Now, I’m not sure if I agree with what this person thinks that the church should be doing for people. I’m actually kind of a fan of doctors, safety nets and mental health services. But this really does capture the way the church deals with the suffering.
I haven’t been involved in a church for a few years for a number of reasons. But probably the biggest obstacle for me was that I dread what happens once I can’t hide just how screwed up my life is. Just the thought of having to deal with the church’s reaction to suffering is exhausting.
All of the “well why don’t you just go get help so you can get yourself fixed” questions that feel like accusations. The way that if I try to explain that I’m already doing what I can, I’ll just get bombarded with more suggestions and challenges and more questions about why I haven’t gotten myself fixed yet. Contrary to what people seem to think, I don’t really need an extra voice telling me that the reason my life is a mess because I’m screwing it up. If fixing my life were easy enough for you to find the solution off the top of your head, it would be fixed by now. Don’t you think?
Churches tend to do pretty OK with an immediate, specific need or crisis. If you need meals made after the baby comes or while someone is hospitalized. If you need help moving. If you’re a single mom and your house needs paint. Things like that many churches do well. But if the problem is long term, perhaps permanent, churches tend to be bad places to be. There are only so many times you can call about your piece of crap car on the side of the road again. There are only so many times you can explain the details of your budget and why you don’t qualify for certain government programs.
Usually what people really need is a $20,000 cash infusion. Or if that’s not possible, just a supportive shoulder to cry on now and again will do. But churches are really bad at that. If you are bold enough to make your need known, you may find a kind soul willing to listen. But the burden is on you to keep seeking out that kind shoulder when you need it. Which gets really wearing. And it just highlights the extent to which the relationship is not between equals. The person who is listening to you cry is not going to call you when they have a problem. They aren’t going to miss you if you don’t reach out to them. It’s like starvation rations for a relationship starved suffering person. It may be enough to keep you from dying outright, but it’s not nearly enough to help you recover.
In the church, the suffering are almost always treated as less than. I don’t think this is because people in church are bad people. But the church is filled with people who are so busy being good and succeeding at life that they don’t really know what it’s like to suffer. And rather than getting their hands dirty among suffering people, they have fund raisers and special offerings and other ways of raising a few bucks. So not only have they not suffered, they don’t even know people who suffer. Turning to the church when you’re suffering is too often about as helpful as turning to me when you need investment advice.
Perhaps this is why Jesus put the poor, needy and suffering at the center of God’s Kingdom. They know how things really work. They understand the dark underbelly of the enemy’s Kingdom better than anyone. They know what a suffering person needs. They know that we all have limits we have to live with and respect that. They know what it takes to survive when life is worse than people can imagine.
People who are intimately familiar with suffering can be exactly the sort of people we need leading our churches. Maybe we should start trolling AA meetings and going to homeless shelters to find gems in the rough to send to seminary. But at the least, churches need to stop sending the suffering away to deal with their own problems. It may well be that you can’t solve their problems, but you can chose to refrain from offering suggestions and criticisms and just listen. Suffering people know things that you do not know. They deserve way more respect than they are given in our churches.