Monthly Archives: March 2013

Comforting those in Affliction – #7 in a series on suffering

TulipsReading recently about the persecution many Christians suffer, I was struck by how lonely they must be. How do they endure being isolated in dark cells, tortured or locked in shipping containers? Fortunately, in many cases persecuted Christians testify to having an unusual sense of God’s presence.

Ultimately, the Holy Spirit is the great comforter—and He can comfort us either directly or indirectly through the Scriptures. We should not, however, discount the role we are to play as agents of the Spirit. When we reel in unbelief from a terrible diagnosis or when we are discouraged, sick, disappointed, feeling like failures, or doubt our own worth the Holy Spirit most often uses other Christians to encourage us.

During the frightening period when Assyria threatened to destroy Israel, God urged Isaiah, “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem“(Is. 40:1,2).

NarcissusGod urges New Testament believers to comfort and encourage one another. Suffering, whether physical or emotional, saps our energy and reduces our resistance to discouragement and temptation. No wonder Paul sent Tychicus to Colossae that “he may encourage your hearts“(Col. 4:8). And to the Thessalonians he wrote, “Therefore encourage each other with these words [words about the certain return of Christ]“(1 Thess. 4:18). The author of Hebrews in warning believers about the danger of slipping away from the faith urged them to, “Encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness”(Heb. 3:13). “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds….let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching“(Heb. 10:24,25).

I have been so often blessed by words of encouragement that I keep an Encouragement File. I haven’t always seen the importance of encouraging others, brought up as I was by a father who had himself been taught to “keep a stiff upper lip,” and “good work is its own reward.” I appreciate the good qualities of my dad, but looking back I can see how my mother often suffered without receiving much comfort.

We shouldn’t be reticent about encouraging others for a job well done, a good article we read, or a Sunday School class well taught. Nor should we be negligent in comforting those who need comfort.

How we comfort others, however, is important. We shouldn’t tell someone that we understand their trial if we haven’t faced similar afflictions. In 2 Corinthians we are taught that one of the purposes of our own suffering is to learn how to comfort others. “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 Cor. 1:3,4). No one can comfort one suffering cancer, like one who has gone through it. No one can comfort a lonely divorceé like one who has suffered a messy divorce. No one can comfort a bereaved father like someone who has lost a child. Have we learned from our own experiences about the kind of comfort we appreciated?

Another thing we should not do is quote Romans 8:28 to remind a person that all things work together for good. Nor should be inform them piously that God must be teaching them something, or they must be very special to have such a severe trial. In the midst of pain and anguish, people don’t need to be reminded what they may know to be true when their mind is clearer but can’t feel at the moment. In the midst of pain they may feel abandonment, puzzlement, grief. Such words fall like icicles on tender hearts, hearts that need warm words of love.

In Greek the Holy Spirit is called the paraclete, meaning the one who comes alongside. How instructive to learn from the divine Comforter, that sometimes the best way to help the afflicted is just to quietly come alongside to listen. While we may not be able to say, we understand, we can offer a hug, bring a meal, or pray for the person. We may want to send a card. We can ask if there is anything practical we can do? Cut the grass. Pick up groceries. Clean house. They need to know we care.

The pain words can inflict – #6 in a series on suffering.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs we continue our series on the causes of suffering, consider the terrible effect hurtful words have on our emotional health. Too often we inflict pain on each other in the daily ebb and flo our lives together in families, communities, and at work.

A slightly overweight and suicidal girl walks home from school after another day of verbal bullying. A husband drops into a bar to postpone the open warfare that breaks out every time he comes home. A high school student cringes when his father asks him why he didn’t get straight ‘A’s’ on his report card. A woman shrivels under the stream of criticism flowing from her husband. An orphan, finding no love or comfort, cries himself to sleep in the third home he’s been shunted to in a year.

