Before many of Jesus’ miracles—healing sick crowds, feeding the five thousand, restoring the sight of blind people, curing lepers, and raising a woman’s son from the dead—Scripture tells us He was “moved with compassion.” Familiar with human struggles, The Lord empathized with others and acted on their behalf. He both perfectly understood and was perfectly moved. If only the same could be said of us.
A few weeks ago, I was catching up with a friend, and she began lamenting her current troubles, which have been current troubles for years. Her situation is no less heartbreaking now than it was in the beginning, but on that particular evening I couldn’t summon the grace to comfort her. Tired and empty, I sat mostly in silence, adding nods here and there. On one hand, it seemed the best I could do in the moment, but on the other, I felt like a fraud pretending to care.
We can’t fully understand the suffering of our friends and family, and we’re certainly not always moved by their pain. In those instances, sometimes all we can do, according to Dr. Stanley, is say, “You know, I don’t fully understand all you’re going through, but I am willing to listen if you want to just get it off your chest. All of us can do what Jesus is doing for us—and the truth is, [we] don’t have a choice. If I’m going to be a follower of Jesus, He says I’m to comfort others.”
When we lack true understanding, it can feel disingenuous to go through the motions of comforting another person. But Jesus still calls us to offer compassion.
When we lack true understanding, it can feel disingenuous to go through the motions of comforting another person. But Jesus still calls us to offer compassion. The thing is, when Christlikeness is evident in our life, it’s because of Him in the first place: “The one who remains in Me, and I in him bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Godly behavior isn’t something we manufacture or perform; rather, it’s the result of staying close to the Lord. Perhaps that gap between His call to comfort and our inability to empathize leaves room for the Holy Spirit to do what we cannot. The key is to show up and be watchful for cues from the One “who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Cor. 1:4).
I recently discovered that one name for the Holy Spirit—Paraclete—and the Greek word for comfort share the same root. I wonder whether that evening would have gone differently if I’d pictured my role as my friend’s comforter more like the Holy Spirit’s ministry to me. The prefix para means “close beside,” and that has always been my overwhelming impression of the Spirit: His nearness and relentless withness. If this is how the Holy Spirit consoles me, can I console my friend by simply being close—even when I’m only going through the motions?
The Lord empathized with others and acted on their behalf. He both perfectly understood and was perfectly moved. If only the same could be said of us.
Author Parker J. Palmer writes, “The human soul doesn’t want to be advised or fixed or saved. It simply wants to be witnessed—to be seen, heard and companioned exactly as it is. When we make that kind of deep bow to the soul of a suffering person, our respect reinforces the soul’s healing resources, the only resources that can help the sufferer make it through.” If Palmer is right—that above all else people need to be seen and heard—then perhaps on those days when we fail to be moved, the ultimate Healer witnesses alongside us. Maybe what I perceived as a failure to help my friend with her problems was a great comfort because she was seen and heard—by her friend and the Holy Spirit.
The notion of being seen reminds me of God’s conversation with Hagar. Rather than face her mistress’s wrath, Hagar fled into the wilderness—pregnant, alone, and scared. The Lord asks where she has come from and where she’s going, knowing the answers before she speaks but inviting her to air her anguish anyway. At the end of their exchange, Hagar says, “You are a God who sees me” (Gen. 16:13). Then she returns to her mistress’s household to give birth to Ishmael—not because her situation had changed but because the Lord heard her affliction (Gen. 16:11).
It has been God’s nature to witness and “companion” our suffering since long before He sent His Son to earth—and long before the Holy Spirit began to comfort believers in Jesus’ absence. As God’s children, we can bless others by following His example, tending to them with our presence, no matter how ill-equipped we feel.