Reporting on suffering
Writing regularly about pain and tragedy has shown me how God’s children walk by faith through valleys
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A couple of weeks ago I was at a dinner meeting with a group of businessmen and their wives. We asked each other what we do for a living, and I told them I’m a journalist.
“So what are you working on these days?” they asked. I answered that I was working on a story about sexual abuse.
Eyes widened: “Wow. What other stories have you worked on?”
“Well,” I said, “a while ago I wrote an article on spousal abuse, and soon I’ll be writing a story about suicide and another story on male victims of domestic abuse.”
The eyebrows lifted higher: “Wow, OK. ... And what has been the favorite story you’ve written so far?”
“Well, I do like the stories I wrote on mental illness and the series I’m doing on homelessness …”
I told the group that after all the stories I’ve reported on so far, I might actually be an expert in human suffering. They laughed, and I did too. But friends have asked me more seriously, “Girl, how can you be OK writing all this depressing stuff? Doesn’t it affect you?” My parents remind me to pray and guard myself, because I’m immersing myself in spiritual warfare. And my boyfriend tells me, “We can’t seem to have a conversation in which you’re not mentioning abuse or suicide. We need to find you some fun topics to write about.”
But I’m OK, really. “Fun” is not the appropriate word here, but I genuinely enjoy what I do, the topics I research, the interviews I have. Yes, subjects such as homelessness, abuse, and mental illness are serious and heartbreaking, because they’re so real and prevalent and close to the heart, but here’s what sets WORLD Magazine reporters apart from most other journalists: We report things from a Biblical perspective. That means we look for hope in our stories—and we always find hope, even in the deepest, most gut-wrenching stories of pain and injustice.
My work is also humbling. I remember meeting a mother whose adult son suffers from schizophrenia, and she worries he’ll never lead a “normal” life. Once, she began crying in front of me, momentarily seized with terror of the unknown future. She began questioning: “Do I really believe in the gospel? Do I really trust God?” Then she remembered all the times when God clearly demonstrated His love and faithfulness to her and her family during the chaos of crisis after crisis, and she exclaimed, “God orchestrated that. Isn’t it miraculous how He did that?” After wiping her tears, she concluded firmly, “There has to be hope. I know there’s hope to see God taking care of my son.”
That was the Holy Spirit at work, reminding that mother of God’s consistent presence and love, slowly replacing her instinctual fears with trust and even joy—and I got to witness that in real time.
Not all the people I interview have the benefit of time and healing to help them articulate how they process suffering and grief. Recently I was on the phone catching up with a pastor I had interviewed in Dallas. Six years ago he lost his wife of 44 years to suicide. He told me that for the first four years he couldn’t think about her without his heart throbbing as though its muscles were bruised black and blue.
This is an older pastor who has a degree in theology, who is trained in Biblical counseling, and who has counseled scores of people dealing with all sorts of pain. Yet when tragedy struck him, he realized he often did not know how to verbally express to God the depths of his anguish and confusion. That’s when he experienced Romans 8:26 in a new, intimate way: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.”
During those initial months of suffering, the pastor said, he saw more prayers answered than ever before in his life: “So God really feels our pain with us. He helps me through the Holy Spirit when I’m praying to give me perspective that helps me. … God doesn’t leave us alone in our pain.”
It takes courage to reject cynicism, self-pity, despair, and apathy
I also remember talking to a woman who told me her husband had been abusive and neglectful toward her and her children for many years. She said she went to her church leaders for help, but things got worse: Her husband became more aggressive, while the church leaders told her to forgive and reconcile. Now that she and her husband are divorced, she’s financially struggling to provide for her three kids, and said she hasn’t received any support from the church.
This woman lost friends and family from the ordeal, but said she still finds safety and comfort in God. She looks at the injustice in her life and declares, “God, that’s not who You are. I know You’re just and good.” She clings on to stories in the Bible of people who also endured great suffering—Joseph, King David, Job—and observes how consistent God is in love and faithfulness throughout history: “So I give up my right for retribution and revenge, because God is bigger than all that. … I still believe that God has a plan for me, that He has a purpose.”
The world says we Christians are naïve and weak to believe in a sovereign and good God when the world is frothing with unspeakable evil, random tragedies, and inexplicable suffering. The winds of our culture seem to cry, “Where is your God now? There is no God!”
And that’s why even though some of the stories I hear make me sad, they also touch and refresh my soul. I sense that many of the people I listen to are still bleeding from sensitive wounds, but somehow they still make the conscious, moment-by-moment choice to view God through His Word, not through their difficult circumstances. They choose to root their perspective in the unchanging characteristics of God and His promises. That is not weakness or naiveté.
It takes courage to reject cynicism, self-pity, despair, and apathy, and to instead recognize that though we often don’t have a choice in how we suffer, we still have the freedom to decide how we respond to our suffering. We are weak, but we can choose to walk through the pain leaning on God and clutching Him, letting the experience transform us as we transcend the tragedy.
As a Christian journalist, I don’t write about mere suffering. I write about the paradox in which both deep pain and profound joy can exist at the same time, like that beautiful paradox in which suffering and victory coincided on the cross.
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