The childhood taunt is not true; Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me. Words: stupid, loser, fatty, you did it again, why do you always…, why can’t you be like…, it’s your own fault…, and the like, sting like an asp. Verbal poison comes in an almost infinite variety but all such toxins create emotional pain. The pain manifests itself in many ways: sadness, discouragement, despair, hopelessness, depression, frustration, anger, bitterness, resentment, or jealousy.

In terrible physicaOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAl pain and anguish, Job cried out for comfort and understanding. But instead of comfort, his three friends urged him to admit his sins and repent. They held a mistaken belief that suffering and misfortune is caused by the sin of the sufferer. How ignorant they were of the reality that accidents, illness, and misfortune are the common lot of all mankind. Some of the greatest saints endured inordinate suffering: Jeremiah, David, Paul, not to mention Jesus, Himself.

Because of their faulty theology, instead of offering understanding and sympathy, Job’s three friends added immeasurably to his pain through their words. After listening to their soliloquies, Job cried, “miserable comforters are you all” (Job 16:2). At the end of the story God spoke, “to Eliphaz the Temanite, ‘I am angry with you and your friends, because you have not spoken to me what is right, as my servant Job has…My servant Job will pray for you”(Job 42:7,8).

David had a similar experience. In both Psalm 41 and Psalm 88 he laments the whispers and betrayal of his friends.

What do sad and worried people need? “An anxious heart weighs a man down, but a kind word cheers him up”(Prov. 12:25). “A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver”(Prov. 25:11). Imagine the effect on a depressed or insecure person of a word of commendation or encouragement.

Words can uplift and edify. “Do not let any unwholesome talk Narcissuscome out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen”(Eph. 4:29). Christian love calls us to use our tongues in constructive ways.

There may be times when words of correction, even condemnation are needed. But they are rare. Most often people need understanding and affirmation much more than they need criticism. Let’s leave judgment to God while we offer consolation, encouragement, and hope. In the next blog I’ll look more fully at the ministry of encouragement.

Handling Interruptions

Sometimes I wonder if I’m too bound by to-do-lists. Every morning I make a list of tasks in my diary and take great pleasure at the end of the day in being able to cross them off. Some days my lists are unreasonably long. A good day is a day with little left undone. Ah, the sense of satisfaction! The feeling of accomplishment!

I’m not talking about Mary Helen’s honey-do-list: cleaning the garage, vacuuming the car, painting the cellar stairs, or getting rid of two decades of useless files. No, no, I’m talking about substantial tasks like finishing a chapter in a new novel, figuring out how to use Twitter to network, or add a page to my web site. Okay, I admit, I need to pay attention to her list too.Country Road,Frost

But whatever lists we make, invariably interruptions interfere. A snowstorm hits the area and travel plans are shelved. Or a toothache sends me to the dentist. The car needs servicing. In fact, a debilitating cold with all the miserable symptoms has laid me low for days and seriously delayed this blog.

We’ve all noticed that life is messy. It is irregular. It is unpredictable and disorderly. It keeps slopping over the boundaries of our carefully prepared plans. As Robbie Burns was wont to say: The best laid plans o mice and men gang aft aglee. In retirement, we at least have the luxury of adjusting our plans without our paycheck being docked. Salaried workers have a greater challenge than those of us in the grey generation.

How do we handle unpredictability? Since life is so full of it, maturity must include the ability to deal with interruptions without undue frustration. The apostle Paul wrote; “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances”(Phil. 4:11). His equanimity is quite incredible, given that Paul was beaten, shipwrecked, hungry, imprisoned, stoned, misunderstood and lied about.

My interruptions are minor compared to his. But the fact that Paul learned how to cope with terrible circumstances does give me hope. We can learn to accept interruptions if we tap into the resources Paul enjoyed. He knew the universe was not in the hands of blind fate. He had an unshakeable confidence that all things work together for good, because the Lord God is seated on the throne of the universe, and that God’s grace is sufficient for every trial.

Obviously, I have a long, long way to go if I would develop the kind of flexibility, freedom from irritability and trust in God’s plan that Paul modeled.