Six years ago, I experienced an emotional breakdown that sent me to the bottom of the bottomless pit for the next eighteen months. Not only was the advent of that dark season surprising, but so was the feeling of instant and profound isolation. That isolation was due, in part, to shattering illusions I’d previously held concerning the closeness and strength of the community I’d built for myself leading up to that experience. After all, there is nothing so effective as suffering at revealing who is truly in it with us for the long haul.
Looking back on that time, I can count on one hand the number of people who were willing to set their own comfort aside and endure with me the gamut of emotions and needs I waded through during that season. While I found the relational isolation disorienting, it was the spiritual isolation that proved most difficult and confusing. Much of my human community had been stripped away, but I only needed a few. The silence I experienced from God and scripture, however, was unbearable.
I wish Wendy Alsup’s latest book, Companions in Suffering: Comfort for Times of Loss and Loneliness, had existed then because it is exactly the help I needed. It is exactly the help I need even still.
A Unique Narrative
Initially, I approached this book warily. I’ve been around long enough to recognize the standard code words for common narratives in the evangelical world. The promo blurbs set off my skepticism that it would offer the same damaging narratives I’ve been fed before—that all we need to do when suffering is go to scripture. There we’ll find the tools to effectively eliminate our suffering, or at the very least inoculate us to its discomfort.
The implicit and very false message of that narrative is that discomfort, pain, and exhaustion are out of alignment with what God intends and it is our responsibility to return to scripture and set ourselves right again. Thankfully, Alsup proved my skepticism wrong. Instead, she offers an abundance of cool water for thirsting souls that need it.
Recounting her own story of compounded suffering—church conflict, divorce, the loss of community due to a sudden cross-country move, cancer diagnoses, debilitating treatments, and chronic health problems—Alsup provides a personal lens through which to discuss the many ways one might suffer. Along the way, she also explores the experiences of various figures throughout scripture whose responses in the face of deep suffering and loss, in concert with the love and support of her community, ministered to her in direct ways.
She examines the burden of grief experienced by Jesus himself, the lessons of lament and rest she learned from Job, and the examples provided by Joseph and David for how to live with ambiguous loss and navigate the collateral damage caused by sin. She also shares the comfort she found in the psalmist’s cries and in the example of waiting and dependency provided by the Israelites awaiting manna in the wilderness and Mary at the feet of Jesus.
Through these accounts and many others, Alsup ultimately grounds human pain, exhaustion, anger, doubt, and even sin within the experiences of suffering chronicled in scripture, and, therefore, within the bounds of God’s provision, presence, and companionship, which he abundantly pours out on those within his fold.
In doing so, Alsup ushers beleaguered readers into a fellowship much larger and more enduring than the here and now, validating the discomfort many feel forced into and recalling the truth that God meets, refreshes, and carries us in our burdens today just as he did for the sufferers of old. The wearied and wounded need not be ashamed of feeling weak.
Permission to Feel
I am no longer walking through that dark season from before, but life has continued to deliver its challenges over the past couple of years—not to mention the social, political, economic, and global health crises facing us at this moment in history. Even so, I found great comfort in Alsup’s ministration and rediscovered the permission God extends to us to feel feelings—as messy as they may be—while acknowledging the inherent brokenness in the fact that suffering exists at all.
Alsup consistently points readers to the comforting truths that pain is legitimate and God continually pours out his grace on those who belong to him. He is faithful to deliver encouragement through his word and fellowship with the saints. And in times of sin, forgiveness awaits the sinner—not condemnation. His presence and love is a soothing balm for every kind of pain.
Companions in Suffering is timely and relevant for those experiencing personal suffering, those who desire to help their suffering loved ones, and the church at large as we respond to the suffering facing our nation and the world. In the midst of turmoil, Alsup drives readers back to scripture, which is filled with accounts of suffering meant to provide rest from striving and companionship both in Christ and in those who have suffered before. She gently exhorts us to remember that we are securely held in the midst of the battering, even as we flail in uncertainty and fear. God’s strong arms are there ready and waiting for us to turn and cling to once again as he ever and always carries us through to the end.
Cover image by Aarón Blanco Tejedor.