When Your Spouse is Suffering

By Dave Harvey

The call to plant churches includes a call to suffering. But what does this mean for our spouses? Amid hardship and heartache, how do we lead our spouses toward the God of all comfort? Here are 4 ways to navigate suffering in your household.

A Call to Suffer

We need to talk about a difficult topic because the call to plant a church is a call to suffer. And neither husband nor wife are exempt from this. And while suffering can be among the hardest things about ministry, seeing your spouse suffer is always one of the hardest things about marriage. Because when your spouse is cut, you bleed. Whether it’s physical suffering, whether it’s emotional torment, family drama, grief, depression, trauma, or character assassination from those inside or outside the church, there’s no question about it. When our spouse is afflicted, we both suffer.

And you get this because you probably recall a situation that’s happened in your life. Maybe, pastor, your wife went to the doctor, and the diagnosis was much worse than you ever expected. You cryied out with the question, “Lord, what do I say? How do I help her?” Or, pastor’s wife, you remember the dear friend of your husband. You know, the guy who was part of the church-planting core team. Your husband trusted him. He felt safe and understood around this guy. They talked theology and college basketball and dreamed of taking the city for Jesus. And then, there was the offense. Whatever it was grew wild and swallowed the relationship. And you recollect how your husband was informed by email that this guy was leaving the church. Your husband sat in the other room with his head in his hands, and you just didn’t know what to say.

So, my question is how do you offer hope when your spouse is grasping for meaning, battling against cynicism, fighting for their health, or maybe even fighting for their life? When our spouse is suffering, what should we do? Here are a few thoughts that I trust will help you.

1. Listen Well

One of the things that’s common about suffering people is that suffering people feel alone. Sometimes, they believe no one can understand how they are feeling or what they’re truly experiencing. Or in marriage, sometimes the spouse assumes that because we know each other so well, that we know exactly how our spouse is doing or feeling. But when it comes to a suffering spouse, I don’t think we can improve upon James’ approach, where he says, “…be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger…” (James 1:19).

So, take a breath, sit down, and listen well. Job’s three friends were absolutely brilliant until they opened their mouths. And if you’re a fixer, this is really important because you’re always going to be tempted to immediately get in there and fix the problem. Don’t do it. Remember, when suffering lands upon your spouse, it’s not about the poetry of your words; it’s about the comfort of your presence.

2. Trust God to Use You

Have you ever just felt like you were inadequate to help your spouse? I mean, I think we can all relate to that. But I want you to just listen to something that Paul said. He said, “He comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any kind of affliction, through the comfort we ourselves receive from God” (2 Corinthians 1:4). Paul was saying that God makes us capable to comfort others by sharing with others the way God comforted us in affliction. Maybe you’re feeling unqualified. The situation is so complicated. It’s so complex. Well, Paul said those words to the Corinthians, the most confused church, the church voted least likely to comfort well in the entire New Testament. And if God can expect the Corinthians to help others when they suffer, I think He can use us as well.

So, when your spouse suffers, just assume that God has placed you on the front lines of their comfort and trust God to use you in that role.

3. Return Them to God’s Providence

Recognize that the goodness of God in particular is almost always targeted in suffering. The enemy, the flesh, the world—they all want to separate your spouse from a confidence in God’s control, a confidence in the goodness of God. I think of Hebrew 11 where the writer says, “Now without faith it is impossible to please God, since the one who draws near to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Hebrews 11:6). Keep in mind that when your spouse suffers, believing that God exists is helpful but not enough. They need to see a Rewarder of those who seek Him. That’s why Joseph’s words to his brothers in Genesis 50 can be so surgical, so sweet: “You planned evil against me; God planned it for good” (Genesis 50:20).

In other words, in whatever affliction your spouse is experiencing, God is at work for good. God is at work to reward. Don’t succumb to the pattern of painting God as if He’s passively ruling the cosmos in a way in which bad things sometimes just get out in front of Him and He’s got to allow it. No, that’s not God. And suffering spouses don’t need that God. They need a big God. They need the God of the Bible, and they need to hear about Him from us. So, escort them back to the providence of God.

4. Share God’s Story.

God’s story touches on our suffering in the person of Jesus Christ. God sent His Son to ensure that His people would experience His mercy, as well as an indestructible comfort in very personal and tangible ways. We need to remember that God could have resolved the problem of sin without addressing the ways that this touches on our daily lives. But He loves us too much for that. Remember, our Savior was accused. He was shamed. He was crucified. He was divinely forsaken on the cross. And all comfort was removed from Christ, so that we might be comforted and be able to then comfort one another.

Not long ago, I was talking to a planter who was suffering with depression, and I listened and asked some questions. I urged him to get a physical, consult a doctor. But I also tried to remind him about the Savior that he so effectively proclaims, and I wanted him to remember the gospel because I think there is this primal need among sufferers to hear Christ’s story; to know that Jesus has been there, that Jesus knows how we feel, that He is near to us, and that He has a plan for us. When the floods of distress and anxiety overwhelm us, sharing God’s story can keep us roped to a harbor instead of floating adrift without any rudder at all.

The God of All Comfort

If you’re planting a church, you will suffer. Your spouse will suffer. I wish it were not true, but God will amaze you in what He does in and through your experience of suffering, as well as what He does in and through your spouse’s experience of suffering. And He will delight you by using you to comfort your spouse in a way that draws you closer together and closer to the God of all comfort.

Published November 15, 2023

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Dave Harvey

Dave Harvey (D. Min – Westminster Theological Seminary) serves as the president of Great Commission Collective, a church planting ministry in the US, Canada, and abroad. Dave pastored for 33 years, founded AmICalled.com, and travels widely across networks and denominations as a popular conference speaker. He is the author of When Sinners Say “I Do”Am I Called, Rescuing Ambition, I Still Do! Growing Closer and Stronger Through Life’s Defining Moments, The Plurality Principle: How To Build and Maintain a Thriving Church Leadership Team, and Stronger Together: Seven Partnership Virtues and the Vices That Subvert Them. Dave and his wife, Kimm, live in southwest Florida. For videos or articles, visit revdaveharvey.com