In my own experience, religious platitudes and well worn phrases are not very comforting in these situations. Just saying “I don’t know what to say” may be a more honest approach. Our willingness to be present and sit with someone else’s pain, knowing that we can’t do anything, is a brave thing and a gift in itself. A long time ago, someone in the congregation had a sudden and tragic bereavement. Many people are uncomfortable in these circumstances and might not know what to say. I was so impressed to observe different people going up to this individual at coffee time after Sunday service and taking time just to be with them. Those trying to be supportive might have felt awkward or tongue-tied, but they made the effort to ensure this person knew that they were not alone.
When Jesus was in the garden of Gethsemane, he needed his friends to stay awake with him, as he struggled with the pain of what he was about to go through, in the chains of events that would to unfold in the following few hours. He wasn’t asking his friends to change what was going to happen; he just needed them to be present with him in his pain. We talk about Jesus being fully human and this is him at his most vulnerable, pleading with God to take the pain away and needing those he loved and trusted to support him.
For me, there is no tidy theological answer to suffering. I don’t believe in a God who sends things to test us, or uses disease as a way of improving character. Nor do I believe that bad things are all part of God’s plan for us. Life is beautiful and messy, full of pleasure and deep, deep pain. What I do believe is that we can be part of the healing process for one another, and the Holy Spirit can work through us in our loving presence with those who suffer.