There’s a saying that we shouldn’t criticise someone unless we’ve walked a mile in their shoes. That saying highlights the difficulty of properly understanding someone else’s situation. At times we have issues with someone but often in such circumstances we only know half the story.
There is a sense in which this also applies to understanding someone else’s pain. Last week Ed Welch, in a blog in the newsletter of the Christian Counselling & Educational Foundation, commented that there are times when he wishes he could experience some of the trials and tribulations that his counselees suffer. He mentioned that because he has found that often people prefer to talk to someone who has been there. Welch did add a rider to his wish – and that was that the Lord would give him only a small taste of their pain.
There is much truth in what Welch wrote. Many years ago a minister colleague and his wife lost their sixteen year old daughter to cancer. He commented later that as a pastor he had always found it difficult to identify with the grief of others – simply because bereavement had never touched his family. He observed that now that he had been there it was a very different story.
But there is another side to this. Our understanding of someone else’s struggles or pain will always be partial. I’ve observed over several decades of ministry that suffering is such a personal and individual thing. No two person’s stories are exactly alike. I may be able to understand better your dark days of depression if I have struggled with depression myself but your depression will still be different to my depression. The grief I experienced with the loss of my first wife may indeed help me to understand the grief of someone else who has recently suffered bereavement. That common experience will enable us to connect in a way that might not otherwise be possible. Nevertheless I have also discovered that my journey with grief has been quite different from someone else’s journey with grief. Maybe I still need to walk that mile in their shoes.
The reality, of course, is that we do not and cannot experience what everyone else has experienced. We cannot walk that mile in their shoes – and we don’t need to either.
For one thing we are people in whom the Lord God has poured the love and compassion of the Lord Jesus Christ. That enables us to sympathise with people even if we have had no experience of their pain. Furthermore we all live in a broken world where suffering is a reality and that enables us not only to sympathise but also to empathise – to enter into their pain even if our pain has never been like their suffering.
Over the years I have met folk who just ooze compassion and care. These people attract other troubled people because folk instinctively sense that compassion. Invariably though I find that such people not only know the love of Christ but they have usually also been through dark times themselves.
Both of those things need to be there in our lives if we want to help other people: a deep awareness of the brokenness of life and knowing the compassion that comes from the gospel of Christ. Many people have experienced the brokenness of life but it has not made them more caring, just more bitter, because that love that is a fruit of the Spirit of Christ was missing.
Paul put it well in 2Corinthians 1: “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.”