Spirituality in Pain: Prayer & Scripture in Suffering

This post is part of an ongoing series on ministering to people in pain. Click here to see all posts in this series.

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When you walk through a season of pain, it does not take long until you begin to receive spiritual advice. Scriptures (often taken out of context) will be sent your direction. The recommendation to “pray more” or “just have faith” is quickly on others’ lips. Sometimes these well-intentioned efforts do more harm than good.

We’ve already talked about what not to say to someone in pain, which includes spiritual platitudes. We’ve also discussed why a theodicy (the answer to "why?") doesn't actually solve our problems. The emphasis so far has been, admittedly, in my friend’s words: “Don’t be a Bible basher.” 

After weeks of discussing how to help people in pain, we’ve finally come full circle - back to the Bible, back to prayer. We come to the question of the role they can - and should - play when someone is in pain. How should we use Scripture as we minister to the suffering? How do we pray, when we find raw hearts, with no words, with only questions and heartache?

Thanks be to God—the Bible is not a book of platitudes and feel-good sayings. It is the word of God to us in all times and places, including our deepest suffering.

In the Bible we see a picture of a God who draws near to the brokenhearted and meets them in their place of weakness. We see a God who came to earth and took on our experience of human suffering. We see our suffering Savior, who understands our pain and can truly empathize with us. We see a God who sees, a God who hears, a God who responds to our cries of desperation. When we’re sharing Scripture with someone in pain (again, within the appropriate relationship and context), we can emphasize these truths that point to our God of compassion.

When we can find no words to carry our suffering and confusion to God, it is encouraging to find that God himself has provided words for us.
— Gay Hubbard, More Than an Aspirin

Thanks be to God—the Bible gives us words to pray when we have none. It offers us prayers we can adopt, prayers that model boldly bringing our pain and desperation to God. 

These prayers, of course, are found in the Psalms. We call them “lament Psalms.” We can use them as we pray for people in pain—and we can share them with suffering people as a God-given model for their own prayers. They follow a general pattern (I’m using Gay Hubbard’s language below):

  • Protest - This is what is wrong.
  • Petition - This is how I want You to fix it.
  • Praise - I trust You, even though I don’t see it yet. I remember Your faithfulness in the past, and it gives me hope for the future. I trust You will hear and respond. 

When we read some of these Psalms, we're surprised. Then we paraphrase them into our own language, our own circumstance, and we're shocked. We are uncomfortable with how bold they are, with how directly they describe our distress, how boldly they appeal to God for help. We wonder if we can do that, if we're allowed to be so forward.

We approach God as though He were an elderly, easily-shocked Victorian maiden aunt…we behave as though God were too nice for the raw, powerful, dangerous reality of our human experience.
— Gay Hubbard, More Than an Aspirin

Miroslav Volf says these Psalms teach us that “rage belongs before God.” So do our questions, our fears, our doubts, and our sorrow. He is not afraid of them. They do not shake Him. The safest and healthiest place to bring them is before Him, directed at Him. This itself is an expression of faith—to bring our deepest, darkest emotions to the Lord.

What do we do with this?

1. When we share Scripture, we can point them to the suffering Savior and the God who draws near in compassion and comfort. We can find hope in His pattern of redeeming the worst and most hopeless of situations into something good. The emphasis is not on "here's this Bible verse, feel better!" but on "He knows, He hears, He came and suffered to remedy this brokenness." This requires sensitivity and discernment to know what to share.

2. We can pray (and encourage others to pray) the lament Psalms. 

  • Repeat the words of the Psalm in its translation.
  • Paraphrase the Psalm into your own language, related to your situation.
  • Write a lament Psalm of your own, using the pattern we see in Scripture (for an example of this see Psalms of Lament by Anne Weems).

Lament Psalm examples: Psalm 6, 10, 13, 17, 22, 25, 30, 31, 69, 73, 86, 88, 102