The last thing I would want from a guide on the summit of Everest would be for him to turn to me in the Khumbu Icefall and sheepishly whisper, “You know, this is my first time to the summit as well. But I read Krakauer’s book, so no worries.” Rather, I would want a guide who has logged hours on the mountain and knows the paths and weather patterns because he has walked and watched them countless times. I don’t imagine that I will ever sit atop the highest mountain in the world, but there are certainly some steep climbs that we all face in our lives. It is in those moments that we feel a deep ache for people who do not simply know what we face in a purely intellectual sense but who have experienced it in a deep way.
On the trek of life, those with life-experience are a unique gift. An expectant mother will find more credence and true sympathy in a woman who has given birth than from her husband who most certainly has not. A homeless man will weep with and receive pointed instruction from a man who himself lived on the streets for a time. A cancer survivor is invaluable to someone diagnosed with the deadly disease.
Here then is a unique gift readily found in the body of Christ if we are willing to look for it. As a pastor, I can comfort and counsel someone grieving the loss of a parent, but I can also connect them with a brother or sister in the church who has felt that same loss in a way that I have not. I can encourage a child who is faces bullying day after day, but that same encouragement may stick more when it comes from the lips of a college student who walked that road recently and feels the pain of wounds that have only recently been bound up in the grace of God’s wisdom and love. God’s gathered people in a local church are a wealth of experience and expertise in countless situations.
Yet it is not simply the body of Christ visible that functions in this way. The pages of Scripture reveal to us the great cloud of witnesses that extends back into history wherein we find men and women who have felt our pain and can show us the way of faith with precision and skill. God’s word is filled with comfort and instruction, encouragement and rebuke, and none of its teachings are disconnected from real people in genuine trials.
Romans 8:28, while intended as a balm, often becomes a baseball bat that provides further wounds, in part because it is stated as a cold, hard fact. “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love him – just believe it.” And so we should. But do we consider that those words were written by a man bound with chains and marked by the scars of unjust beatings? Do we pause and remember that those words echo a truth that it took Joseph a lifetime to learn?
We often wish we could come to the Joseph narrative with fresh eyes, however, it is when we know the full picture of Joseph’s journey that we can find hope. He speaks to us when we are in the pit of family strife or the heartache of being forgotten by others. He sympathizes with our pain and the pain of those we love, but he also can say, “God is working all things for good. He is turning evil for good.” He can say it without sounding glib or Pollyannaish. He can say it with tears in his eyes and steel in his spine. And he can say it with the credibility of a lifetime of experience in the midst of a story that proves the veracity of what he says.
God’s Word is able to comfort and counsel without lecturing because it flows from people’s real life experience, not their bare philosophical reflections. How foolish, then, not to invite Hannah into our conversations with barren mothers or not allow Esther to minister to those called to speak with boldness in their positions. Why would we not let Job tell those suffering what he has learned or let Jeremiah speak to our brothers and sisters who feel alone and forsaken?
And why would we ever neglect the truth that the incarnation of Jesus makes him the final authority on all human experience? Hebrews boldly tells us that he has felt the temptation we feel to its fullest extent. He understands all our weaknesses and sympathizes with us in a way no one else ever could. He is merciful and gentle, patient and longsuffering because he knows what suffering is more than any of us ever will. He invites us to learn from him, and even to touch his wounds and feel how real they are. He has walked all of the paths we ever have or will, and he has gone to Golgotha so that we never have to. He stands at the end of every steep trail and calls us to not only follow him but to find comfort and counsel from him as the one who has gone before us and is always with us.