An old priest was asked at his retirement, “What have you learned after having heard so many confessions?”

“I have learned that people are more miserable and less good than I once thought.”

The part about the “less good”—I understand why he said that. He was hearing confessions, after all. My own experience, however, is a little different. I have found that people are both less good and more good than I once thought. As a counselor who has the privilege of knowing the details of people’s lives, I would say that I am most surprised by the more good. The Spirit of God really is with people.

The part about the “more miserable”—yes, the old priest said it well. I asked a class recently to talk to someone who has gone through suffering, and no one in the class had to go beyond the person sitting next to him or her in the church pew to find a story. The stories were inspiring, devotional, oftentimes hopeful, and always sad. There is, indeed, more misery than we could imagine in our neighborhoods and in our local congregations.

As I have read these stories, and accumulated a number of my own, I always look for what was helpful and what was not, and those familiar with suffering can come up with either list on the spot. Here is something that I have heard a number of times on the “Not Helpful” list. I have heard it often enough that it deserves to become part of our body of pastoral wisdom.

“If you need anything, please call me—anytime.”

Sufferers are usually gracious and give us a lot of slack for thoughtless remarks, so I was surprised when this became a theme. Those who mentioned it didn’t say that the comment was meaningless to them, though it was. They said that it was actually unhelpful. Why? I usually don’t ask that question, but I can piece together some of the answers.

  • If “comforters” knew anything about real hardship, they would know that sufferers usually don’t know what they want or need.
  • If comforters knew anything about the sufferer, they would know what the sufferer wants or needs.
  • If comforters really knew the sufferer, they would know that he or she would never make the call. Never.

The comment is the equivalent of “Ta-ta, see you later,” “Luv ya, call me sometime,” or some other mindless goodbye. The speaker is not giving any real thought to the comforter’s needs and circumstances, and the suffering person knows it.

So don’t say, “If you need anything, please call me—anytime” to anyone. Let’s put it to rest and never let it appear on another “Not Helpful” list.

That’s the bad news. The good news, of course, is that the same people who have heard the “call me” comment have also been blessed by friends who do the opposite: these friends don’t wait to be called; they just figure out what needs to be done and they do it.

These “angels”—I have heard many sufferers use that epithet—go through two steps. First, they listen and understand the suffering person. They pick up on to-do lists that are growing and impossible. They identify tasks that are especially important. They don’t barge in and do trivial work or serve in ways that leave more disarray. For example, I could imagine that someone would look at my chaotic arrangement of books and attempt to serve me by organizing them in a way that would make a librarian proud—and I wouldn’t be able to find a book for the next year (which actually happened, but it wasn’t because I was suffering. My wife could tell you the story. A small home office renovation project that was supposed to be a surprise, and it was, but . . .). A good friend can identify what would be truly helpful.

Next, they do it. They get the dog groomed, do the dishes, drop off a meal, cut the grass, babysit the kids, bring a meal over and eat it together, clean the house, give a ride to small group, drop off a note of encouragement and then another and another, arrange for a haircut, and so on.

Any of these acts of love and service make life easier for the suffering person. That certainly helps. But a meal is never just a meal; maid service is never merely maid service. These say to the suffering person, “I remember you,” “I think about you often,” “You are not forgotten; you are on my heart,” and “I love you.” That, as they say, is priceless.

When in doubt, and you are concerned that you might unknowingly rearrange the library, you can get ideas from those who know the sufferer best. There is nothing wrong with the direct approach of asking the suffering person, “Would it help if I _____?” That’s great, but realize that he or she will demur. What commends the approach in which you ask friends and family is that you give even more thought to the suffering person’s interests and needs. It is the time you give to creative strategizing that is the power behind these acts. That is unmistakable love that mimics the strategic planning of the triune God’s rescue mission. He planned and acted even before we knew our real needs.

We can say that there is indeed more misery around us than we know, but may those who experience misery be able to say that there is more comfort available than they imagined, and may they say that God often uses people as angels of comfort.