“You are not alone.”
Just hearing those words when we’re in pain can cause a subtle shift within us, moving us toward hope where we had seen only despair. Suffering can be one of the loneliest experiences, separating us from people we love and, at times, from a sense of God’s nearness. We long for presence — both the presence of God, who draws near in our pain, and the presence of others who can minister his grace. Yet sometimes it’s hard to find or experience either.
Sunday After He Left
Though I’d been part of the local church for decades, I didn’t want to go to church the Sunday after my husband left. I was convinced it would be painful and awkward. Most people didn’t know what had happened, and I wasn’t sure what I would say. Afraid that I’d break down in tears, I wanted to pull the covers over my head and not face anyone. Nothing felt safe. But after wrestling in bed, I finally got up and drove to church with my daughters, praying that God would meet us there.
Some friends were waiting for us in the back. They had saved seats for us. I was relieved we wouldn’t be sitting alone. As we stood for the first hymn and began to hear our voices harmonize with those around us, I felt a strange swell of emotion. We were part of a community, and even though our world had collapsed, there were people around us who would hold us up. I still remember leaving encouraged that day, thankful that I had been worshiping in God’s house, hearing God’s word, surrounded by God’s people.
I couldn’t have known when I walked through the doors that Sunday how much I would rely on those people in the coming years.
With Me in the Fire
It was in the church where I felt nurtured and known. Hearing God’s word preached every Sunday grounded me, reminding me of the truths I needed as anchors. I remember a particular sermon on the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in Daniel 3. My pastor pointed out, vividly and memorably, that God is with us in the fire. He emphasized our witness in trials and how people can see our faithfulness and God’s sufficiency in our weaknesses. I needed to hear, again and again throughout Scripture, that God will never leave or forsake us.
In those long, hard days, I also heard truth from friends and people in my small group who individually encouraged me, prayed with me, and wept with me as they pointed me to Jesus. It was through their faithfulness that I experienced firsthand the church as the body of Christ, redeemed people who love, serve, and sacrifice for each other. Their love came in many forms — providing for our practical needs, sharing testimonies of how God had met them in their own grief, and reminding me of truth when I was tempted to doubt.
“When I wondered how I could go on, the church carried me, reassuring me that I was not alone.”
The response from our church was overwhelming — people fixed our computers, brought our family meals, and even changed light bulbs in our house. Families invited us to dinner, reminding us that we were part of a larger community that was going to support us. Several times, a small group gathered in my home to pray, lamenting with me through a psalm and crying out for God to fill our physical, emotional, and spiritual needs.
When I wondered how I could go on, the church carried me, reassuring me that I was not alone.
What If the Church Hurt Us?
Though I was nurtured and loved by my local church, I do know others who have been hurt by fellow Christians in the wake of suffering, feeling unknown and uncared for in their pain. For some, members of the church showed up right away, but then the support quickly evaporated and they were left to grieve on their own. Others have felt judged or minimized as people have sought to fix them rather than mourn with them. They have left the church disillusioned, discouraged, and disappointed. Their experience in church has seemed to only intensify their loneliness, rather than lessen it.
So how do suffering people move forward when we have been let down by the church? While everyone’s situation is unique, and there is no universal answer, God has chosen the church as the place where his children heal, serve, and grow. In his manifold wisdom, God makes himself known through the church (Ephesians 3:10). The church is the body of Christ, his hands and feet in the world. When one member suffers, all suffer together (1 Corinthians 12:26).
“The church is one of God’s greatest means of grace in our lives, and all the more so in suffering.”
When we already feel weak and wounded, it takes courage to tell others, especially in the church, how they have hurt us. As we bravely move forward, we can pray that God would direct us, help us overlook or forgive when appropriate, and give us wisdom on what actions to take next. In some circumstances, we may deem it wise to leave our local church and look for another, but God will never call us to leave the church altogether. It is one of his greatest means of grace in our lives, and all the more so in suffering.
Do We Really Need Church?
The inevitable questions arise: Why do we need the local church in suffering? Why is it worth finding one where we can belong and trust? Why can’t we just do this on our own?
We need the local church in our suffering because, without it, we might become hardened by the deceitfulness of sin (Hebrews 3:13). When our suffering lingers, and our prayers seemingly go unanswered, we may begin to wonder if God cares — if he can really be trusted. Our fears may feel greater than our faith. When that happens, we can lean into the faith of the saints around us and let them carry us (Hebrews 10:24–25). We can entrust them to pray for us when we have no words ourselves. And we can rest knowing that even if we stumble and fall, someone will be there to pick us up and help us find our strength in God.
In his book Embodied Hope, Kelly Kapic reminds us, “The saints speak to God for us when we struggle to believe and speak alone. Further, the saints are called to speak to us for God when we seem unable to hear him on our own. Their prayers sustain our faith; their proclamation reignites our hope.”
When We Hide Our Pain
As we share our suffering with those in the church, we not only allow them to minister hope to us, but we also minister to them through our pain.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. (2 Corinthians 1:3–4)
When we hide our wounds and weaknesses, we not only distance ourselves from others, but we also subtly reinforce the lie that the Christian life promises continuous victory, pain-free bodies, and material prosperity. Letting our brothers and sisters in Christ into that sacred space of our suffering, sharing our failures and weakness, our pain and our despair, brings a rare closeness that reminds us all that we are not alone.
Suffering can be one of the loneliest experiences, making us feel estranged and isolated from our friends, from our community, and from God. Yet paradoxically, as we let the church minister to us in our pain, leaning into God and into our friends, letting them carry us when we are weak, we often will find a deeper intimacy than we have ever known. God himself whispers to us, through Scripture and through fellow believers, that we are beloved, seen, and known, even in the valley.