Broken and hurting people. We meet them on service projects and at local nonprofits. We work with them at the office. We sit next to them in church. We talk to them across the dinner table. We see them in the mirror.
Sometimes our brokenness draws casseroles from the congregation, cards in the mailbox, hugs in the coffee shop, and prayers in our worship services. But sometimes the brokenness we bear is not seen as something "safe." For one reason or another people within the community seem unable to address it, and the broken ones find themselves alone.
More than alone. Isolated and alone. And then—because how else can one explain exile from the community in a time of need—comes wave after wave of shame. Entering into the lives of those who bear not only brokenness and hurt but also isolation and shame is difficult. It can challenge even the most giving and loving soul.
Addictions. Mental illness. Suicide attempts. Legal trouble. Unwanted pregnancies. Extramarital affairs. Eviction. Job loss. Business failure. And on and on.
How do we respond? What does God ask us to do?
Suffering people, wrote Lewis Smedes, are experiencing something that they very much don't want to experience. They desperately want the suffering to go away. But it doesn't. Whether their suffering is public or in isolation, they are in real pain. Their prayers—if they're able to pray at all—sound like groans: "Lord, God, Father and King, take this pain away! I'm wasting away, dear God. I can't go on. Rescue me, please!"
They wake with tear-stained pillows, dreading the day, hearts so heavy that buying groceries seems a monumental chore. And, oh, how they carry the pain. It's the weight in their legs. Their inability to focus. Their lethargy. The rumble in their souls. Sometimes even the bite in their voices.
When we suffer, Nicholas Wolterstorff observes, we have a certain awareness about us. He calls it a "radiance"—a glow that screams, "This is not how it's supposed to be!" He believes that when we suffer we understand God's shalom (God's peace, God's work to make everything right again) in the deepest way possible. The louder the voice of suffering roars in our lives, the greater our desire for the fullness of shalom.
Perhaps this understanding of the creational groan (Rom. 8:22-25) can help us in our calling to love the broken. Perhaps we, too, experience what Wolterstorff describes.
If nothing else, we can join the lament of the broken as a community. We can shake our fists at sin and pain even in the midst of our tranquil lives for the sake of our brothers and sisters who can barely stand against the gusts of life.
We can stand with our arms around them and scream with empathic fervor, "This is not how it's supposed to be!" Should we not be angry that a young woman was sexually abused by her father? Or that depression has taken a young man in the prime of his life? Or that someone's job was eliminated?
Or that addiction is killing a friend? Or that a man beats his wife and hides her shoes to drive her crazy? Should we not cry to God for the sake of those who have experienced injustice, sickness, abuse, neglect, and suffering that goes far beyond our imagination? Should we not pray like David in Psalm 22, "Why are you deaf to our weeping?" Yes, joining in lament as a community of believers and crying out for shalom is a good first response. But is that all? Cannot our feet and hands and arms get involved too?
What stops us from walking beside people who are hurting and broken and filled with shame? What obstacles stand in our way?
Are we afraid? Walking beside those with scary hurts is a volatile business. We have no control in this arena. We do quite well if hurting people heal in a given timeframe, but what if they don't? Can we continue loving for the long haul?
Are we too needful of gratification? When the romance of caring for people has run its course, do we become disappointed, irritated, and impatient for lack of a thankful response?
Are we arrogant? Do we secretly believe that by their actions these folks "asked for" their suffering? Do we love only if our conditions are met? Do we see hurting and broken people as projects to fix and not souls to love?
Or is it that we just don't know how to love some kinds of brokenness?
Perhaps it's that we're all too busy and too blinded—or just incapable of an empathic response to others. It's inconvenient and messes up our plans.
Or perhaps it's that we're hurting too. It's difficult to reach out to others when we're doing everything we can to crawl out of our own despair.
There is only one way, it seems, for us to break through the obstacles and faithfully respond to our Lord's call to love hurting and damaged people. And that's to do what the psalmist chides himself to do in Psalm 42: "Put your hope in God."
Look at those hurting and broken people in your life— especially those isolated by their pain. Be encouraged to step forward and draw them back into community by doing the following:
- Share in their lament.
- Cast your eyes on the Lord. Put your hope in God, not in your ability to love well.
- View broken and hurting people with "transcendent curiosity" (Larry Crabb), with awe at what God is doing in their lives and with awe that you've been called there too, at such a suffering time as this.
- Ask what your role is in this unfolding story. What have you been prepared for? How should you respond as the person God created you to be?
- Love and accept each person where she is at. Let her know you value her for who she is, not for who you think she should be.
- Have meaningful conversations. Listen well. Be available. Develop a healthy relationship.
- Let him know he's impacted your life—and that he's tremendously loved by God.
- Use empathic responses: "That must hurt so much." "You must be so frustrated." Try to understand, really understand, where the person has been.
- Try hard not to judge or condemn. Don't impose your values or make assumptions about what the person should know.
- Be very, very patient. Judge your "success" by your faithfulness to God's call to love, not by gains or change in the other.
We have many opportunities to love the broken and the hurting. I've seen firsthand how beautiful the love of the church can be.
Loving the broken is pleasing to God. He meets the needs of his children through us. If we ignore them or turn them away, if we cast them off or judge and condemn them, we preach a powerful sermon that has nothing to do with Christ our Savior.
With our eyes on God, we can love the broken well. “Put your hope in God” as you enter the lives of the hurting. And be encouraged. As Psalm 42 testifies, you will not despair in your efforts.
About the Author
Sandi Altena is executive director of The Bridge, a nonprofit faith-based transitional housing program for women and children in northwest Iowa.