Sunday, February 10, 2013

When Comforting Others Seems Impossible

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort,who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.
Paul's opening statement in the Second Epistle to the Corinthians has long struck me as one of the most profound and humbling truths in all of Scripture.  In 2 Cor. 1:3-11, Paul explains that the suffering and affliction that he and Timothy had experienced while in Asia occurred for the purpose of teaching them how to better comfort other believers who go through similar afflictions.  God not only subjected Paul and Timothy to affliction, but He comforted them even more abundantly because of their experience.  The benefit of being brought through affliction to share in the spiritual comfort that comes through Christ is that the Christian is able to better empathize and serve his fellow Christians who are in the midst of their own suffering. 

That's a marvelous portion of Scripture, because it teaches the Christian to view their suffering not as a simple question of "why does God allow this bad thing to happen to me?" but a question of "how does God want me to use my suffering to comfort others who might be going through something similar?"  That's quite a revelation; it turns our focus away from ourselves and encourages us to start thinking about others.

On the other hand, the 2 Corinthians text does at least suggest that if God has not chosen to subject us to a particular form of suffering, then we may not be as qualified to comfort others as we might like to be.  Therefore, the experience of affliction becomes a prerequisite for us to learn how to better comfort others with the comfort that Christ first shows to us when we are in the position of the afflicted one.

That's a hard truth that frustrates me.

I don't have the personal experience to empathize fully with a widow who lost her husband young.  Neither can I fully identify with parents who have had to bury their own children, sometimes before those kids have even been born.  And thankfully, I don't yet know the pain of losing a parent.  But I have friends who live with all these burdens.

Another example has weighed heavily on my heart in recent days. This past week marked an important anniversary for people associated with Union University.  Tuesday February 5 was the five-year anniversary of the tornado that destroyed most of the old student dormitories but did not take the lives of any people on campus.  I graduated in 2005, which means I was already long gone when the storm came, but I had many dear friends who were still there when it happened.  I still remembered how terrified I was that night in my Louisville dorm seeing the reports of the devastation on the news and trying to decide if it was wise to try and call my friends in Jackson, TN to see if they were alright.

After all was accounted for, all of my friends were safe, but they were forever changed after that night.  They had experienced something terrible, a sensation of terror that I cannot even imagine.  I have marveled at the Union story for all five of these years.  There is even a strange sense within me that actually wishes I could have been there on campus that night so that I could have suffered in solidarity with my friends and know the depths of what they had to endure.  I wish I could have been there to help them in 2008, but I wasn't.  And I wish I could be better qualified to know how to best comfort them even to this day.  But that's impossible.  I wasn't there, and I can't understand the affliction (and the comfort) that those students and staff came to understand all too well.

I am humbled by the reality that I am unable to comfort my friends with the comfort that can only come from the people who were there and lived that night.  I experienced my fair share of storm warnings while at Union between 2001-2005, but I never lived through anything even comparable to "The Tornado."  And because of what I've seen at Union, I've since tried hard to prepare myself for a worst-case scenario whenever I endure storm warnings in Louisville.  None of this, however, makes me qualified to compare my experiences with my friends who saw the sights and sounds of February 5th.  I haven't warranted that sense of solidarity. And so I'm frustrated, because I know I am helpless to do what I want to do.  In a very real sense, I am incapable of bringing comfort to others.

But where our own strength might fail, the wisdom and mercy of God abounds all the more abundantly.  Thank God that there are other people who lived through that experience who cared for and continue to care for my friends.  Thank the Lord for the church families of all those folks who served the needs of their own.  Praise be to God that in the Body of Christ, there will always be someone who has undergone suffering so that they might be made more adept to bring comfort to others.

In my helplessness to comfort my friends as I would like, I can only offer my prayers to the Father of mercies and God of all comfort (to borrow the words of the 2 Corinthians passage once more).  And though I might lack the requisite understanding that comes through personal experience, I can pray the words of Philippians 4:7 that God might comfort my friends with "the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding."


  1. This is exactly how I have felt, both in relation to the UU tornado and the suffering of several dear friends in recent days. I am torn at times between wishing I had the experience to comfort others and fearing the experience of suffering myself. There is a sense of helplessness either way, but it drives me to do two things: 1) pray, and 2) help in practical ways whenever possible. While I am often not the person God provides to comfort my friends with the deep empathy of personal experience, many times I can—along with the whole community of believers—come around those who are suffering to be the body of Christ in other ways. It often falls short of the comfort I wish I could offer, but I do believe God works through my weakness nevertheless. Thanks for posting about this; it's something I've wrestled with a great deal, especially in the past couple of years.

    1. Kelly, thank you for taking the time to read my post and to share such encouraging thoughts of your own. I had wondered if I were the only Union alum to have such feelings about not suffering through the '08 Tornado with my friends, but it is good to know that others share my sentiments.

      It is a strange feeling to find oneself wistful that we might have the experience necessary to empathize with our hurting friends, but ultimately we just have to be thankful that God brings particular people through particular experiences so that He might use them and their experience for a particular purpose of His own choosing.

      Thank you again for sharing the two ways in which you handle the sorrow. All too often, my own sorrow can stifle my prayerfulness. But we have to trust God to be good and great even when we feel helpless. It is wonderful that in the Body of Christ (whether it be our own church or churches who remember us in prayer and support), we have diverse persons and experiences that can serve so many Kingdom needs!

      May God continue to bless and use you and your amazing family for His Kingdom needs!