Broken to Comfort the Broken
On a warm August morning, April and her husband loaded their boys in the SUV for a week of camping in the Sierras. Halfway there, April unsnapped her shoulder harness and leaned over the seat to open the cooler. At that moment, an oncoming car suddenly crossed in front of their vehicle to turn into a rest area. There was no time to brake. Their SUV slammed into the car, injuring the elderly driver and killing his passenger. April was thrown against the dashboard, the impact snapping her neck.
That was fifteen years ago. When I met April, she was slumped in her wheelchair, a quadriplegic sitting in occupational therapy and weeping woefully. Her therapist’s advice seemed to be falling on deaf ears. So I parked my wheelchair next to her, and I cried too.
My tears flowed from the bowels of a fellow sufferer. I knew firsthand the horrors April was facing, and I silently pleaded, O God, how will this young mother ever make it? How can I comfort her? April had reason to cry. Within two years, her husband would leave her, plummeting her into a custody battle that only made life more unbearable.
Broken Vessels of a Broken Savior
In times like these, God insists we pass on his comfort. In 2 Corinthians 1:3–4, Paul writes,
Blessed be the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.
Notice that it’s his comfort, not ours, for he is the “God of all comfort.” If it were left to us, we might feel bad for someone like April, but God goes further. Here, he calls himself the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, because his consolations are borne out of his own suffering. Compassionate fathers are always devastated by the gut-wrenching suffering of their sons.
The man of sorrows is the bread of life, torn and broken for the nourishment of people like April. And since we are his body, he intends that we pass on his encouragement through our own brokenness. To do anything less is simply to feel bad.
How Christ Comforts
William Arnot writes, “When I weep, [Christ] enters by the openings which grief has made into my heart, and gently makes it all his own” (Roots and Fruits of the Christian Life, 234–35). And when Christ enters with his comfort, he turns our suffering inside out, raising sad spirits, inflating collapsed hearts, and bolstering weak wills with his perseverance and hope. It is the nature of Christ’s comfort not only to feel sympathy, but to redeem.
He brings about a sweeter intimacy with himself, helping us to even “rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings” (1 Peter 4:13). Oneness with the Lord in suffering makes us brave and courageous — so courageous that we can minister even to a young, despondent mother with a broken neck.
Becoming His Agents
When we are the recipients of God’s fatherly consolations, we become the means for his love to strengthen others in their suffering. And the good news? You do not have to be a quadriplegic to effectively comfort someone like April; God’s succor is so intuitive that you are “able to comfort those who are in any affliction” (2 Corinthians 1:4). So, just how does our suffering enable us to better comfort those who hurt?
We comfort others through intercession. When you intercede for others out of your own suffering, you bend the ear of the Lord who delights to “hear the desire of the afflicted” (Psalm 10:17). When we pray, as sufferers, for fellow sufferers, we pray with greater insight, and specificity, and perhaps more earnestness. I can imagine our Advocate, cupping his ear and marveling, This petitioner means business; he has suffered well and knows of what he speaks.
How helpful might such forged-through-the-fire prayers be when pleading for others who suffer, knowing that “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood [such as tragic accidents, quadriplegia, and divorce], but against . . . the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12)? People like April are susceptible to lies from the enemy, but they are kept from falling through the prayers of a suffering saint (Luke 22:31–32).
We comfort others through his word. When I broke my neck, God introduced me to a suffering believer who focused my attention entirely on God’s promises. I was amazed how those promises had sustained him, and so I took seriously Psalm 119:50: “This is my comfort in my affliction, that your promise gives me life.” As he walked me through one Bible promise after the next, I developed a clearer sight of God. My afflictions did not go away, but I gained God’s courage.
I passed the same thing on to April. But I never said to her, “Here — welcome this trial as a friend; come on, rejoice in your suffering!” Giving God’s comfort is not like slapping a pint of life-giving blood on the counter and saying, “Here, believe this; it’ll do you good.” Instead, you hook up your spiritual veins to that hurting one so that God can infuse his comforting truth through your own pain, as well as through your presence.
THE BIGGER PICTURE
We comfort others with the bigger picture. Joseph, who suffered through betrayal, slavery, and imprisonment, had the big picture when he said to his wicked brothers, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive” (Genesis 50:20). Think of the times you survived your own suffering: Didn’t your perseverance convince others of the saving power of God? Paul meant exactly this in 2 Corinthians 1:6: “If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation.”
April came to see how her life was a stage on which God was acting out his grace, all for the benefit of an audience far beyond mere observers in this world (Ephesians 3:10). Seeing how high the cosmic stakes were invigorated her faith.
Help Make Them Brave
April’s transformation was shaped by the suffering of others. Their afflictions gave credence to every prayer offered on her behalf, as well as every word spoken. When you survive suffering, you are God’s best conduit through which he restores others, for, as J.R. Miller writes, “That is the way Christ comforts. He does not merely sit down beside troubled ones and enter into their experiences. He does sympathize with them — but it is that he may make them strong to endure” (Things to Live For, 192).
Two weeks ago (as I write this), April passed away from complications connected to her disability. At her funeral, after the last person spoke, I wheeled up front, and said, nearly in tears, “Knowing firsthand what April had to go through every morning just to sit up in her wheelchair . . . well, it comforts me even now in my own affliction. Her simple act of facing the day inspires me to do the same.” That morning, I venture to say my hard-fought-for confession comforted many in the congregation.
And so, comfort received in suffering is passed on. Whether you’ve struggled through a broken ankle, home, or neck, you may not sit on the sidelines, resting on the comfort God once imparted when you were at your lowest. You have received God’s consolations, and as such, more is expected of you. Your next go-round with affliction will be God’s tap on your shoulder to find those who are hurting more than you, so that you can enable them to deal with their sorrow. Help make them brave.
It’s what broken people do with broken Bread.