THE SCENARIO: During a time of congregational singing in a Sunday morning service a young man leaves his seat, makes his way to the front of the room, and kneels to pray. His praying appears passionate but not overly emotional.
QUESTION: What do you do?
ANSWER: Nothing—at least not immediately.
In a previous post I suggested that gender differences play a part in the way we respond to spiritual events. The contrasting reactions between men & women in the scenario above may not represent degrees of spirituality but distinctions in our engendered natures. For that reason we might consider that some of our reactions aren’t so much spiritual as natural and if natural then possibly wrong.
But there’s another angle to consider that doesn’t have anything to do with gender differences. For both men & women, it’s hard to resist the compulsion to do something for a suffering soul. Who doesn’t want to be the “good Samaritan”?
Now Christians should be commended for their desire to alleviate suffering–especially spiritual suffering. The only point I want to offer here is that our desire needs to be coupled with discernment. The question isn’t whether we should help those in trouble but how we should go about helping them. One diagnosis doesn’t fit all cases and not all diagnoses are created equal. If the church serves as a spiritual hospital, the attendants & physicians should desire the patient be healed rather than anesthetized.
A moment’s reflection reminds us that sorrow & suffering are often the divinely ordained means by which our Lord leads His people into greater peace & rest (Lam 3:25-33; 2Cor 7:9-11). Surely we can affirm that there is a kind of affliction that’s “good” (Psa 119:71).
Consider also the testimony of previous generations. Martin Luther came to describe the effect of his spiritual assaults as “delicious despair” and eventually wrote:
I have often seen excellent men horribly vexed by terrors, afflictions, and the severest persecutions, so much so that they nearly experienced despair of heart. But these things must be learned so that we may be able to comfort such men and interpret the temptations as the special manner by which God is accustomed to wrestle with us in the form of a destroyer and that we may exhort them firmly to retain the promise, or lamp and spark, of the Word in the hope that the rescue will certainly follow. [emphasis added; quoted by Martin Marty in Martin Luther: A Life, p 27]
The Puritan preacher John Bunyan pointed to the benefit of a troubled mind in his autobiography Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners when he wrote:
And though I was thus troubled, and tossed, and afflicted, with the sight and sense and terror of my own wickedness, yet I was afraid to let this sight and sense go quite off my mind; for I found that, unless guilt of conscience was taken off the right way, that is, by the blood of Christ, a man grew rather worse for the loss of his trouble of mind, than better. [emphasis added]
Another Puritan pastor, Thomas Brooks, observed that sinners will desperately seek rest from any number of sources at the risk of losing Christ’s ultimate rest:
Poor sinners, when they are under the sense of sin and wrath of God, are prone to run from creature to creature, and from duty to duty, and from ordinance to ordinance, to find rest; and if they could find it in anything or creature, Christ would never hear of them . . . [Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices]
We might consider, then, that sometimes a man should be left alone when he’s in the act of dealing with God. By all means, be ready to show him to the great Physician. Tell him where to go to find the cure for his pain & discomfort. But be wary of offering a placebo when true healing is just around the corner.