23. Entering the Sufferings of Others

You are never more yourself than when you are “for others.” It is part of your journey into reality. The joy Jesus experienced when he anticipated the outcome of his sufferings (see Hebrews 12:2) is the joy he shares with those who share his sufferings. It is not a coincidence that those who enter into the sorrows and sufferings of others discover a joy that is greater than mere happiness, i.e., the absence of suffering and sorrow.

Nor is it just coincidence that those who reach out to the most abandoned and most vulnerable members of society, or who spend years living with the poor in third-world conditions, are usually people who are themselves most alive to how much every person is loved by God.

“To suffer with” (sympathy or compassion) is to enter reverently into the feelings, hopes, and hurts of others until what happens to them feels as though it is happening to you, not in a way that is oppressive and unhealthy, but in a way that draws you further away from self-concern into the works of mercy, justice, and reconciliation.

Being a gift to others implies that we do not demand their acceptance of ourselves. If we are not freely accepted, we are not a gift. To demand acceptance would come from an unfulfilled need of our own.

It is not a coincidence that those who enter into the sorrows and sufferings of others discover a joy that is greater than mere happiness...

So, too, wanting to give others assurances we can’t honestly give comes from a need of our own and doesn’t necessarily meet another’s need. Sometimes we must admit that we don’t have the answers. To accept that life is bigger than our understanding of it is to accept reality, and so enter more deeply into life. It is contact with life that is life-giving.

Giving without expecting anything in return becomes possible when we are secure in the knowledge that we are already fully loved. The key to all this is knowing how much you are loved by God:

This is the love I mean: not our love for God, but God’s love for us when he sent his Son. (1 John 4:10)

You did not have to earn God’s love, and God loves you unconditionally. Knowing this is what frees you to love others without them having to deserve it, and love them unconditionally.

If you have not felt loved, there are good things in store for you. Let others love you. They are the embodiment (sacrament) of God’s love for you. In discovering that you are loved you feel more able to let yourself be known by trusted friends. Then you discover that you are still loved and respected in spite of what they know about you. Being more fully known and loved brings healing, growth, and freedom.

Look at yourself as Jesus sees you: let him tell you about the goodness he sees in you notwithstanding the defects. You begin to become what you feel and see in this experience.

For Practice

  • There is another way of entering the sufferings of others. Next time you find yourself in conflict with someone, ask yourself what that person is feeling and perhaps, fearing. Then watch what happens to the conflict after you have put yourself in their shoes. This can make the experience of conflict enriching, and if forgiveness is involved, transforming.
  • Who will be weeping, perhaps unknown to others, in your town tonight? Is there any way for you to show compassion to that person?
  • Make your own the following verses from The Servant Song by Richard Gillard:

Brother, sister, let me serve you
let me be as Christ to you.
Pray that I might
have the grace to
let you be my servant too.

We are pilgrims on a journey
We’re together on the road.
We are here to help each other
walk the mile and bear the load.

I will hold the Christ-light for you
in the night-time of your fear.
I will hold my hand out to you
speak the peace you long to hear.

I will weep when you are weeping
when you laugh I’ll laugh with you.
I will share your joy and sorrow
till we’ve seen this journey through.

When we sing to God in heaven
we shall find such harmony
born of all we’ve known together
of Christ’s love and agony.

For Prayer

Let us see, O Lord, your mercy
and give us your saving help.

I will hear what the Lord God has to say,
a voice that speaks of peace,
peace for his people and friends
and those who turn to him in their hearts.

Mercy and faithfulness have met;
justice and peace have embraced.
Faithfulness shall spring from the earth
and justice look down from heaven.

Psalm 85:7-11