us, in the sustaining and healing process, to point others to the Person to turn to in their suffering—Jesus. Psalm 120:1 teaches this well: “In my distress I cried unto the Lord, and he heard me” (KJV). Martin Luther powerfully captures the implication of this verse:
The first verse teaches us where we should turn when misfortune comes upon us—not to the emperor, not to the sword, not to our own devices and wisdom, but to the Lord, who is our only real help in time of need. “I cried unto the Lord in my distress,” he says. That we should do this confidently, cheerfully, and without fail he makes clear when he says, “And he heard me.” It is as if he would say, “The Lord is pleased to have us turn to him in our distress and is glad to hear and help us.”
We tune into our friends’ earthly story of suffering, embracing them in their pain, so they can courageously embrace their pain, faithfully embrace God in their pain, and be embraced by the God who feels their pain. Our participatory suffering encourages people to connect with God rather than to retreat from communion with God.
The Rest of the Story
Join me for Part 4 where we’ll move from the participatory suffering of Olaudah Equiano to the rich soul empathy of Octavia Albert.
More of the Story
Today’s vignette’s from Black Church History and principles from God’s Word come from my book, Gospel Conversations: How to Care Like Christ.
Join the Conversation
How can we model Christlike participatory suffering as we minister to one another?
Has anyone ever participated in your suffering to the point of experiencing your pain?
Have you ever been willing to take away another person’s pain by making it your own?