Take a random sample of Christians. Ask them a simple question: What was most helpful to you when you were going through trouble? This is what you will hear.
The #1 answer: people. People are the cause of most trouble; people are the salve for most trouble. A letter, a visit and then another visit, kind and understanding words, or a consistent presence: sitting next to you in church, dropping off a small gift, having a meal together, helping with chores around the house, reading to you, offering Scripture that was helpful to them in their trouble, downloading worship music for you. The list is endless. Love can be very creative in the way it comforts those who are hurting.
And please don’t think that the encouragement of others is merely a random act of kindness. All this mobilized love, of course, is from the Spirit who often gives gifts anonymously (Isaiah 45:1-5). The Suffering Servant has a soft spot for those who suffer. As a result, believers and unbelievers alike will usually find some comfort in the words and deeds of another person.
There is still more going on behind the scenes. We were created to be a people. The created intent of human beings was that we would move toward each other – not against and not away from. In this present era, in which selfishness and cruelty are still apparent, there are risks in moving toward other people, but we are guaranteed isolation and grief if we wall ourselves off. When we follow God’s created intent for us, life feels a bit more right and good. It feels more like home.
Notice the important implications of this. Grief can mistakenly believe that it wants to be alone. And, yes, there are some people who use that alone time well, but no one should stay there, no matter what grief tells you. When you are suffering, the last thing you might want to do is move toward other people such as a small group, a Sunday service, or an open invitation to someone’s home, but that is exactly when you should do it. A couple went through the loss of a child. The wife moved toward other people, including her husband. The husband isolated himself. The wife had it right, and it was only her hard and fast commitment to him that kept the marriage together. When suffering hits home and one spouse moves away from the other, the consequences to the relationship can be severe.
With this #1 answer in view, the escapist traditions stand out as being much more deleterious and doomed to fail. If, during hardships, you avoid people and move toward things and activities, you only intensify the pain, in which case you turn even more frequently to your preferred source of pseudo-comfort. Drugs and alcohol have been the most common and destructive of the away-from-people traditions, but there are many others: video games, pornography, spending money, and eating. Foolishness that isolates can also be very creative.
Move toward people. Move toward. Don’t move away. Don’t simply wait. Move toward. As you do you will be acting truly human, and that’s good.
The #2 answer: Scripture. The second most common comfort-in-trouble is Scripture. Some people might argue that it should be #1, and maybe it should, but a broad sample of people won’t mention it quite as often as the #1 answer. Both sources of help take some work. This one, however, takes a little more effort – effort that is decidedly less risky than #1, and effort that will end in encouragement.
One day a friend who was going through very deep waters was talking about how Scripture rescued her day after day. She would have ranked Scripture #1 and other people #2. She used the expression, “force feed,” and the phrase was immediately etched into my brain. I’ll probably forget my own name before I forget this.
She would wake up in the morning, prefer to do nothing, maybe get a cup of coffee or three. Her soul did not realize what it needed. So she would force feed. She didn’t always want to, but she always did it.
I have since met many more force feeders. They are a persistent group. They will feed on Scripture, like it or not, until they are satisfied, full, thankful, even joyous. They never settle for merely a bite. They keep eating until the encouragement and comfort of Christ lifts them up and they are ready to head out and lift up others.
You can discover these people in a few different ways. When you are going through your own struggles, notice who offers you Scripture. Now, some folks will offer you Scripture and it might sound trite or hollow. The problem could be your own, of course, but a force feeder will give you Scripture, perhaps even something as common as Romans 8:28, but it won’t sound mechanical. Instead, they are giving you a trusted friend. They are giving you the best gift they ever received. Ask them to tell you more.
The #3 answer? There is none, at least there is no consensus #3. Some people find great encouragement in the sacraments, others in music. So there are other items on the list. But the Spirit works through people, and the Spirit certainly works through Scripture. What more do we need?