… the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings. Philippians 3:10
A Journal entry of mine in 2008…
It’s helped me to know that I am not alone in this hellacious world. Others (whose pain I had not formerly known) have, with your support and help, navigated these treacherous waters. It’s like being thrown into a dark prison cell, thinking I’m all alone. No one is there, no one knows where I am, no one can hear me or feel my fear and pain. Then I hear breathing, some shuffling, someone whispering. They call to me. They’ve already been there long enough to adjust to the dark. They see better than I. They see me better than I see myself. They tell me their stories and how they got into the prison cell. They listen to my story as I weep telling it. They weep with me. There are no glib promises of “everything’s going to be all right.” No one says, “Be happy like us.” They whisper, “I know. I feel it too. Tell me more. Let’s pray.” It’s community like I’ve never experienced. It’s the “Sufferers Club,” the “Community of the Broken.” But we’re not identifying so much with our pain that we’re defined by it. We’re not going to embrace the hurt in a way that it becomes who we are. But we identify that at this time we are in a dark place, and we’re not alone. We may escape or be released someday from here. In the meantime, we’re together and we’re community.
My friend Dan and I coined the phrase, the “Sufferers Club.” We came upon it quite by accident one day when we were identifying with each other’s pain. We realized that we had a bond that we hadn’t had in the first 25 years or so of our friendship. He had lost his two daughters to a drunk driver and I had lost my wife and health. We had spent lots of time together over the years, but now we were connecting on a level we hadn’t before. We’ve always had things in common – we like baseball, Jesus, and classic rock. But now we’ve entered the world of pain and loss. We don’t like it, we wish things were as they had been – but here we are and we’re together.
Dan says that we’re limping on opposite sides. He lost his daughters, but still has the love of his great wife, Lynn. I lost my wife, but still have the love of my fantastic kids, Luke and Rebecca. Maybe that’s a key component in every good friendship; that we limp on opposing sides.
A few weeks ago I heard a young woman speak to her church on the topic of suffering. In my humble opinion, she did an excellent job. She’s quite gifted, very sincere, and wise beyond her years. But I wondered if she had suffered. I wondered if she was a member of “the club.” She might be. I don’t know her that well.
These days when reading a book or hearing someone talk about humans in misery, I wonder if they’re in the club of sufferers. Are they speaking to me from their experience or from what they’ve read in a book somewhere? Do they sit across from me in the cell of agony, whispering their encouragement in the dark? I’m not saying that it’s illegitimate for someone who hasn’t suffered to try to speak to sufferers about how to handle their pain. I myself have given many good messages on the theme (the main points all rhymed, there were introductions and conclusions, and all the Greek words used were pronounced correctly), but until these last two years, I’ve never known suffering personally. I think it makes a difference in how we talk about it and how we relate to others experiencing it.
You might object to the exclusive sound of this club. Well, I object to being in it! You can have my membership any time you want. I paid dues to get in, but against my will. I’m fully aware that everyone has some pain in their lives and that others have suffered much more than I can even imagine. It’s not a competition – it’s a fellowship.
Jesus, the President of the Sufferers’ Club and history’s greatest Sufferer is at the head of the table of fellow sufferers and from there offers a blessed interaction with him (see the next chapter) as well as a unique fellowship among those who are at the table with him. As members of the fellowship, we appear to have a deeper communion with others who have walked through some of the same shadowed valleys. Victims of abuse, divorcees, cancer survivors all seem to have a dimension of fellowship with each other that others don’t have. They tend to enjoy a closeness, a shared ground for relationship. They seem to have the ability to comfort one another at the table in a way that others may not.
This may have been the problem with Job’s “comforters” – they hadn’t suffered. They hadn’t sat at the table with fellow sufferers and therefore had no idea about what Job needed or what God wanted. Their analyses and solutions to Job’s problems were off-base because they had little-to-no pain to cope with in their own lives. The way they began is the way they should’ve continued in their “ministry” to Job. “They sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was.” If only they had stayed there on the ground with Job.
Contrast this with what Paul says about genuine empathy that flows between members of “The Club”: “The God of all comfort comforts us in our troubles so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort that we ourselves have received from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows… we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.” 2 Corinthians 1:4-7
“Although the world is full of suffering it’s also full of overcoming it.” (Sufferers’ Club Hall of Fame Member, Helen Keller)