Talking to someone who is suffering can be disorienting. The person’s emotions and interpretations rush at you. And the sufferer’s pain guarantees you will need to use great care as you interact. But there is opportunity in trials because they give direction and shape to discipleship. This particular trial and this specific suffering become the immediate context in which discipleship takes place. Here are three basics to remember when the opportunity comes.
First, listen. This step is obvious, but crucial. Counselors and disciplers are familiar with Proverbs 18:13, “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.” We recognize the potential of being foolish and shameful if we try to provide help before we hear the situation. But it’s easy to listen for the details of the circumstances and miss the deeper emotional experience of the sufferer. The Apostle Paul provides a great example of vulnerability in suffering. In 2 Corinthians 1:8 he says, “For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself.” This is stunning transparency.
Paul wanted the Corinthians to know the depth of his suffering so that he could tell them about the magnitude of Christ’s comfort (2 Cor. 1:3-7). He experienced God’s character in the context of pain. Paul was willing to share his pain in order to testify to God’s care. We likewise model faith in the Lord’s power to comfort when we listen to the depth of the struggle. We are not disoriented by pain because we are confident in God’s character.
Listening deeply is a vital part of discipleship. But what are we seeking to hear? Since discipleship is about personally and regularly helping others to follow Christ, we must listen for how people are making interpretations and where they are seeking hope. Second Corinthians 1 again provides insight. Remarkably, Paul shares his interpretation of the affliction and where he sought hope.
He says his suffering was to make him rely not on himself but on God. God intended his pain to remove self-reliance. Paul’s hope rested on the sure foundation of the Father of mercies and God of all comfort: “On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again” (2 Cor. 1:10).
Listening for interpretations and sources of hope is vital and it helps connect our listening to the gospel. Instead of viewing it as a therapeutic technique, we remember that deep, compassionate listening embodies the incarnational ministry of Jesus Christ (Heb. 2:12-18). Jesus partook of flesh and blood (Heb. 2:14), experiencing trials and affliction, so that he could deliver us from fear, death, and temptation (Heb. 2:18). We partake in another person’s suffering in a small way by listening deeply.
Give Biblical Hope
The second basic in discipling the sufferer is to give hope. This is a great place to move from being problem-oriented to God-oriented. Paul makes this transition seamlessly in 2 Corinthians 1. Although it’s tempting to tackle a practical aspect of the suffering (and sometimes that’s needed), Paul reminds us that the sequence of our discipleship instruction matters. Hope is essential because no one changes without it. And because our hope is in the person of Christ (2 Cor. 1:10, 1 Tim.1:1) and the promises of God (2 Cor. 1:20), we always have hope.
As disciplers, we may have to cast a vision for the superiority of biblical hope in contrast to circumstantial relief. Paul’s hope was unshaken (2 Cor. 1:7) not because suffering was absent, but because God’s comfort was present. Often when we remind the sufferer that he can bring glory to God no matter what his situation and that God is continuing to create Christlikeness in him, there is immense joy. But sometimes we must encourage the sufferer to examine where his heart is finding refuge. Jesus said His food – the thing that nourished, sustained, and satisfied Him – was to do the will of the One who sent Him and to accomplish His work (John 4:34). We need the Holy Spirit’s help in order to follow Christ’s example. This dependence on the Holy Spirit leads to the third basic way to help a sufferer.
Paul ends the opening section in 2 Corinthians 1 by admonishing his readers to “help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many” (2 Cor. 1:11). After Paul described his experience of suffering and declared his dependence and hope in God, he seeks the prayers of many. We cannot promise a trial will change quickly. But when we pray, pouring out our trust in the Father of mercies, we demonstrate the faith and humility that honors God and draws His blessing. Michael Reeves, in his booklet, Enjoy Your Prayer Life, says, “Prayer is the antithesis of self-dependence.” As you disciple others, pray with and for your hurting friend. It’s a vivid reminder of our great neediness and our great confidence in God, the one true source of help and hope.
Seasons of suffering give direction to discipleship. That direction will take personalized paths, but each path must start with listening deeply, giving biblical hope, and praying for mercy, comfort, and help from our compassionate Father.
Questions for Reflection
What makes it difficult for you to listen to someone who is hurting? When have you experienced the refreshment of someone giving you biblical hope, grounded in the Lord Jesus? How do your prayers reflect your real theology?
 Michael Reeves, Enjoy Your Prayer Life (Leyland, England: 10Publishing, 2014), 34.
Andrea Lee lives in Atlanta, Georgia with her husband of 11 years. She serves women in the church and community as a biblical counselor.