On Being a Comforter

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Counseling as a Form of Comfort

Offering Words of Comfort

After constantly experiencing physical and verbal abuse, distress of mind, body and spirit; after enduring long periods of sadness or sorrow, words of comfort refresh the human spirit. Thus, the prophet Isaiah offers words of comfort, telling his people that their captivity for 70 years in Babylon, their suffering in a foreign land, is about to come to an end. Isaiah declares,

“Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the Lord’s hand double for all her sins” (Isaiah 40:1-2, KJV).

Speaking to the Head and Heart

Yahweh or the Lord tells Isaiah to “speak … comfortably” to the Jewish people, literally meaning, “speak to the heart.” Words, then, are addressed to both the head and heart, intellect and emotions, moving from the head to the heart, affecting human emotions. Therefore, words have the power to encourage or discourage, uplift or depress, others. To use words correctly is to know, in the prophet’s words, “how to sustain the weary with a word” (Isaiah 50:4).

Effective Comforters

There are, in general, two kinds of comforters. First, the most effective comforters are those who have suffered and learned from it. The outcome of learning from suffering, then, is that God “comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction….” (II Corinthians 1:3, 4, NASB). Thus, learning from suffering, that is, being comforted or strengthened by it, allows a person to become a source of comfort to others. The Catholic bishop-philosopher Fulton Sheen rightly observes,

“The best healer is the person who himself has been hurt. The best consoler of the lonely is one who knows what loneliness is. Counselors who have never felt alone … can never impart a true sense of caring. Somewhere, somehow, there has to be hidden in the healing universe hands that have been hurt and scarred.”1

Ineffective Comforters

Second, however, are ineffective comforters. As well-meaning as they may be, they actually do more harm than good to others. For example, after Job’s ten children and grandchildren died tragically, he lost virtually all of his possessions and became ill (cf. Job 1:2, 13-19; 2:7). Then, says Scripture, Job’s friends went to “sympathize with him and comfort him” (Job 2:11, NIV). For seven days, his friends stayed with him, not say anything (cf. Job 2:13).

But Job’s friends became ineffective comforters, when they started to give him advice about his problems. In fact, he said to his friends, “miserable comforters are you all” (Job 16:2b, NIV). The are miserable, says St. Thomas Aquinas, because

“[T]he duty of a counselor is to say something by which suffering will be mitigated. Therefore, a burdensome counselor is someone who says things which aggravate the soul more.”

Some Common Mistakes in Comforting Others

There are, for example, two common mistakes in communication, which are often made in attempting to comfort others. First, a person should not say to others who are hurting, in emotional turmoil, “I know how you feel,” when, in fact, he or she has not really experienced their emotional pain.2 In reality, such a person does not know how others feel.

Second, a person should not say “I understand,” when, in fact, he or she does not understand others’ feelings. Hence, if someone is searching for words and does not really know what to say, then it is probably better to remain silent than to say something and make others’ pain even worse.

Presence and Silence as Non-Verbal Sources of Comfort

Sometimes, the empty spaces between two persons need not be filled with any words. For example, Job’s friends were more effective, gave him comfort, when they said nothing to him, simply being with him in his suffering (cf. Job 2:13). A person’s presence, then, is a non-verbal form of communication, which says, in effect. “I am with you and here for you.” Sometimes, then, what others need is a visit, not a lecture.3 Just being with them can be a source of comfort.

Therefore, a comforter is the right person, at the right time, using the right words or saying nothing, to help young and old men and women who are discouraged, demoralized, depressed and sorrowful. Perhaps now, more than ever, the world is in dire need of comforters.

Endnotes

1. Fulton J. Sheen, Footprints in a Darkened Forest (New York, N.Y.: Meredith Press, 1967), p. 29.

2. Timothy J. Runkel, “Empathy,” Baker Encyclopedia of Psychology, ed. David G. Benner (Grand Rapids, M.I.: Baker Book House, 1985), p. 359.

3. J. Harold Ellens, “Comminication,” in ibid., p. 191.

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