Enter into the Trials of Fellow Church Members
What if I told you a healthy imagination was essential to being a good church member? You may think I need to read less Lewis and Tolkien and more 9Marks. But I’m serious. Imagination not only provides a door into the fanciful world of fairy tales; it also provides a pathway to understanding the pain and perplexities of fellow church members.
Cultural clichés hint at this point: “She lives vicariously through her children,” we say. We’ve even coined words to describe this imaginative ability. An “escapist” is a person who seeks distraction and relief from unpleasant realities by imagining themselves living a different life, often someone else’s.
As believers, our imaginations have been redeemed. They’re no longer primarily a way of escaping into the unreal, but rather a way of entering into the realities of fellow suffering saints.
The Bible is full of commands to do this:
- Weep with those who weep (Rom. 12:15).
- Remember those in prison as though in prison with them (Heb. 13:3).
- Bear one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2).
- Consider how to stir one another up and encourage one another (Heb.10:24–25).
These commands implicitly require that we to some extent feel the grief of the stillborn, the paralysis of prison, the burden of our brother’s struggle with sin. When Hebrews exhorts us to consider, it’s exhorting us to imagine. The writer is commanding us to envisage our brother’s or sister’s situation such that we, with the help of the Spirit, are able to stir them up to love and good works. In order to do this fully and fruitfully, we must remember: If one member suffers, all suffer together (1 Cor. 12:26).
As we encounter suffering saints in our church, we often think: I need wisdom for this conversation. We don’t want to ask the wrong question or say the wrong thing. I’d like to suggest that good questions come less often from spontaneous wisdom and more often from taking the time to think or imagine our way into someone else’ trials.
COME IMAGINE WITH ME
Let’s do some imagining together. Does someone in your church deal with chronic pain? Let’s imagine what their life is like.
Have you ever gotten your fingers shut in your front door? What if you couldn’t get them out? There you sat in the foyer on the floor. Everyone has made suggestions, and you’ve tried them all, but still your fingers are stuck. For months, you keep a hopeful attitude. “Maybe tomorrow will be better?” you say to yourself.
Three months go by and you start to get used to your predicament. The pain, however, is only part of it. You miss doing things you used to do: working, going on dates with your wife, taking your children to the park, teaching Sunday School. You tell yourself, “It’s okay. Things are just different now. I just have to find a new normal.” So you do. You find a new way to date your wife, play with your children, and serve the church.
But going to work is out of the question. You can’t “go to work” with your fingers in the door. So you start dreaming about how you could work from home if you could learn to type quickly with one hand. Or maybe you could buy some voice recognition software. After several months of failed attempts, you give up on that idealistic mirage.
Your new normal means a new normal for your family. Your children and wife are doing their best to acclimate. Their expectations are slowly recalibrating. You enjoy playing with your children for 15 minutes; you even forget about your fingers for a while. But before too long, after all that moving around and having fun, the pain increases.
Your wife is doing her best. She has a good attitude about taking care of all the family responsibilities. Plus, she’s taking care of you now, too. You can no longer get dressed, take a shower, or even cut your toenails. She gets dressed up for your “door dates” even though you can’t go anywhere. Most difficult for her, though, is your inability to listen to her. Coping with the pain commandeers your concentration.
Your doctor tries to help. She prescribes medication and various remedies. But none of it can actually get your fingers out of the door.
As the months pass, you start to notice that the medication has some negative effects. It distorts your personality. It makes you feel hungover in the mornings. It ruins your ability to concentrate; it stokes nightmares. But without it, you can’t be a dad or a husband in any meaningful since because the days of being used to the pain are long gone.
By now, you’re worn-down. You just want your fingers out of the door. And if one more well-meaning church member—who has both their hands in their pockets and a smile on their face—says, “How’s your pain today?” you might just lose it!
A FEW PRINCIPLES
A few principles that apply to both short-term and long-term suffering.
1. “The problem” is not the primary problem.
Take the guy who loses his job and remains unemployed for a while. The ensuing trial is not the loss of his job per se. More meaningful is the fact that he no longer has the money to pay his mortgage. His family no longer enjoys financial stability. Inwardly, he now lacks purpose—particularly if his unemployment is prolonged. He feels defeated by the deafening silence of waiting for yet another response to his resume.
2. Take the burden of the question on yourself.
When we ask a suffering saint, “How are you doing?” or “How was your week?” we are inadvertently asking them to do the “considering.” These questions may indicate that we haven’t genuinely considered their predicament. We see them in the church hallway. We know they’re not doing well, so we say the first thing that comes to mind. We know from experience that inexact questions like “how was your week?” are notoriously difficult to answer. Who walks around with their whole week inside their head? Plus, it can hardly be answered genuinely while scurrying through the foyer on your way to Sunday School.
3. Don’t turn the person into the problem.
Our go-to question for someone in a trial is often: How was your “so-and-so” this week? While they’ve probably been asked about their cancer or their Crohn’s multiple times that week, no one has likely asked them how they’re doing spiritually. But remember: your brother is not his burden. Your sister is not her suffering. They’re Christians who are experiencing a trial, and they are fighting for their spiritual health.
So ask them if they’ve been able to read their Bible this week. That question provides an opportunity to get their mind off their problem and to encourage you with what he’s been thinking about from Scripture. Or perhaps he’ll tell you how his Crohn’s makes it difficult for him to concentrate or read. That will help you to pray for him, and to ask more specific questions in the future.
4. Leave room for lament.
Just as a poor atmosphere makes it hard to breathe, a poor question can make it hard for a sister to truthfully tell you how she’s doing. When we haven’t imagined ourselves into our struggling sister’s situation, when we haven’t felt her frustration, our questions can give off an air of positivity that communicates our lack of consideration.
Conversely, faithful consideration helps us do away with the unspoken expectation that our sister should have something positive to report. It opens the door to hopeful lament. When positivity pervades, those in the midst of trial will rightly or wrongly feel like you don’t “get it.” When we, however, allow ourselves to be burdened through imagination, our questions will come with a solemnity that often not only opens the door to lament but also to praise.
5. Remember people aren’t silos.
Our suffering normally causes suffering for those we love. Remember the brother who lost his job? Encourage your wife to write his wife a card with Matthew 6:25ff in it. Create space for your wife to take her to coffee and to find out how she’s doing and if they need help financially.
6. Always consider—but rarely compare (at least out loud).
When considering someone else’s suffering, we often compare it with our past experiences out of a good desire to identify with them. This practice rarely encourages people in the midst of suffering. Remember the fingers-in-the-door illustration? After about the 6-month mark, how helped do you think you’d be by someone saying, “You know what, I got my fingers stuck in the door one time”?
CAVEAT + CONCLUSION
Am I saying that you need to imagine and feel the detailed trials of each and every one of your fellow church members as you pray though your church membership directory? No. We are finite; we can only do so much. God knows we are dust.
But I am suggesting that faithfulness requires that we don’t content ourselves with holding the body’s pains, burdens, and sorrows at arm’s length. Faithful consideration requires imaginative contemplation (Heb. 10:25). If Paul’s words, “If one member suffers, all suffer together” are realized in our churches, it will be through the labor of Spirit-empowered imagination.