When I was a high-school freshman, my school in Central Asia was attacked by terrorists.
No children were killed, though five adults (including two believers) were. My family eventually moved to London and I returned to a boarding school I’d attended the previous year. I leaned hard on my friends for support. Being 13-year-old kids, though, they weren’t equipped to help me process what I was feeling. I felt very alone. I had stress migraines for 18 months, and vivid nightmares for years.
I was carrying heavy stuff—and most people couldn’t see it. If they did know about it, they didn’t know what to do. Most around me didn’t understand what my life had been like in Central Asia, let alone the experience of living through an attack. It wasn’t until the summer before 12th grade that I started to feel like I could relax, laugh, and enjoy friendships again.
You don’t “move on” from some kind of traumatic event—you put it in its proper place. I still get physically anxious if I’m not facing the door while sitting in a restaurant. When I go somewhere new, I’m calculating the quickest way to escape any given room, trying to think of back-up exits.
I continue to see the ways that day, and its aftereffects, have profoundly shaped the course of my life.
Real Love Doesn’t Require Identical Experience
One question I often wrestled with was, Why me? Why was I surrounded by people who (to my perspective) had easy lives, while mine had been so difficult? I didn’t want to be the kid stressed about losing his friends to bullets, or imagining who he could jump in front of if a gunman entered the room. But I was.
And so I often struggled to relate to other believers. I felt alone, like no one could understand what I’d been through—and therefore not able understand me. But this, I came to realize, was a lie. Someone doesn’t need to have gone through what I have in order to truly “get” me or love me. That’s a ludicrous standard for friendship. Nobody, other than the Lord, knows everything that has happened to us. And even he hasn’t had identical experiences to us. He knows what it is to be tempted in every way as we have (Heb. 4:14–16), but that doesn’t mean (to state the obvious) that he’s had the same life experience as every Christian. Is Jesus’s sympathy acceptable to you? Then why would you require more of mere mortals?
Honestly, the people who cared best for me in those years weren’t those who had experienced something like I had. It was the people who loved me enough to listen over and over again, to tell me when I was believing something false, to stay.
Trauma is hard to face, but, by God’s grace, we don’t have to face it alone.
Sharing the details of what happened to me is still intimate and exhausting. Besides once, I’ve never shared the details publicly with a large group of people. It’s a labor of love to tell others—because I know they won’t understand at first, they’ll ask more questions, they’ll often be unaware of the emotions their questions raise in the moment. But I’ve learned that telling people is a big step for my friendship with them. There are friends to whom I’ve awkwardly said, “I need to tell you about this,” because I wanted to become better friends with them.
What Is Central
When I’m feeling distant from those who don’t get my experiences, it helps me to try and foster an even deeper concern for God’s Word. One (good!) side effect from this effort is that it has become harder to concentrate on sermons that are simply anecdotal and distanced from the biblical text. I’m just less interested in the preacher’s personal experience than in what the Lord has said is worth knowing. When I center my identity more on what he has said about me than on what has happened to me, I finally find rest. This is emphatically not to say that my experiences, or yours, aren’t formative and important. They are, massively so. But they are not central.
When I center my identity more on what God has said about me than on what has happened to me, I finally find rest.
Part of my struggle to trust others has been the loss of certain friends I trusted. In high school I had to start from scratch—with no guarantee I wouldn’t lose those friendships, too. And the friends I already had were splintered reeds, unable to bear the weight I felt I needed them to help carry. But no human being is utterly worth my trust, or yours. All of us are sinning saints and failing friends. One way or another, people will let you down and hurt you. The only way to remain safe from potential hurt, then, is to go through life in a relationally padded room. You may not get hurt, but you’ll get tired and lonely pretty fast.
It’s okay and even healthy, I’ve learned, to have different kinds of friends to talk and work through things with. We shouldn’t expect every meaningful friendship to look alike.
Without doubt, the most valuable practice has been memorizing and meditating on Scripture. It has been the best balm for my soul. Verses, and lessons, like these:
- 1 Corinthians 10:13. Our experience may be different from others, but the temptations that seize us are common. Our Savior endured them; our brothers and sisters endure them. No, they may not understand all the particulars, but they—and the Word of God—are able to speak with insight into the temptations we face.
- 1 Corinthians 12:12. Granted, the “body passage” isn’t directly about suffering. But it’s a helpful perspective. Remember that diversity in experience (as well as gifting) is part of the Lord’s kind provision for building up his church. When we view those differences as barriers to meaningful fellowship, we’re thinking satanically about diversity. The Lord intends difference to function as blessing.
- 2 Corinthians 1:6. Our suffering now is for the comfort of other Christians later. Consider how the Lord might use your unique experiences—even excruciating ones—to fit you to better serve his people. Consider how these can sharpen how you read Scripture. The Lord never wastes our suffering.
- Hebrews 12:1–2. Difficulty in the present is worth the prize in the end. The joy of following Jesus is worth all the hardships the world can throw our way.
No Quick Fix
The loneliness that suffering brings can’t be escaped overnight. It takes time for wounds to stop stinging, and even after time the pain may surprise you. But persevere with confidence. The Lord will use even this for the good of you who love him—even if you can’t see the good now. Hope in him, and rely on the gifts he’s given you in his Word, his church, and his providence. And look forward to the day of no more tears.
Written by: CALEB GREGGSEN
First published 10.07.20: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/lessons-lonely-sufferer/