Reading 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).
God 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.