As I stood at the door of the worship center after service last Sunday, a wonderful woman in our church asked me a question with a note of pain in her voice. The question was simple. How do you comfort someone who is suffering without being platitudinal or offering mere sentimentalities. This wonderful lady had family members who were in the midst of suffering and she longed to comfort them with something real.
As is often the case, after the sermon, I think of things I should have said or should have been more clear on because of a question. I had preached on Romans 8:18-25 which explains the statement that children of God must suffer with Christ in order that they might be glorified with him (v.17). The main way that Paul encourages Christians is by showing that suffering in this present life is worth it because we have a glorious future to look forward to. We suffer because the world is broken. The world is broken because man sinned and so God subjected the creation to futility, but he did it in hope that one day the creation would be set free and renewed to be able to house the glorified children of God (v.19-20).
So how do we comfort people who are suffering without offering empty words? What can we say when we see someone we love in pain or experiencing loss? This is the intersection of theology and life. This is why theology matters. Empty promises of "it will all be ok" or "you will get better" don't provide real comfort because there is uncertainty in them. Even as those words spill out of our mouths, we are acutely aware that we don't know if they are true. What if the person we are trying to comfort gets worse? What if the sickness doesn't go away? What if the marriage is never fixed? What if the child is not born alive? Theology gives us words to say that are not empty but full of God's truth and promises. Words that bring life and hope and joy, even in the midst of trial and suffering. Here are 5 suggestions for ways to comfort those who are suffering.
5 Comforts For Suffering
1. We comfort others by pointing them to God
God is called the God of all comfort and we are promised that he will comfort us in our affliction (2 Cor 1:3-4a). When we see promises in the Bible, we can trust them. God never fails in keeping his promises. He doesn't promise to take away our affliction. We need to be careful to not twist what God promises. Nowhere does God promise a life of ease and comfort for his followers. In fact he promises the opposite. The promises of God are that he has overcome the world and that he will never leave us or forsake us in this world in which we suffer. So, we can comfort others in their suffering by pointing them to God as their comforter with rock solid confidence that as they look to "the God of all comfort" he will comfort them in their affliction. He doesn't leave us but walks through suffering with us and we can run to him with a promise of comfort. Comfort those who are suffering by pointing them to God as the ultimate source of comfort.
2. We comfort others by sharing God's faithfulness in our lives
Notice what the second part of 2 Corinthians 1:4 says! God comforts us in our affliction in order that we might comfort others in every affliction with the comfort with which God comforted us. Don't miss what is happening there... God comforts us in our affliction so that we can comfort others by recounting God's faithfulness experienced in our own suffering as a way of pointing them back to "the God of all comfort". There is something powerful in sharing a personal story of how God has been faithful in comforting us in our affliction and God uses it to bolster the faith of another who is suffering and reminding them that God doesn't abandon his children. God uses us to encourage and comfort others! One of the ways God comforts us in our affliction is by bringing others into our lives who have experienced God's comfort in affliction. You can comfort someone by simply recounting God's comfort and faithfulness in your own affliction and calling them to lean into God. Comfort those who are suffering by sharing God's faithfulness in your life.
3. Suffering is temporary, glory is eternal
This is basically what Paul tells us in Romans 8:17-25. But he wasn't the only one. Peter says the same thing in 1 Peter 5:10. Notice that he says we have been called to "eternal glory" and that we suffer "for a little while". Paul calls suffering "light" and "momentary" (2 Cor 4:17). To be honest, suffering feels neither light nor momentary when we are walking through it, but that's where we need to be encouraged and comforted with the fact that we have a glorious future to look forward to beyond this world. This life is not the sum total of our eternity. Our experiences here will one day end. If we hope in this world, we will be disappointed because this world is broken by sin. We are called to hope in something better. Something eternal. We hope in a future inheritance that we wait for with patience (Rom 8:25). When we have the right perspective, we are enabled to see suffering for what it is and look forward with anticipation to the day when all we will have for eternity is glory and joy. Comfort those who are suffering by helping them have an eternal perspective.
4. When one suffers, we all suffer
The Christian life, including suffering, is not lived in isolation. Part of God's design is for us to walk through life together as believers. The local church is an important part of enduring suffering. We are called to bear one another's burdens (Gal 6:2). One of the ways you can comfort someone who is suffering is by walking through it with them. You will not be experiencing all of the pain they are, but you can be there with them as they do. You can weep with them (Rom 12:15), love them, serve them, bless them, pray for them, and just be with them. Sometimes you don't have to say anything. Sometimes it's best to say nothing and just be there, holding their hand, crying and silently praying for them. Don't underestimate the comfort brought be loving someone, serving someone, praying for someone and just being there with them. Comfort those who are suffering by walking through suffering with them.
5. Invite them into deeper enjoyment of God
I once heard someone say "no one ever experienced the deepest, most satisfying fellowship of God in the primrose path of ease. It’s always through suffering”. 1-4 above are really aimed at this one. Suffering is an opportunity to experience God and enjoy God in a way we would not have known without suffering. Suffering has a way of tearing down our false hopes. When all else is stripped away, all of our idols are torn down, we lose loved ones, we are struck with sickness, we lose a job, our spouse walks out on us, whatever it may be, we are reminded that there is one constant. God and his promises. Suffering is really a call to run to Jesus and enjoy him. It's a reminder that joy and fulfillment is truly only found in him. When the spouse walks away, he is there. When our health fails, he doesn't. When a loved one dies, he is still alive. C.H. Spurgon (who was acquainted with suffering) once said "I have learned to kiss the wave that crashes me against the rock of ages". Comfort those who are suffering by inviting them into deeper enjoyment of God through their suffering.
Jon is husband to Carlee, Papa to Finleigh and Ainsley, a pastor at Arbor Drive Community Church in York, Ne, and co-host of The Pastor Discussions Podcast