We live in a world filled with problems and pain, heartaches and sorrows. We feel this deeply in our lives when in the midst of hardship and can appreciate the difficulties of others with some reflection. When someone close to us loses a loved one, we respond with immediate sympathy, considering the circumstances and softening our tone. Should a loved one face a physical illness, we can pull together to lighten their burden and help them through their treatments. If a friend should lose his job—for whatever reason—we want to help him feel better and help him find new work, easing his burden in the meantime. However, when it comes to spiritual problems, we often respond with criticism and judgment without bothering to show any empathy.
By this I do not mean to suggest that we should downplay any sin or ignore potential consequences. But to help people out of their sin, they need to know how much we care and that we can identify with the problem of sin, even if not with that particular sin. The apostle Paul wrote, “Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted” (Gal. 6:1). This passage not only positively asserts the necessary attitude to help those in sin but also implies that any attempt to correct someone in sin without this attitude is less than spiritual. Unfortunately, we often paint these situations with a broad brush instead of treating each person as unique and each situation as having unique circumstances that require specific attention.
After yet another diatribe from Job’s friends scolding him for not confessing to sins he had not committed, “Job answered and said: ‘I have heard many such things; Miserable comforters are you all!'” (Job 16:1-2). I wonder how many times this might have been said to us with reason? Job’s friends began with assumptions, which led to accusations, which disqualified them from being any help whatsoever to a godly man. They failed miserably because they first failed in empathy. As Job pointed out, “I also could speak as you do, If your soul were in my soul’s place. I could heap up words against you, And shake my head at you; But I would strengthen you with my mouth, And the comfort of my lips would relieve your grief” (Job 16:4-5). These close friends never identified with Job’s problem and therefore proved completely unable to help him.
My friends, the gospel will require some people to upend their lives completely. Making corrections in life or in doctrine may put people at odds with previous cornerstones of life. It may require them to leave a job, leave a spouse, and leave all sense of physical security. Acting as if these are small, insignificant, and easy things to do is not helpful. Indeed, if we do not acknowledge the challenges they face and show empathy toward their situation—all while still working to convince them to submit to Christ—we are miserable comforters indeed.