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Hurting Helpers

April 2002
By: David O'Leary
You have seen it in counselors, in volunteers, and in helpers—the people who want to help, who want to minister, who want to reach out. Perhaps, you have seen it in yourself. Even as you see their love, you detect some other element in the background—a power, a motivation, a craving. For good or bad, you are facing a person who has a drive to help others because of her own past experience of pain and suffering.

When one's past pain is recognized and understood, it can be a powerful quality in a person who ministers. If not recognized, understood, and properly harnessed, it can complicate matters! Many of us have suffered; some of us have suffered deeply. We are the hurting—the wounded—who hear the call to serve others who are hurting. Rather than disqualify us, such experiences can build and equip us. The Word of God states it simply: trials, suffering, and difficulties are used by our marvelous God to build our character, strengthen our faith, and equip us to serve others. Our wounds generally come from three sources: our suffering under circumstances, our suffering from betrayal by others, and our suffering the consequences of sin.

In a well-known passage, the Apostle Paul tells us what suffering can produce in our lives: "We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us" (Romans 5:3-5).

The simple but challenging truth is that we grow spiritually when we suffer and when we turn in hope to the living God. God is so bold as to use suffering and pain to make us stronger and to cause us to hope in Him more firmly.
We ought not to parallel others'
pain with our pain. We must
not assume that we know what
our client has gone through.
We dare not think that our
pain is worse than hers.

Jeremiah is sometimes called the "weeping prophet" because of his constant tears when he dealt with the wickedness of Judah and when he withstood suffering (Jeremiah 9:1, 18; 13:17; 14:1-7). This prophet endured loneliness as God called him to have no wife or children (Jeremiah 16:2). He was threatened with death, arrested, beaten, thrown into prison, tossed into a soggy pit, and forced into exile! But through this he learned to confess: "You understand, O LORD; remember me and care for me" (Jeremiah 15:15).

Ezekiel suffered the death of his wife, "the delight of his eyes" (Ezekiel 24:16), in order to be used as an example of quiet submission to the will of God.

Paul also needed to learn "how much he must suffer" for the Lord's name (Acts 9:16).

are those who have learned from their suffering to grow in the grace of the Lord. They are able to use what they have learned to minister to those who are suffering.

David knew the experience of being a victim. David knew the pain of betrayal by someone who was close to him, someone he trusted. David knew betrayal from Saul, the king he had protected; from his own son, Absalom; and from the unnamed enemies he writes about in Psalms 41:7-9: "All my enemies whisper together against me; they imagine the worst for me saying, 'A vile disease has beset him; he will never get up from the place where he lies.' Even my close friend, whom I trusted, he who shared my bread, has lifted his heel against me."

Physical pain and suffering, deprivation, and denial are hard. But they pale in comparison to the deep wounds from those who turn on us and betray us. Just as David endured such suffering for years, so Jeremiah knew that bitter abandonment as he heard that the men of his own town, even his own brothers, were conspiring against him (Jeremiah 11:18-23; 12:6). Just as David prayed: "I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation" (Psalms 13:5), Jeremiah's hope was also in the Lord.

are those who have found relief. From the depths of their suffering, they have appealed to a faithful God Who has lifted them up.

You may not have suffered from circumstances. Perhaps no trusted friend has betrayed you. But, if you are like me, you bear the scars and wounds from battles against sin which you have lost. Think again of the Apostle Paul as he remembers his sin: "For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect" (I Corinthians 15:9, 10). Or consider King David when he prayed to God, "Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin" and "then will I teach transgressors your ways" (Psalms 51:1, 2, 13).

My favorite fallen hero is Peter, who denied the Lord three times (Luke 22:54-62). The encouragement for us is that Peter was told by the Lord that He had prayed for Peter "that [his] faith may not fail." Then the Lord exhorted him to "strengthen [his] brothers" after Peter had turned back in repentance (Luke 22:31, 32). Such help we find in the epistle of I Peter as he takes almost three chapters to tell us how to suffer for Christ. What hope there is for me and for you! That we have sinned like Paul or David or Peter is clear. That we may yet be of service to others is glorious.

are those sinners who remind other sinners that God's unbelievable grace is to be believed and enjoyed!

Well, which are you? Sufferer of circumstances? Victim of betrayal? Sinner? Likely, all three! What can you transfer from your experience to the helping process? How can you move from being one who merely has been hurt to being one who helps?

First, we must restrain our enthusiasm and arrogance. Only God knows all that a person has gone through. We ought not to parallel others' pain with our pain. We must not assume that we know what our client has gone through. We dare not think that our pain is worse than hers. The most we can do is know what our own pain was like in order to "sympathize with [her] weaknesses" (Hebrews 4:15).

After recognizing our limitations, we can appreciate the strength that our own struggles have given us. We are in a position to know the deceitfulness of circumstances which tempt us to sin. We can appreciate the power that temptation has over us in our weakness. The mercy and grace which our Lord Jesus shows to us in our need comes from His knowledge of the experience of suffering and temptation (Hebrews 4:15). "Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted" (Hebrews 2:18).

G. K. Chesterton is famous for his mystery stories about a priest named Father Brown. Father Brown was able to solve crimes which puzzled others because his method was based on his knowledge of his own sin. He simply considered what it would be like for him to commit such a crime. Once he did that, he could discover the perpetrator. "When we recall the power of suffering and temptation, we become more empathetic, and we are less likely to say: "I could never do that!"

As those who have hurt and found relief, we have another strength to aid those who struggle. We know that there is light beyond the darkness. When people are burdened with sin, with pain, and with the scars of betrayal and abuse, it is hard for them to see beyond their despair. From experience we can testify to the light of God's grace in and beyond the darkness.

There is a story of a man who fell into a hole so deep he couldn't get out. As he called for help, a priest came by, heard his cry, wrote out a prayer, and threw the paper in the hole. Soon, a minister came by, heard his cry, wrote out a Bible verse, and threw it in. Next, a doctor came by, heard the same cries, wrote out a prescription, and threw it in. Finally, a friend came by. When he heard the cries for help, he jumped in the hole. The trapped man said, "What did you do that for? Now we are both stuck in here."

"I know," said the friend, "but I've been in this hole before, and I know the way out."

As , we can remind those who seem trapped, that God's grace provides a way out.

Alleviating pain is not the central goal of our ministries. We seek to help suffering, sinful victims find the only Savior of women and men. Paul describes his own ministry as comforting those who need comfort with the comfort he has received from God (II Corinthians 1:3-11). That comfort is ultimately found through faith in Jesus Christ. When He suffered, Jesus was faithful (Hebrews 2:17, 18). When He was the victim of injustice, He entrusted Himself to God (I Peter 2:23). When He was tempted, He showed Himself to be perfect in obedience (Hebrews 2:10; 5:7-9). All of this is what qualifies Him to help us in our time of need (Hebrews 4:15, 16).

It is no accident that has brought you from your pain and suffering—your hurting past—to minister to others at this time. It is God's preparation in your life so that you can bring others to the healing, helping, freeing power of the grace of Jesus Christ.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: David O'Leary is married and has four children. He lives in Reading, PA where he is the pastor of Covenant Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He holds degrees from Tufts University (B.A.), Westminster Theological Seminary (M.A.R., M.Div.), and Covenant Seminary (D.Min.). He can be reached at

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