The words “I know exactly how you feel” can either be the best or worst thing to say to someone suffering. If you do know exactly how a hurting friend feels, then they will probably be comforted by the knowledge that they are not alone in this experience, no matter how painful it is. However, if you don’t know exactly how they feel, then… well.. you’re just a great big jerk. There are certain events in life that you just can’t sympathize with unless you’ve been there.
For example, when Connie was pregnant with Kara, half of me expected her to miscarry in order that we would be able to sympathize with other couples who have experienced that tragedy. It’s not that I wanted Connie to miscarry; but I knew that if it happened, God would use it as an opportunity for us to minister to couples who have experienced it. We would know exactly how they felt. To some degree, I still fear that God may one day take our daughter or even my entire family from me so that I will be able to sympathize with people who have endured similar loss. I certainly don’t want anything like that to happen, but I do realize that it is not outside the realm of possibility. But unless something like that were to happen, there are certain people with whom I will never be able to truly sympathize.
Many people have a similar understanding of God. It’s easy for us to think of God as far away and unable to understand what it’s like to be human. This is especially true when we are suffering. Consider, for example, the following passages:
Oh, that I knew where I might find him,
that I might come even to his seat!
I would lay my case before him
and fill my mouth with arguments.
I would know what he would answer me
and understand what he would say to me. (Job 23:3-5)
God has cast me into the mire,
and I have become like dust and ashes.
I cry to you for help and you do not answer me;
I stand, and you only look at me. (Job 30:19-20)
How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? (Psalm 13:1)
O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? (Habakkuk 1:2)
I could find many more, but you get the idea: When we suffer, it’s easy to think of God as distant.
But that’s not where the story ends. If, as Job described it, we have all been cast into the mire (Job 30:19), then Jesus has entered into the mire with us. Jesus has not left us alone. Think about what Hebrews 4:15-16 says; this should blow your mind:
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:15-16)
Or what about this one:
Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. (Matthew 9:35-36, emphasis mine; see also Mark 6:34)
When we suffer, we can draw near to Jesus because He knows exactly how we feel. He has compassion for us, because He has seen firsthand how off-course and wayward we are. In fact, Romans 8:34 says that Christ intercedes for us; he pleads on our behalf because He has suffered too! So when you suffer—not “if,” but “when”—consider it an opportunity to grow closer to Christ because He knows exactly how you feel.