Over the past few years, I have had others close to me minimize their own pain. We will be in a conversation, and they are sharing personal struggles. But then they shake their heads. “I know it’s nothing like you’ve been through,” they say apologetically.
I genuinely dislike this, because I care deeply about those in my life, and I desire to share life with them. This includes knowing their struggles so I can be an encouragement in some small way. Yes, my family has been hit hard with difficulties these past three years. But we didn’t choose any of it. And I promise that we’re not trying to win a contest.
However, there have been many times where I, too, have minimized my struggles in front of others. Not wanting to be a burden or simply feeling like their situations were heavier than my own, I have pretended that my own heartache is not weighing me down nearly as much as it is. But the end result of not sharing what I’m going through doesn’t help anyone – others don’t know how to help or encourage, and I am in denial about how difficult things are.
Of course there is a range in suffering. Stubbing a toe is a different scenario than being diagnosed with a terminal disease. We do not need to make mountains out of molehills. But there is often a tendency to legitimize someone else’s suffering while discounting our own. This is a problem, because we are not giving ourselves permission to be authentic – not with ourselves, others, or with God.
The fact of the matter is that all suffering matters. The big issues, the small ones, the ongoing, relentless ones. It is all significant.
Suffering shapes us into who we are, defining and refining our character and beliefs.
Jesus loves us so deeply that He cares about our pain, regardless of how big or small it is. The Bible shows Jesus’s outpouring of compassion time and time again, and I have yet to find any examples of Jesus scolding someone for sharing a heartache with him. He welcomed authenticity, no matter what the struggle was.
By turning water into wine, He saved a wedding host from embarrassment. (John 2:1-11)
By healing lepers, He showed compassion for the outcasts. (Luke 17:11-19)
By multiplying fish and bread, He fed a hungry crowd of people. (John 6:1-15)
By raising a girl from the dead, He brought joy to a grieving father. (Mark 5:21-24, 35-43)
Jesus didn’t only address the most critical needs; He ministered to people in a variety of situations. Jesus’s approach is refreshing. We can often feel like we must not bother others with our problems, especially God, but Jesus proves that God cares about all aspects of our lives.
We must be honest about all aspects of our suffering. Otherwise, we will never have the opportunity to be encouraged and strengthened by others and God Himself.
This is something I have learned the hard way. Even though I have suffered with chronic health issues since childhood, for decades I did not give myself permission to show the heartache that went with it. I didn’t want to feel the weight of my sadness or put an extra emotional burden on others. So none of it was ever processed – all the dislocations, injuries, surgeries, doctors’ appointments, physical therapy sessions, time on crutches and in a wheelchair, etc. There has been a lot.
“Just be grateful” was the mantra I tried to uphold. Nothing, in my mind, that I was going through warranted feelings of sadness, agony, or loss, because there was always someone who had it worse than me.
There are orphans living in war-torn countries without a clue where their next meal will come from, and you are upset? Be thankful! You have never lived without a warm home, running water, or electricity; just think of the homeless struggling to make it on the streets! Be grateful for what you have! And what about the man on the news who just lost his son to gang violence? You’ve never had a relative murdered. Be thankful!
All of these situations truly are horrific and deserve reflection and attention. However, as I have learned over the years, the magnitude of others’ problems doesn’t invalidate my own suffering.
There are different kinds of suffering, but all can be legitimate.
Over the years, my feelings of loss, disappointment, and anger all took a backseat to forced gratitude. Of course it’s good to be grateful. But we shouldn’t hold gratitude over ourselves or others when genuine feelings need to be processed first. My “just be grateful” mantra turned into decades of shaming myself for feeling anything other than thankful…because things could be worse.
I didn’t give myself freedom to run to God with everything. To not compare. But just cry out to Him.
My eight year old son had his first big fall when he was a year and a half. He was running and tripped, hitting the edge of our concrete step. His lip and chin took a direct hit. His tooth cut the inside of his lip as well, so there was a lot of blood. He was too shocked to cry, but his mama sure did. I knew he would be OK, but he had never had an injury like this before. In the grand scheme of things, I knew this accident was minor, but as his mom, I embraced him and felt his pain right alongside him, offering him comfort and care.
There’s no reason to think God doesn’t do the same with us.
Psalm 34:18 tells us, “The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”
This verse does not provide magical criteria to ensure our suffering is legitimate. It simply states that if we are brokenhearted, God is nearby. And if our spirits are crushed, He is the one to save us. We are designed to be emotional beings, and God wants us to be honest with Him, whatever we are going through.
Our feelings go somewhere if they aren’t able to be expressed. For years, my emotions were buried deep under invisible but weighty chains of shame and depression. Finally, in the safety and security of a wonderful Christian counseling office, I was able to process the hurts of the past and realize that I do, indeed, have a story.
And it is a story worth sharing.
I am not going to dramatize my experiences, but I am not going to minimize them either. My suffering has been hard, and I am still in the midst of a very difficult season with my health. Even so, it is still a struggle to not compare my story to others. Maybe my suffering isn’t legitimate enough in someone’s eyes, or maybe someone else is going through a more challenging time. That could all be true. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. My story is my own, and God is using it to shape me in profound ways.
Life lessons are obtained by sharing burdens with one another and with our loving God. But it all starts with authenticity.
So how can you be more honest about the suffering in your own life? How can you be a blessing to those around you who are suffering?
I know that someone needs to hear my story. Just like someone needs to hear yours.