What she just needs to do,” I said dismissively to a church leader, “is start reading her Bible and go deeper in prayer.”
I thought this was good advice. I was a young pastor-in-training, with a freshly minted Bible college degree, but not a whole lot of experience, you know, actually suffering. Sure, I had lost my starting position on the high school basketball team my senior year, experienced rejection by a girl, and had a minor car accident—but had I endured any kind of soul-crushing suffering? The kind that brings even the most devout followers of Jesus to their knees?
I hadn’t. And yet that didn’t keep me from judging those who did endure. Like Job’s friends, I was quick to the bedside of the spiritually ill, handing out quick-fix prescriptions of Bible reading and prayer. Only I didn’t realize my folly until many years later, when it was my own knees buckling in fear, when everything in my world crashed around me and I was searching for the tiniest threads of faith.
Comfort, I learned, is not a five-step process and it doesn’t come quickly … or easily.
A. W. Tozer famously said, “It is doubtful whether God can bless a man greatly until He has hurt him deeply.” Maybe this is what Paul was referring to when he told the believers at Corinth that God uses the comfort we receive in times of trial to comfort others (2 Cor 1:4). Comfort, I learned, is not a five-step process and it doesn’t come quickly … or easily. Read the Psalms and hear the lament of men like David who longed for God to come near, to hear the pain, to usher in hope. Hear the wails of Job, the most righteous man on earth, as he scratches around for some fragment of faith. Or Jeremiah, the weeping prophet. Or Isaiah, a man of woe.
This isn’t to say that spiritual friendship doesn’t mean applying Scripture and encouraging the act of prayer. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t point people to the hope of their resurrected Lord. But genuine, Christ-like empathy doesn’t push people through a spiritual assembly line. Instead, it drips with grace, is spoken through tears, and comes wrapped in the patient presence of brotherly (or sisterly) love.
Consider David’s description of the comfort he found in God. The Good Shepherd doesn’t drive His sheep through the valley of the shadow of death. He is present, walking us through (Ps. 23:4). There is no shortcut to glory—only a faithful Guide.
Genuine, Christ-like empathy doesn’t push people through a spiritual assembly line.
I suspect we offer quick fixes because we’ve not fully entered into the suffering of others—perhaps we’ve not even entered into our own. James reminds us that perseverance has a perfecting effect, if only we allow it (James 1:4). And so it is with the way we are called to bear the suffering of others. What our brothers and sisters need is not our platitudes but our presence. It’s a presence inspired by the Spirit of God, that winsomely applies Scripture and prayer as a salve, not a cudgel.
This kind of empathy takes skill. It’s not learned in the ivory tower of seminary, but in the crucible of life. God handcrafts for us our own kind of suffering, the patient gardener pruning us for spiritual fruit.
This is how the Spirit does His best work, shaping us into the likeness of Christ. It’s a sanctifying, purifying fire, renewing us into masterpieces—vessels fit for the Master’s use. Fit for body life, able to dispense grace to those who suffer. In a broken, fractured world entangled by sin and subject to the curse, we become healers, bringing the kingdom near to those who seek.
That younger version of me was like a tart and unripe fruit picked prematurely from the vine. Full of knowledge, but void of wisdom; armed with truth, lacking grace. But God in His sanctifying mercy is slowly making me what He wants me to be—one difficult season at a time.