The Two Types of Suffering
No one wants to talk about suffering. But we need to. Suffering remains for a while in this world. If our theology is silent when the disease strikes or the persecution comes or the baby dies or the baby never arrives, then we don’t have the right theology. We have to face the inevitability of losing good things and not receiving certain good things. Moreover, we have to know how to help others walk through suffering.
In life, there are two types of sufferings: the suffering of loss and the suffering of longing. Both are painful, yet both are distinct from each other. There’s a difference between losing something that we already had and desiring something that we’ve not received.
In the suffering of loss, we once savored the sweetness of what’s now gone. “We had the baby, and he’s no longer here.” The past haunts the present, and we question, “God, why is this good thing no longer here?”
In the suffering of longing, we hurt because we want something that God is withholding. It’s not that God has taken something; it’s that he never gave it in the first place. More often than not, the suffering of longing triggers when we see others embrace blessings we lack. “She’s pregnant, and I’m not.” The future haunts the present, and we question, “God, why not me?”
The distinctions matter. There’s a difference between losing a baby and longing for a baby that might never come. The distinctions matter to God and should matter to us. But there’s a particular danger that comes with the distinctions. More often than not, we find ourselves playing the comparison game with our sufferings.
It’s easy for someone who’s infertile to look at someone who has lost a child and say, “At least you had a baby.” It’s easy for someone who knows the pains of parenting multiple kids to look at the single-child parent and say, “At least you only have one.” We’re easily tempted to gauge who has suffered more or whose pain lingers longer.
But the distinctions aren’t meant to lead us to play the comparison game. When we play the comparison game, no one wins. Rather, the distinctions are meant to point us to the fundamental commonality in all suffering: the only comfort in any and all suffering comes from the God of all comfort who comforts us in our afflictions so that we may be able to comfort those in any affliction (2 Corinthians 1:3–4).
Knowing the difference helps us to know where to begin with walking with those through suffering. In other words, the distinctions orient us to weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice (Romans 12:15).
In the following sections, I want to address three specific groups and highlight some ways to weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice: those who are struggling with infertility or have experienced the loss of a child, those joyfully expecting a child, and pastors.
To the Weeping
Press into the pain. Infertility hurts, losing a baby hurts, and seeing other babies can make it hurt more. So, it’s completely natural to weep. It’s okay to mourn the death of a dream. Don’t hold back your tears. Don’t shy away from the pain you’re feeling. The depth of the pain shows the value of what was lost or longed for. Weep before the God of all comfort—the God who gives good gifts and is not threatened by those good gifts (James 1:17; Matthew 7:9–11). As you press into the pain, you will come to know that “as a father has compassion on his children, so does the Lord have compassion on you” (Psalm 103:13).
Press into people. Don’t shut yourself off. When you weep, people might not know what to say, and it can be awkward. There might be the added discomfort of feeling pitied, and let’s be honest, no one likes to be pitied (except those who weaponize pity to manipulate others). But the consequence of not pressing into people is more suffering and missed comfort. Others are often the means through which God brings comfort to those who are suffering (2 Corinthians 1:3–4). You need a covenant community to grieve and pray with you and remind you that God is good and infinitely wise in his giving and withholding.
Stay tethered to the truth. Let every woman rejoice with her friend’s pregnancy. It will be hard, but God’s command to rejoice with those who rejoice is not arbitrary; it’s for our good (John 15:10–11). Our envious tendency is to weep over those who are rejoicing. We kill envy when we remember that whether we receive a baby or whether someone else does is ultimately given by God. God will be gracious to whom he will be gracious and show mercy to whom he will show mercy (Exodus 33:19). It would be unwise to question the wisdom of God by murmuring about the blessings of others.
To the Rejoicing
Press into the joy. Don’t stiff-arm the good gift of a child in order to love God more; we don’t make good gifts stoop so that Jesus stands tall. In other words, don’t make Jesus better by making good gifts worse. Rather, we let our joy in those good gifts soar since it carries our joy in God with them. If you know deep down that Christ is your greatest treasure, then don’t fear the good gifts. Press into them. And at the end of the day, right in the midst of our joy, say, “Even this, all of this, is just a glimpse of what’s to come.”
