Christian Clichés about Chronic Pain and Suffering: When Truth isn’t Fully True

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The thing about Christian clichés is that they are often true. In the midst of our pain and suffering, we are offered an abundance of “helpful” platitudes.

“God has a reason and a purpose for your pain.”

“All things work together for the good of those who love God.”

“Your pain can be a blessing if you just look at it from the right perspective.”

“You will be healed or remain sick to God’s glory and his good purpose in your life.”

And if you are anything like me, these statements boil your blood and cause steam to puff from your nostrils. The fact that they are ingrained in an underlying truth is part of what makes them so infuriating. If they are theologically and doctrinally sound, how can we justify the anger and frustration they seem to elicit? If they are Scripturally based, written by the inspired hands of God’s people, or even spoken out of the mouth of Jesus, why do these truths make us feel so completely furious, “unholy,” and misunderstood?

Just because something is true doesn’t mean you should say it. Just because something is true does not mean it is right for every time and every situation.

Even Satan quotes Scripture, twisting truth to meet his evil purposes, such as when he tempted Jesus in the wilderness.

“Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:

“‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 

Even Satan quotes Scripture. And Jesus knew that Satan’s interpretation of Psalm 91 was for evil and not for good. We must be careful in spouting Scripture and platitudes to those who suffer, less our words be out of context, only half truths, or of wrong motive.

Truth is not fully true when said in the wrong time, context, or situation   

Your friend has just watched his wife and child killed in a car accident. You approach him at the scene of the accident and say, “Don’t fear, God works all things for the good of those who love him.”

We can all see a problem with this. While this statement is true in its doctrine and theology, the truth is negated by the timing. God does not desire for us insensitively and ignorantly spout out whatever words of truth we desire at whatever moment we choose. You would never choose labor and delivery as the time to admonish a woman to work on her anger problems. Some truth isn’t fully true when said at the wrong time. While this may be easy to see in these more extreme examples, this is just as true in more subtle situations.

We forget to tailor our words to unique people in unique circumstances, spouting off the same words of truth to all. We forget that different types of words are right at different times. “And we urge you brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone.”

Sometimes when we really need encouragement, our friend offers a warning that we need to trust more. Sometimes when we really need practical help, we are admonished for not believing God has a plan. We really need patience, but instead friends frantically bombard us with advice. Sometimes the timing of truth negates the fullness of truth.

We forget to go back to the basics by flippantly apply truth to people’s lives in a way that does not really apply to them, in ways that take Scripture out of context, just as when Satan misapplied Scripture to tempt Jesus.

Truth isn’t fully true when we offer half-truths to make people temporarily feel good 

Scripture says we are to, “Always be joyful” (I Thessalonians 5:16). Because I believe all Scripture, I believe this is a truth we should aspire to, as hard as it sounds. But like I said, I believe all of Scripture. Scripture also describes in the words of the Psalmist, “I am worn out from my groaning. All night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears” (Psalm 6:6). Sometimes the Scripture someone needs to hear is not that we can be always joyful and it will all work out in the end, but recognition that it is hard in the moment, and recognition that it has been hard for others as well.

We offer idyllic words from Scripture, forgetting that Scripture also speaks words of terror.

We tell people that God heals all our diseases (Psalm 103:3), but forget to mention that many, “face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered (Psalm 44:22)

We tell people if you “take delight in the Lord, he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4). But we forget that sometimes the Lord’s desire for us is that we suffer (I Peter 4:12)

We present one side of the coin and then wonder why so many are confused and surprised that they are still suffering. We present one side of the coin and then wonder why people are angry that things did not turn out perfectly like the Scripture we quoted.

We offer half of the truth, trying to elicit hope and encouragement, but in the end we leave people confused and wondering if Scripture is even true. Sometimes suffering and evil prevails for now, and it does no one any good to hear the wonderful promises of Scripture without hearing the truth that evil, suffering, and death still pervades this world. Half of the truth is not all of the truth; half of the truth is not fully true.

Truth is not fully true when said without compassion and love, failing to recognize the fullness of suffering being experienced.

In the midst of Job’s suffering, his friends made this very mistake. Instead of loving him, they spout out monologues of advice and explanations for his suffering. They could only sit with him in his suffering for so long before they become tired and began to miss the actual person, Job, and what he was experiencing.

There is no easy response to pain that lasts for years and decades. And after a time, people stop approaching us with love and compassion, and instead offer answers, advice, speculations, and reasons for pain that may or may not be true.

Sometimes truth is said with the wrong motive, negating the power of the truthful statement. Platitudes are offered because the speaker does not know what else to say. The motive for speaking is to ease the uncomfortable feeling that wells up inside when suffering is nearby. Saying something makes them less uncomfortable, and giving advice makes them feel helpful because it feels like they are doing something even when nothing can really be done.

Sometimes the motive is to get those who suffer to quiet down and move on in the midst of our suffering, because it is only convenient to bear with us for so long. Perhaps if advice and reasons are given for our pain we will come to acceptance and bear the pain in silence. Truth is not fully true when it is selfishly spoken for the good of the speaker and not the good of those who suffer.

Sometimes words of truth can only be truly and rightly spoken in the context of a longsuffering relationship, by individuals who have seen and known our pain and gained the right to speak hard truths into our lives. They speak the same hard truths as those who anger us with platitudes, yet through sitting with us and bearing with us in our suffering, through speaking out of love for the sufferer instead of love for self, they earn the right to speak what others have not.

What unhelpful platitudes have you been offered in the midst of your pain? When were you offered truth that was not fully true?

 

10 Comments

  1. I absolutely love this post. God is truly using you to bring hope and more to his children. He has blessed you with this extraordinary gift. Thank you for writing. “There is a time for everything and a season for every activity under the heavens.” Ecclesiastes 3:1 God bless. Sending lots of warm hugs, prayers,& spoons.

  2. Glad to have caught this one on Facebook! Somehow I missed it on WordPress. Good reminder to avoid (as the prophet Ann LaMott has said) using Scripture verses as punctuation to end the discussion.

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