How to help (or hurt) hurting people

Recently I made the mistake (again) of telling the wrong people about my problems. If I tell you what happened, do you promise to be compassionate? If so, read on.

As I get closer to 40, my body is agreeing with Romans chapter 8 that our bodies are in “bondage to decay” (verse 21). My right Achilles takes a good hour to stop spazzing out every morning. My joints and cartilage creak and crackle with every deep knee bend. My brain forgets more names and faces than ever before.

But I’ve learned over the past few years that I can’t confess those details of decay to just anyone. Because most people respond in the same unhelpful way, with comparison instead of compassion.

“Oh, just wait until you get to be my age!”
“You think 40 is bad. Try 50!”
“Ha! What I wouldn’t give to be in my 30s again.”

Honestly, none of that helps. Comparison instead of compassion is a selfish takeover of the conversation, pushing my pain out of the way so that other’s pain can have its say. But before my aging body gets up on its soapbox, I realize that choosing comparison over compassion is something that I mentally do all the time.

Like when that teenager has to work a whopping 35 hours a week during the summer (35 hours is what I hit by Wednesday, kid). Or when a single friend tells me how terribly busy he is (try having a spouse, two kids, and three schedules besides your own!). Or when someone richer than me complains about financial stress (want to drive my van that hasn’t had AC all summer?).

Comparison must be a human nature thing. Hearing about your problems causes my heart to get out the scales of comparison, which rarely leave me feeling all that bad for you.

But there’s a better, albeit more challenging, way to live. To give up comparison and to take up compassion. To suffer with people (that’s what com-passion literally means), even if their suffering is different or less than our own struggles.

Here are three quick reasons why:

  1. Compassion is helpful. Often, the most helpful thing we can do is to lament the suffering we see in our world. Paul put it this way: “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Ephesians 4:29). What is helpful, most needed, and most beneficial in most cases is compassion.
  2. Compassion is humble. Being a distance runner has taught me that endurance takes time to develop. Before you can run an easy eight-minute mile, you have to huff and gasp a ten-minute mile. The same is true with life. “We know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Romans 5:3,4). Perhaps we grown-ups have gained the endurance to work long hours and the character to do our chores without exhaustion or grumbling, but our teenage friends have not. That doesn’t make them weak or worse than we are. It just means they need time to grow. Therefore, compassion chooses the humble reply: “I remember my first job too. Getting up every day was so hard!”
  3. Compassion is holy. Our holy Savior, Jesus, could have compared his suffering to ours: “You think cancer is hard? Try being flogged and crucified!” Thankfully, he didn’t. Instead, he gave us compassion: “His compassions never fail. They are new every morning” (Lamentations 3:22,23). Every time we sin or struggle, Jesus meets us with compassion. He cares so much about our hurts that he wants us to call upon him in the day of trouble (Psalm 50:15). He is so concerned with our worries that he begs us to cast all our anxieties on him (1 Peter 5:7). Not so that he can chide us for being weak but so that he can prove that he is strong.

The next time you’re hurting, remember how Jesus responds with infinite compassion, even if no one else does. And the next time they’re hurting, remember the helpful way Jesus responds to you—not with comparison but with compassion.

Pastor Mike Novotny has served God’s people in full-time ministry since 2007 in Madison and, most recently, at The CORE in Appleton, Wisconsin. He also serves as the lead speaker for Time of Grace, where he shares the good news about Jesus through television, print, and online platforms. Mike loves seeing people grasp the depth of God’s amazing grace and unstoppable mercy. His wife continues to love him (despite plenty of reasons not to), and his two daughters open his eyes to the love of God for every Christian. When not talking about Jesus or dating his wife/girls, Mike loves playing soccer, running, and reading.

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