What factors deepen and expand our ministry to hurting people?
Valid answers include a sound grasp of Bible knowledge, identification and exercise of our spiritual gift(s), and a willingness to sacrifice our convenience and time precisely when others most need help. But there’s one answer I’d put first: our own suffering.
Whether our affliction comes in the form of physical maladies, adverse circumstances outside of our control, or emotional anguish (such as major depression), our pain brims with the potential to serve others more effectively. The late pastor and author Ron Dunn went so far as to say, “Your greatest area of usefulness may stem from your greatest area of pain.”
Why is that the case? Suffering that does not make us bitter makes us better. It breaks our hearts, increasing our empathy with others who hurt. We’re more likely to show compassion when we’ve “been there, done that.”
Allow me to illustrate.
Examples of Pain’s Potential to Expand Our Ministry
While strolling alone on a beach near his home, the forlorn pastor considered suicide. He thought to himself, “I can’t take any more hard knocks. I can’t imagine how things will get any better.”
A worried friend of the pastor showed up at the beach, knowing that’s where the pastor went when he needed to sort things out. The friend didn’t condemn his depressed companion for lack of faith, or dish out superficial solutions. Instead, he walked alongside him for a long time, listened as the pastor vented, told him he loved him and prayed for him.
The friend’s presence incarnated God’s love and instilled hope within the distraught pastor. Here’s how the pastor described the effect: “Within minutes, my life started coming together again. I started thinking clearly for a change. A ray of hope burst through the dark clouds that had been hovering over me. I began seeing solutions to some of the things harassing me, and believed again that God would help me.”
What prompted the compassionate response of the pastor’s friend?
His own past experience with pain.
The comforter had gone through a rough patch in his life a couple of years before. He knew firsthand how downcast a person of faith could feel, and had experienced the sustaining power of God’s Spirit. He remembered how God had mobilized people in the body of Christ to reach out to him when his own future seemed hopeless. The comforter’s own brokenness had kept him from a self-righteous, judgmental attitude toward his hurting friend. Instead of offering glib, snap-out-of-it advice, his listening posture and heartfelt prayer lifted the rocks off his friend’s chest.
Joni Eareckson Tada has been a quadriplegic since a diving accident in her teens. God chose not to heal her body. Yet over the decades, she has written best selling books offering a sound theology of suffering, interspersed with stories from her life of God’s sustenance. She has shared the gospel of Christ in speaking engagements all over the globe. She founded Joni and Friends, an organization that provides support and resources for disabled persons and their caregivers. Her organization also trains local church leaders on ways to care for the disabled within their own community. Her ministry to needy people isn’t huge in spite of her disability, but because of it. In her case, God has received more glory by redeeming her pain, rather than by eradicating it.
Few people encounter trials as severe as those experienced by the Apostle Paul. (For a litany of his persecutions and adverse circumstances while traveling to spread the gospel, read 2 Corinthians 11:23-28.) His words in 2 Corinthians 1:3-11 reveal, in general terms, a specific instance of persecution and the devastating effects on his spirit: “We were burdened excessively, beyond our strength, so that we despaired even of life” (vs. 8).
Yet in the same text, he cited positive outcomes of his suffering. He and his team members were better able to “comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (vs. 4). Paul went on to say, “If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort…or if we are comforted, it is for your comfort” (vs. 6). Not only did his own pain wean him from self-sufficiency and deepen his trust in the Lord (vs. 8-9), but it also had the horizontal effect of softening his heart toward others who suffered.
These stories, and my own experiences, reveal four reasons why sufferers make the best comforters:
- They know what it is like to hurt grievously.
- They receive some form of God’s comfort, whether from His Word, through prayer, and/or through others in the body of Christ.
- Their own brokenness softens their heart toward others who suffer.
- Those who hurt are more receptive to the help offered by individuals who can identify with their pain.
I’m not saying that we cannot comfort others if we have never suffered grievously. Yet I am advocating the idea that our own broken-world experiences multiply our potential to do so.
Allow me a caveat. In all the cases I’ve cited (the pastor’s friend, Joni, and Paul), there is a crucial element besides suffering. It’s the gracious intervention and divine comfort the Lord provides. Just identifying with others’ pain doesn’t help them. But if they see and hear how the Lord has enabled us through Scripture, through other believers, and through our own heartfelt prayers, hope begins to flicker within them. They see, in and through us, that a life of usefulness, even joy, is possible despite the pain. We’re in the same boat they are in when it comes to the inevitability of suffering, yet we have a paddle. They may see us as weak, like them, but they also see that the Christ we lean on is strong and is also there for them.
Applications for Our Ministry of Comfort
What are two logical responses to this insight?
First, it should alter how we pray. Whether our suffering is physical, emotional, or circumstantial, we have every right as God’s child to plead for Him to alleviate the pain, or to resolve the worrisome dilemma. Yet let’s add a new element of prayer as well. Let our prayers include words similar to these: “Lord, please don’t waste this pain. Redeem this affliction for Your glory, and for my good. Also, use it to increase my compassion for others who hurt, so I can pass along the grace I’ve received from You and from others. In the name of One who suffered not for Himself, but for others. Amen.”
Second, this perspective should inform what we verbally share with people. Think of one problem or form of affliction you have experienced in recent years. Perhaps it is a trial you are still going through. Then mull over these questions in an unhurried fashion.
As an outcome of this pain, how has the Lord become more real and personal to you?
How did He intervene, or act to assist you?
How did He employ others in the body of Christ to minister to you during the affliction?
What did you learn from the painful experience, spiritually-speaking?
How did it deepen or solidify your faith in the Lord?
Your answers to those questions can become content for some form of personal testimony. If you’re a member of a small group or Sunday School class, ask for a few minutes to share your story and how you experienced God’s grace in the midst of your pain. If you teach or preach, when it is relevant to the Bible passage or topic you are covering, share your story as an illustration of God’s sustenance or intervention. If you meet with a person who’s hurting, allow your own experience to make you a better listener and intercessor on the person’s behalf. After you listen well, if you believe your story will extend hope to this hurting person, share it gently and warmly.
Every time the Lord comforts you, ask Him for opportunities to give away what you’ve received. Stuart Briscoe’s words from a 1972 message I heard in person keep nudging me to action, 48 years later: “God never teaches us or comforts us solely for our own benefit.”
Yet if you want the Lord to make you a better encourager or comforter, don’t take your request to Him lightly. A broken heart may be part of His answer. Do you really want to be a better comforter?
**I gleaned part of this post from a “Faith Lesson” I wrote for Part 2 the book, Oh God, I’m Dying: How God Redeems Pain for Our Good and for His Glory. This book tells the story of Dr. Mark Smith, President of Columbia International University. Morgan James Publishers will release the book for public sale later this year.