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Comparing Suffering

Photo Credit: Mark Shutt Images

(By Heather Marshall)

Have you ever compared your pain with someone else’s to try to maintain a healthy perspective? Perhaps you've thought that comparing pain* and acknowledging others' suffering helps you to be grateful and empathetic.

On the surface, it may look like a helpful comparison because you are thoughtfully trying to maintain a healthy perspective. Or, you may think that comparing pain leads you to be grateful that you are not going through similar suffering.

The truth is that when you compare your difficulties with someone else’s for the purpose of feeling thankful, you are not experiencing real gratitude because gratefulness comes from considering our blessings, not from diminishing our suffering.

Comparing our hardships is actually damaging to ourselves and to others in our lives.

If your adversity feels heavier than those around you, you may end up feeling inadequate, bitter, and resentful. Those feelings can lead you to isolate yourself and stop you from seeking community and support from others.

On the other hand, if in comparison, you feel that your difficulties are minor, you may have feelings of guilt because you are not suffering as much as others. You may minimize the impact of your struggles and avoid speaking about them or asking for prayer because they are “insignificant.”

In both cases, comparing suffering leads to negative feelings and isolation from others.

Job is a Bible character who experienced tremendous suffering. He lost everything: his livelihood, his family, and his health. There was nothing more he could lose apart from his own life. Job had three friends who, I believe, were trying to make sense of suffering by comparing Job’s pain with their own beliefs and experiences.

The comparisons and insights they presented to Job were not helpful. At one point, Job was weary of them and said, “I have heard many things like these; you are miserable comforters, all of you.” (Job 16:2). God did not endorse the positions of Job and his friends either. He said to one of the friends, “I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken the truth about me” (Job 42:7).

So what is a better approach to making sense of suffering?

It is helpful to realize that no matter who you are, everyone is going through some kind of suffering. Existence in this fallen world means that we all live with the daily reality of sin, illness, death, and separation. We can’t escape suffering; it is part of our present experience, but it will not be our future. We have hope (expectation) that God will one day wipe every tear from our eyes (Revelation 21:4).

Looking to Jesus, our Savior who agonized on the cross for us will also help us process suffering. “Fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2).

How did Jesus approach those who were suffering?

In John 21:18-19, Jesus prophesied about the suffering that Peter would go through at the end of his life. Peter immediately asked what was going to happen to the disciple that Jesus loved. Peter was seeking to compare their suffering.

Jesus answered with these words “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me” (John 21:22).

Jesus didn’t downplay the pain that Peter would experience, he didn’t expound on what the other disciple would go through, nor did he share his own experience with the suffering he had just gone through.

No comparisons or minimizing. He simply commanded Peter, “Follow me.”

We too need to follow Jesus’ approach to suffering. He met each person that he encountered with grace and compassion.

From the parents with a sick child, to Zacchaeus the tax collector, to the woman at the well, and so many more. There was no comparison in his interactions with them. He loved each one and had compassion and grace for their individual situations.

Friends, let’s commit to taking Jesus’ approach to suffering, and consider ourselves and others with kindness as we bear witness to the pain experienced.

No minimizing. No comparisons.

In doing so, we will “Encourage one another and build each other up” (1 Thessalonians 5:11).

*It turns out that comparative suffering is actually a term found in mental health discussions, and it involves trying to make sense of our pain by comparing it to other people's pain.


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