One of the recurring questions we hear when we consider life’s realities concerns pain and suffering. Why do bad things happen to good people? Why is there so much suffering in the world? Countless books have been written on the subject, suggesting many possible answers. But the problem remains.
I certainly don’t have any definitive answers or solutions, but I think we find one of the reasons at the opening of one of the apostle Paul’s New Testament letters. He wrote:
“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, 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. For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows” (2 Corinthians 1:3-5).
The passage goes on to explain how we can both share in one another’s sufferings and in the comfort we experience as we go through them. We dare not underestimate the importance and power of being able to comfort others with the comfort we have received while going through similar trials.
A year after undergoing open-heart surgery in 2006, when I returned to the hospital to celebrate my “anniversary,” someone asked if I would consider becoming a “cardiac volunteer.” I would visit with patients who recently had also undergone open-heart surgery. I agreed to do so, and for about five years I dedicated one evening a week talking with folks who had gone through procedures similar to mine.
I couldn’t take away their pain, but was able to share from my own experience, my recuperation process, and by my own example, offer encouragement that better days were ahead for them. Many of them – and family members who were there for my visits – expressed how reassuring it was to hear my perspectives and suggestions for their recovery.
Recently I heard about an even more vivid example of what it means to “comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.” I have a friend, a veteran of the Vietnam war, who heads an organization dedicated to serving military veterans suffering from PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), as well as physical wounds from combat, especially those returning from Afghanistan, Iraq, and other battle fronts in the Middle East.
Having suffered severe wounds himself, along with the psychological trauma of combat, my friend can identify with the many struggles and challenges returning veterans are confronting. His organization provides a place where these men and women can gather for rest, recreation, nice accommodations and good meals – along with opportunities to interact with people who can offer the hope and comfort that come from a genuine, growing relationship with Jesus Christ.
My friend told about one veteran who had lost an arm and both legs from an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) explosion in the Middle East. Most of us can’t begin to imagine what that must be like. But during a weekend retreat, which includes a variety of competitions and even hunting, the recovering veteran was able to shoot his first pheasant. The joy he showed was palpable.
Many veterans, even those who have not suffered physical wounds, return home in despair, struggling to reacclimate themselves to civilian life. The suicide rate among this group of heroic people is staggering. So the power of receiving comfort from those who themselves have been comforted is immeasurable.
We might not be able to relate to this particular form of pain, but we all have endured suffering in one way or another. Sometimes the problems were eventually resolved; but often the aftermath continues. Either way, we have the capacity – and privilege – of being able to draw from the comfort God has provided to us and extending it to others.