Press into people. Allow others to rejoice with you. Our delight is incomplete until it is expressed.
Stay tethered to the truth. Those who are weeping ought to rejoice with those who rejoice, and those who are rejoicing ought to weep with those who weep; the obligation runs both ways. Things like Mother’s Day, baby showers, and pregnancy announcements can hit infertile couples or bereaved parents really hard. When these moments occur, check in with them and offer a shoulder to cry on if necessary. Weep with them, but weeping (and rejoicing) needs to be grounded in the truth. In other words, our emotion sharing with others has to stay tethered to our emotion sharing with God. If not, unbridled weeping takes hold. It would be wrong to share in the weeping and adopt the perspective that God has withheld a baby and, therefore, he is evil.
Pay attention to your reluctance. We all have Bible passages and topics that we’re eager to say out loud and boldly, and topics which we are reluctant to speak, or only speak with layers upon layers of qualification and nuance.
It’s not uncommon for pastors and church leaders to shy away from discussing the pain of infertility. More often than not, when you have people in your congregation struggling with infertility, you’ll be reluctant to encourage them to have more children. We hesitate to draw attention to and encourage those things out of compassion for the pain experienced by the infertile (the same goes for bereaved parents and for those who are unmarried but desire to be married).
But our task is to preach the whole counsel of God, from the hardest parts of Scripture to the hardest situations in life (Acts 20:26–27). If we don’t, we may find ourselves being unfaithful. In other words, if we are reluctant to say things like, “Have more children and disciple them like crazy because children are a gift from God” then we’ll be missing out on a crucial culture-war strategy as priest-kings (Genesis 1:28; Psalm 127:3–5).
If we want to rebel against the status quo and want people to ask us for a reason for the hope that is in us (1 Peter 3:15), then we should encourage having more children. There’s nothing more counter-cultural than to have more children and “bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). (To be clear, I’m not a fertility maximalist; there’s a difference between “having as many children as possible” and “having more children.”)
Shepherding requires wisdom to skillfully straddle “Have more children because they are a gift from God” and “Trust that God is good and infinitely wise in his withholding,” and to encourage the weeping to rejoice with the rejoicing and those rejoicing to weep with those who are weeping.
When We Weep and Rejoice
I don’t pretend to get all this weeping, rejoicing, and baby stuff right. But I know that when the suffering comes and our theology leads us to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep while staying tethered to the truth, we are fulfilling what the apostle Paul calls us to do. We are presenting our bodies as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God, which is our spiritual worship. We are being conformed into the image of Christ (Romans 12:1–2).
“Sorrowful yet always rejoicing” is the banner that hangs over the Christian life (2 Corinthians 6:10). Sorrow points us forward to the day when God will wipe every tear from our eyes, and we will no longer experience the suffering of loss or longing (Revelation 21:4).
Though a woman longing to be a mother can only dream of experiencing the great joy of holding a newborn, she may wonder, “Will I be holding one in heaven—the place where there is fullness of joy?” (Psalm 16:11). I’m not sure. But we trust that God withholds no good thing (Psalm 84:11; Romans 8:32) and causes all things to work together for the good of his people (Romans 8:28). Heaven will see the barren woman with either a baby or something even better because Christ is supreme now and forever after this world.
 I am indebted to Joe Rigney for this compelling insight. For more, see Joe Rigney, "When the Things of Earth Are Lost," in Strangely Bright: Can You Love God and Enjoy This World? (Wheaton: Crossway, 2020), 87–99.
Tuezong Xiong (Mdiv, Bethlehem Baptist College & Seminary) received his Bachelors of Science in Pastoral Leadership at the University of Northwestern-St. Paul and his Masters of Divinity from Bethlehem College & Seminary in Minneapolis, MN. In addition, he is a general editor at Desiring God. Tuezong is the husband of Pa Kou and a father to Piper. He also blogs at www.tuezongxiong.wordpress.com.