Finding consolation in the midst of suffering

When we are suffering or caregiving for a loved one, there is no substitute for the touch, presence and support of others. In the words of Mother Teresa, they are the pencils with which God writes. We need to know that we are not alone and that others care about us. 

Human support is not enough. We need divine guidance and consolation. We ultimately put our hope in God, not human beings, least of all ourselves.  

There are four primary ways of doing this: through the sacraments, devotions, prayer and prayerful reflection on Scripture traditionally known as lectio divina. 

Lectio divina

Latin for “divine reading or listening,” lectio divina is a holistic, flexible and simple process of engaging in a dialogue with God through his word.  

It is equally accessible to scholars and novices. It is composed of five stages or activities: reading/listening, meditation, prayer, contemplation and action.  

We read a short passage slowly and aloud, repeat and reflect upon on the verses that stand out or touch us, apply them to our life, share the emotions and reaction they evoke in us with God, sit quietly in simple presence before the Lord, then put the message into action. 

Lectio divina is not a rigid method that must be followed linearly and mechanically.  

Typically, we oscillate between the stages according to our communication style, circumstances, and the workings of the Spirit. Lectio divina is an exercise in discernment, expression and receptivity rather than technique, and it does not follow a rigid pattern. Pray as you can, not as you can’t.

Job therapy

In 1990, I developed a workshop and method of therapy using the Book of Job and lectio divina that is appropriate for groups and individuals.  

Recognizing that Job is every person’s story, the theme is “I am Job, we are Job.” 

We begin by reading, reflecting upon and (when others are available) discussing the first two chapters of Job, the prose prologue that tells of his profound misfortune. It sets the stage for the rest of the book and helps us understand his unfolding anguish and inflammatory comments. 

We practice lectio divina on the passage by identifying with the characters and drawing parallels between the events described, the responses evoked, and our own experiences.  

We then allow quiet time for prayer and contemplation. We might also record our reaction and insights in our Bibles or perhaps write in a notebook or journal. Writing complements lectio divina in helping to unearth and express our feelings and God’s movement in our heart. 

After contemplating the scenario of suffering and its resonance in our life, we continue to chapter three, where, in a passage directly influenced by Jeremiah 20:14-18, Job laments the day he was born, and abandons his stoic acceptance of his plight. This begins a cycle of verbal and theological fireworks that is abated only when God enters the picture and puts things in perspective.

Reactions to tragedy

One of the reasons Job is such fertile ground for the sufferer and caregiver is that it is so true to life, both in its characters and their comments. These passages can trigger reactions and insights that bring us closer to God amid the myriad of emotions that we are experiencing. 

The realism of Job extends to couples as well as individuals. For example, in behavior representative of the female response to tragedy, in Job 2:9, Job’s wife expresses her discontent with God implicitly and with Job implicitly. Women are generally quicker to express their grief and recover from it. Men tend to be composed initially but often have great difficulty coping with their emotions and practical circumstances.  

This is reflected most obviously in divorce, where the suicide rate of men is several times higher than that of women. 

One of the central challenges in marriage, dramatized not only by Job but in the story of Tobit and Anna (see Tb 2:11-14) and in the infertility struggles of the patriarchs and matriarchs, is that of bearing trials together. Lectio divina is a valuable tool for engaging God individually and together in prayer, and thereby avoiding projecting our dissatisfaction with God onto each other.

Caregiving models

Given the book’s length, the best way to prayerfully reflect on Job is selectively. Concentrate on Job’s and God’s words. A sampling of his friends’ words is sufficient. 

The speeches of Job’s friends are theologically rather than pastorally based. They are what I refer to as “God talk,” and quickly become tiresome. We know how upsetting well-meaning but insensitive references to God can be to persons struggling with their emotions. This is brought out magnificently in C.S. Lewis’ book “A Grief Observed” and in the movie “Shadowlands,” which spotlights his relationship with his wife, Joy, and their subsequent struggle with her cancer. 

Through their repetitive, didactic, and accusatory remarks, Job’s friends are a case study in clumsy caregiving. In contrast, God reveals himself as an affirming and compassionate, albeit mysterious and challenging, caregiver. Through observation of the modes of expression of Job, his wife and friends, and God, we encounter a “language of suffering” which exceeds in depth and holistic breadth that of psychological models, such as Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ “the stages of death and dying.” 

In particular, I find Job’s dramatization of the final stage of suffering, reconciliation, to be more precise and apt than Kubler-Ross’ acceptance. We never really accept tragedy. Rather, we learn to live (hopefully not simply exist) and become reconciled with it. Reconciliation doesn’t deny or eliminate the hurt; it transforms it into hope in a future, better life and compassion for other sufferers we encounter. 

Interestingly, the book ends with a reunion with his wife and the presence and uncommon inheritance of three lovely daughters, a happy ending that many readers are uncomfortable with but which must be taken in the context of the Judaism of its time, which did not yet admit clearly of an afterlife. 

Job offers many texts suitable for persons experiencing not only physical suffering, but also the pains of abandonment, betrayal, rejection and other intimate as well as external wounds.

Job’s practice of lectio

Job himself goes through the stages of lectio divina. He reads the text of his life, relates it to other passages in Scripture and life events, repeats themes so as to internalize them, applies his conclusions to his situation, shares his emotions frankly with his friends and God and sits quietly and receptively in simple presence in contemplation while God gets his word in edgewise. Finally, and most importantly, he responds obediently, first by acknowledging the impenetrable mystery, goodness and power of God, and then by forgiving his friends for their offensive, and in some sense blasphemous, God-talk. 

We need to take note of God’s affirmation of Job as speaking rightly about him (cf. Job 42:7).  

This evokes the critical question: How can criticizing and challenging God in harsh language be appropriate “God-talk” while the friends’ recycling of orthodox theological doctrines is condemned? The friends remind us of the scribes and Pharisees: well-meaning, at least initially, but obsessed with the letter of the law rather than its meaning.  

God desires mercy and loyalty, not sacrifice or rigid ritual observance (cf. Hos 6:6; Mic 6:6-8; 1 Sm 15:22; Mt 9:13; 12:7). 

Journaling our feelings about our suffering and God’s word is a therapeutic practice evident in the Bible, for Job itself reads like a sufferer’s journal. Also therapeutic is sharing our struggles with others, learning to accept their help, and even more importantly, reaching out to those worse off than us — who are often closer than we realize.  

The best caregivers are those who suffer, for they know firsthand. We see this in health-care facilities, in support groups and in the ministries of Mother Teresa and L’Arch founder Jean Vanier (to name just two prominent ones). 

Remembering the counsel of Pope Paul VI to the sick in India (Dec. 4, 1964), let us give “full value to (our) pains” by recognizing their redemptive value and responding obediently in the footsteps of those who have gone before us (see Heb 12).  

May we pray Job and other texts of the Bible and our life with full confidence, knowing that God, unlike others, can take everything we can dish out, and if we allow him, make us whole. 

Karl Schultz is the author of several books, including “Where is God When You Need Him?” and “The Art and Vocation of Caring for People in Pain.”