It’s a word about solitude
[The following article originally appeared in the Banner of Truth magazine for July 2022]
Who really knows what is going on in the heart of a sufferer? Only the one whose heart it is. That is what Solomon means when he says, Proverbs 14:10, “The heart knows its own bitterness”. It’s a word about solitude. By bitterness we are to understand sorrow, heartache, anguish. We all know what our own experience of these things has been – or is. But no-one else does. We cannot fully explain it to others and they, for their part, cannot fully grasp it. In all suffering there is an inescapable solitariness.
There are three standpoints from which I want us to look at this matter and the first is that of the observer. What do we see when we look at someone? The outside! So and so has been ill and has lost a lot of weight. We can see that. So too the bruises caused by their fall. But what can we see of someone’s heart? It may be obvious from their tears that they are in distress. And if we happen to know something of their circumstances those tears are not a puzzle to us. But sadness is often well concealed. And when it comes to painful circumstances we may be completely in the dark. The sufferer knows all. The observer, little or nothing.
Let this ignorance curb our envy. How easy to look at what others have – at their house, or their job, or their income, or their health, or the size of their congregation, or the fact that they are married and have children – and envy them! We do well to remember, however, that there is another side to things; a hidden side. In regard to the outward and visible God may have given much more to them than he has given to us. But what if there is a parallel to that as regards the inward and invisible? What if for that so favoured brother or sister whom we are tempted to envy God has ordained, quite unknown to us, an intensity of heart pain to which we ourselves are strangers? It is often his way. Shouldn’t our limited knowledge of believers’ sufferings serve to curb our envy?
Let it curb our harshness too. How differently would Eli have spoken to Hannah had he known of her rival and her childlessness and her anguish of heart (1 Sam.1:14)! To criticise is at times a necessity. But criticism is often misplaced and excessive for the very reason expressed in Solomon’s words: “The heart know its own bitterness”. When it comes to external factors and the heartache they occasion there is so much that is hidden from the mere observer. Let it teach us to be sure of our facts before we condemn. Let it teach us charity.
A second standpoint from which to consider this matter is that of the sufferer. May I address all such directly? There is no-one but you who truly knows the sufferings of your heart. Onlookers, indeed, may have no inkling that anything at all is amiss. They see you, talk to you, work alongside you, serve and worship with you in the same church, and there is nothing that would suggest to them the great heartache that is yours. And whilst there are others who do know something, how very little it is. There is so much you can’t explain. So much, perhaps, that you daren’t even try to explain. You well understand Solomon’s word about solitude. It’s your solitude.
Let it teach you patience. One of the consequences of people’s ignorance of your heart is that they don’t always get it right when they try to help. That is true even of those who know and love you best. There is a limit to their understanding. And it shows. They don’t always act and speak wisely or sensitively. Their counsel may be wide of the mark. And sometimes you feel hurt or offended when no hurt or offence is intended. Recollect Solomon’s word about solitude and let it teach you patience. Don’t be too hard on folks. Yes, you wish that what they said and did didn’t jar on you as it does. But bear in mind that your heart is largely a closed book to them and that the little they can read is not very legible. They mean well. Let that be the thing that matters most.
Let there be thankfulness. Your solitariness in suffering is not absolute. There is someone who does understand – perfectly – and that is the God who has bound you to himself forever. He is the searcher of hearts. He knows you through and through – far better, indeed, than you know yourself. To him the human heart is an open book and every word is clear. No sorrow, no fear, no bitter disappointment is hidden from him. And how he cares! Imagine a scientist running a series of tests, carefully investigating a particular problem, and doing so in a thoroughly detached manner, quite unemotionally. God is not like that. God is not detached. His people are the objects of an eternal and unfathomable love. In all their affliction he is afflicted (Isaiah 63:9). You may be sure of his deepest sympathy. Let it move your heart to thankfulness.
One last standpoint from which to view this matter is that of the sympathiser. It is what the word of God calls all Christians to be. We are to bear one another’s burdens (Gal.6:2). We are to weep with those who weep (Rom.12:15). We are to encourage one another with the hope of the second coming (1 Thess.4:18). It’s a big part of what it means to love one another. Our afflicted brethren are to receive our sympathy and help.
We mustn’t shy away from this. Which in the light of what we have been considering is the very thing we may be tempted to do! For who is equal to such a task? When we understand so little and can so easily say and do the wrong thing, wouldn’t it be better to leave the comforting to God? Or to the pastor? Or the trained counsellor? But that is not an option that is open to us. In the exhortations cited above Paul is addressing all believers. This is our duty. The God who moved Paul to write these words is certainly his people’s supreme sympathiser, their chief comforter. But we are the instruments whom he has chosen to use. So we mustn’t shy away from this, unequal to the task as we may feel – and indeed are.
With the Lord’s help we can do it. It is something he equips us to do. Speaking prophetically through Isaiah the Lord Jesus tells us how God equipped him to do it: “The LORD God has given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may know how to sustain with a word him who is weary. Morning by morning he awakens; he awakens my ear to hear as those who are taught” (Is.50:4). Jesus spoke the helpful, the comforting, the sustaining words that he did because he was taught, daily, by his Father in heaven. And through the Scriptures, read and studied, the Father teaches us too.
And then we bring suffering into the picture – this time our own suffering. It is said of Jesus that he was “made perfect through suffering” (Heb.2:9), where the perfection in question is a perfect fitness to be the Saviour his people need. It was attained, says Hebrews, through suffering. Suffering made him both an atoning and a sympathising High Priest. And suffering equips us to sympathise too. We may take it as an interpreting key. Why does the Lord ordain the hard things for us that he does? One part of the answer is to teach us how to show sympathy to our fellow believers. It is no easy task. Not when their hearts’ pain is so inaccessible to us. But the Lord has his ways. Through the Scriptures and through suffering he teaches us. And as we submit to his will and listen to his voice there is a growing fitness for the work.