Note: This is something I blogged elsewhere, but felt it could be helpful within the context of effective ministry.
“God is in control.”
These words are often used as an attempt to comfort people going through hard times. More often than not, to that person, it seems like they’re trying to comfort themselves.
The last few years have been tough on us. We’ve teetered on the edge of poverty for sometime now and it’s extremely difficult. I once heard the experience of poverty described as being like that moment where you see someone suffering and you’re desperate to find some sort of solution. It’s like that moment, but all the time. Now, I willingly admit that, while we’re having a rough time right now, it is harder for many of the billions of people around the world living in poverty. But saying “God is in control”, just says to me that you think God wants it this way. That might be ok if poverty were only a short-term experience, but understanding the nature of poverty in this country, and around the world, we know that many will live in poverty for the rest of their lives. Does God want that?
In my view, this is why the concept of human agency is so important. God allows humans to make their own decisions, and out of those decisions comes the cruel injustice of the rich having their ‘beds of ivory’ or luxury cars, while the poor are trampled. It also means that the solutions are not as simple as “God will fix it.”
The key question for those of us who believe in free agency is, “Where is the comfort in that?” (In fact, as Christians, how to comfort the afflicted should be a central question anyway). How do we find hope and comfort in the midst of suffering? Simply saying “it will get better” or “your prayers will be answered” is not satisfying. God hears the cries of the afflicted all of the time.
Perhaps some of the answer comes from what God is doing. We can find some solace in God’s creation, and the small moments of joy amidst the desperation. We can find hope in the message of the resurrection: justice and peace will win, in the end. But those things can only help so much in the here and now.
For me, when I consider my own sense of desperation and fear for the future, I feel the most helpful thing is to allow myself to allow myself to feel loved and cared for – by my Creator and by those around me. Being loved helps you feel worthwhile, and feeling worthwhile means when the world treats you like shit, you’re going to start taking action to stop it. Being truly loved also means you’re not alone in confronting the cause of your suffering.
As friends and disciples we can minister by simply offering our care and love without suggestions and self-serving attempts to instill hope that their suffering is going to end soon. Offering your solutions is actually a really bad way to show someone you care. Listening and accepting a person’s feelings is far more important. You can’t be part of the person’s solution until you have stood in solidarity with them. At that point we can collaborate with them (and God) to end their suffering (whatever may be the cause).
A compassionate response must always be focused on how the other person is affected and empowering them. Often, our response to suffering in the world is to make ourselves feel better. We see children suffering in poverty, our response is to throw money at it – to offer our solutions so we can start feeling better. Poverty is best overcome by the poor organizing in solidarity with each other to overcome their challenges.
It is the same with our relationships. When our friends or members of our families are going through hard times, our first response is often to offer our solutions or to say something that helps us feel better. What we should know is that we don’t do any good without first fully accepting that person and their experiences, helping them know that they’re loved, and then being prepared to stand in solidarity with them. If you do this, they will truly know you stand with them. Without this, it is harder for that person to be reminded that they are loved, and that God too is standing in solidarity with them.