We all say it; it just slips out even if we know we shouldn’t say it: “I know how you feel. I remember when I went through….I felt just like you.” It is a sort of well intentioned but fateful phrase. The trouble is that even if we have been through something similar we don’t know exactly how a person with another make up or another life story feels when facing something that perhaps does indeed look and sound similar.
Is this going against the accepted and precious Christian truth that what we go through in terms of difficult experiences can help us to help others? Not at all, that is biblically true; but we need to clarify what we mean by that. We do not mean that someone else’s pain makes an opening for me to speak of mine to them…that may add another burden on to an already burdened person. Rather, the way it is meant to work, is that we carry this attitude: “I have tasted the fragility of the human experience, and that experience means I want to offer my life as a place of hospitality to you; I clear my stuff out of the way, to allow you room to unpack yours. I want my life to be a safe place where you can speak the unspeakable and say what you have never felt it was safe to say.”
It is not surprising that in the gospels we find some wonderful examples of this in the life and ministry of Jesus, the Saviour. He shared our fragility; He had to bear many wounds before the wounding of the cross; yet somehow that experienced fragility and wounding created a safe place for the woman at the well to say, “I have no husband,”; space was cleared for Zaccheus to say, “If I have wronged anyone out of any money….”
I am not asking that we de-skill ourselves of what life in Christ and indeed Christ in life has helped us to learn, but it is how we use that skill and learning that matters. Elihu, the youngest of Job’s “comforters” says to him, “Job, you and I are the same…” I don’t think so! Had Elihu lived as long as Job; had he seen as much of life; had he lost a wife; had his children been wiped out by sudden tragedy; had he become covered with agonising sores; had his suffering become the object of theological debate; had he been accused wrongly? There is no evidence that Elihu had shared any of these experiences that Job had lived through.
I think it was Henry Nouwen, drawing on an old legend, who said that you would recognise the Messiah and be able to distinguish him from other people by this; He would be unwrapping His wounds one by one and binding them up, ready to put himself and His woundedness at the service of others. “We may not know, we cannot tell what pains he had to bear…” partly because the cross is unfathomable, but partly because He carries that pain in precisely the right way; to make a safe place where we can uncover our wounds.
May God bless you and I to put the stories and the story of our life to use by allowing God to use it all in the right way to bless others.
…and to all to whom I personally have said too quickly “I know how you feel”… please accept my apologies.
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