The sufferings of our Lord and Savior were the penalty He bore for our sins. But those same trials and sorrows served another purpose. Living a very difficult life prepared our perfect Savior to be a better help to us in our temptations and trials than otherwise He could have been. Much as we may struggle to understand this, it is what the Bible teaches. We read in Hebrews 2:18: “For because he himself has suffered…he is able to help….” and again in 4:15: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are….” The fact that Jesus suffered as we suffer, that He endured our kind of pain and sorrow, is the reason we can trust Him to help. His own afflictions enable Him to understand what we are going through. His experience of sorrow has taught Him what we are feeling. His experience has made Him wiser still as a comforter and helper. In some mysterious way this is knowledge that even His omniscience did not give Him. It was His very hard life as the Man of Sorrows that equipped Him so perfectly to care for us when we suffer.
Empathy is an art, not a science; an art learned in the trials of life.
Surely this is one reason why the Lord appoints so many trials for His followers. If even the sinless one, even the Lord Christ Himself needed His own afflictions to attain the perfect empathy with us that His high priesthood required, how much more must we poor, selfish sinners suffer to become truly tenderhearted toward others? If to love others is one of the two great purposes for which we human beings have been given breath, then blows that soften our hearts and experiences that teach us how to find our peace in God must be necessary indeed.
It is not so hard to imagine that the Lord’s terrible loneliness (Matt. 26:36–46) — who really understood Him or even began to grasp the burdens He was bearing? — made Him still more perfectly compassionate toward the lonely. Having been “forsaken” later by His own beloved Father (Matt. 27:46) must have had something to do with the way He felt the grief of the widow of Nain, who had lost her only son (Luke 7:13). When out of compassion He helped the sorrowful, and when He does so today by His Holy Spirit, His help had then and has now a special authority because it comes from His own wounded and experienced heart. He understands as only the sufferer can.
The power of empathy rests in a shared understanding, a shared experience of pain. The great missionary John Paton acknowledged this when speaking of his own broken heart upon the death of his wife and infant son: “Let those who have ever passed through any similar darkness as of midnight feel for me; as for all others, it would be more than vain to try to paint my sorrows.” This is what makes Christ’s empathy so valuable to us. If He had not suffered precisely every pain or loss that we have, He has suffered similarly and far more heavily than we have.
As Christians, it is our calling, as we are often told, to “bear one another’s burdens” (Gal. 6:2). When we do so we are imitating the Lord Jesus (Phil. 2:1–9). In fact, we are never more like the Lord Jesus than when our sorrows and our disappointments are turned to the advantage of others. And as with the Lord Himself, nothing equips us more effectively for this sacred work than our own suffering, sorrow, and trial, at least, if we bear our trials as Christians should in faith and hope.
The old writers used to speak of the importance “improving our afflictions,” that is, turning them to the best and holiest use. Well, the best use we can make of any of our suffering is to turn it into empathy and wisdom with which to love and help others. Patrick of Ireland provides a splendid example of this. Reflecting on the terrible ordeal through which he passed when, as a teenager, he was kidnapped from his home and sold into slavery in Ireland, he said, “God used the time [of my slavery] to shape and mold me into something better. He made me into what I am now — someone very different from what I once was, someone who can care about others and work to help them. Before I was a slave, I didn’t even care about myself.” We all have too hard, too selfish hearts. Trials are necessary to soften them so that we can be of real use to others in this benighted world. To be of such use, to love others when they need love the most, is our special calling as the followers and imitators of Jesus Christ.
As such, much of the Lord’s own care for His people is to come through His people. He appoints our afflictions in part to teach us what pain feels like, what happens in the confused and broken heart, and how the Lord can lift us up and will in His own time. But this is empathy and knowledge to be shared! Christ suffered nothing for Himself! Every Christian should judge himself strictly by this rule: in imitating Christ and following Christ I should regularly bring comfort and consolation to others as He did. Do others look to me to find hope and encouragement? Do folk grow calmly restful and quietly smiling because they have been with me and talked with me?