Pain plays an important part in our survival. Physical pain is effective because it forces us to stop other activities and pay attention to the reason for the pain, before it begins to seriously affect something else.
Pain is also important in the spiritual realm. There are cries of pain from the Body of Christ. The unemployed, the divorced, the widowed, the bedridden, the sick, the lonely, the grieving, the aged, all experience suffering.
What do we do when we hear those cries? Do we ignore them? Or, like physical pain in the body, do we pay attention to those cries and help bring healing to the Body?
The word for comfort in the New Testament is paraclesis. It is the same root word as the name Jesus used to describe one of the purposes of the Holy Spirit (paraclete). Paul believed that as the Comforter is at work within us, so we also can be of comfort to those around us.
We are called to bear one another's burdens. But how?
I recently heard someone say, 'I want to help when my friends are hurting, but I freeze up because I don't know how. So I withdraw, and then I feel guilty because I feel I've let them down.'
I think a lot of people share this experience.
There is very little we can do or say to fix people's problems or change the circumstances that have caused suffering. But there are specific things we can do that will help them process suffering more effectively, and be the pain network God has called us to be.
So how can we comfort a hurting friend?
1. Offer the ministry of presence
I often walk into a hospital room or a living room after a tragedy and wonder, 'What can I say right now? What can I do to ease their suffering?'
After years of pondering, I have come to the conclusion that there are no words. I cannot reverse what has happened in their lives. The most significant thing I can do to bring comfort is not to say anything at all, but just be there.
This is the ministry of presence. Just to be present in the room with people who are hurting is an act of grace. Very often they do not want you to say anything other than, 'I care about you. I am hurting for you. I am crying with you.'
There have been times I have been in the living room with families after a crisis and one person just keeps talking and talking. They think talking will make it better, but it usually makes it worse. Sometimes less is more. The ministry of presence is just being there.
Remember, we cannot fix problems. God is the healer. God brings the restoration. We are not God, but we can be his agents of comfort and encouragement. When God wants to hug someone, he sends one of his followers to put his arms around them.
2. Practice simple acts of kindness
People who are suffering are usually under enormous stress. Normal routines like preparing meals and running errands suddenly seem like heavy burdens.
One of the men in our church became ill with cancer. Another man in the church wanted to help. So he took off work, hauled his lawn mower over to the sick man's house, and mowed his yard. He didn't ask for permission to do it or thanks when he was done. He just did it. The wife of the sick man later said it was an unbelievable relief and burden lifted for her.
I heard of another lady who called a friend when her husband was going through medical treatments. She said, 'I'm coming over to your house, but I don't expect you to entertain me. Please have all your dirty clothes in a bag next to the front step. I'm going to do your laundry for you until this illness has passed.'
You cannot know what that feels like, unless you have been there. It is like a balm to a hurting heart. The cards and letters, the flowers, and the meals become an opportunity to help those who are hurting.
3. Let them vent
Most of the time hurting people just need to talk it out with a trusted friend who will really hear them without censoring or lecturing them for outbursts of anger and frustration. You do not have to say very much at all. You do not need to have all the answers.
Grieving is the human response to suffering. And while it is a process with a degree of predictability, it is never easy.
Remember, hurting people are touchy people. Whether wounded in body or spirit, hurting people are living on the raw edge. They are capable of lashing out angrily even at those closest to them. These outbursts are usually disguised in the form of 'why' questions:
- Why is this happening?
- Why has God allowed this?
- What have I done to deserve this?
Those are dangerous questions to try to answer, because rarely is there an obvious, honest answer. Trying to answer the questions will often lead to more confusion. Most of the time the questions are simply cries of pain, not serious invitations to abstract theological discussions. People do not need lectures on the meaning of suffering when their hearts are breaking.
Job could have done without some of the pious answers that came from his well-meaning friends. He needed their love, not their value judgments. In fact, it appears as if God judged them for trying to offer simplistic solutions to realities that were beyond their comprehension.
Don't try to answer 'why' questions when friends are grieving. Just let them vent.
4. Walk with them through their grief
Remember to follow through when the crowds go away. After a crisis, people might call the hurting persons for several weeks. Then after everything dies down, they feel like the whole world has forgotten them.
Sometimes people are afraid to ask questions after the crisis for fear they may open up old wounds. However, questions can be very healing. Hurting people feel like they are not allowed to talk about their deceased loved one or their difficult situations, but what they need to talk about the most is the pain.
In suffering, there are many mysteries we cannot understand. But there is one that we can: The weight of a heartbreak shared with a loving friend is cut in half. When the burden is shared with many friends, we can cope with almost anything. We never feel more revitalized than when a friend loves us enough to walk with us in our pain.
Sometimes God intervenes with direct miracles, giving supernatural strength to those in need. But for the most part, he relies on his people to do his work. The apostle Paul wrote these words to the church in Corinth, 'Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God' (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).
The next time you find yourself in a difficult place, searching for comfort and wondering where God is, look around you and find His warm embrace in the Body of Christ. The next time you see a friend who is suffering, God may invite you to be the warm embrace!
David Busic is president of Nazarene Theological Seminary in Kansas City, and has a long history dealing with hurting people through his ministerial career.
Holiness Today, Mar/Apr 2011