“I can’t imagine how she could feel that way,” said one who lacked sympathy. This one was not a true friend, because she lacked imagination: to sympathise is to imagine.”Karen Andreola
You don’t have to scroll Facebook too fiercely these days to find unhelpful comments on a post about someone “having it worse”. Before I was surrounded by life-giving and Christ-centered friendships, this type of complaint and gossip was very familiar. The tiresome “She has no idea what it’s like to endure…” or “Oh, if I was in her shoes…”; all uncaring, unhelpful, and simply un-Christ-like.
It would take almost no imagination to decide in my heart that “I have it worse”. I’m six months pregnant with four young children. During these Melbourne lockdown’s, I single parent five days a week for 12 hours per day while my husband leaves home for work. The noise alone in a house full of children can be overwhelming, and often it seems that there are not enough hours in the day to meet all of my children’s needs – let alone care for my body properly as it grows a baby and battles persistent illness.
All of these things can tempt us to wonder why someone else is complaining or struggling. Our issues seem so great, and theirs seem ‘less than’.
But perhaps instead of playing the unhelpful and unloving comparison game, we could use this time in lockdown and isolation to learn what it truly means to bear each other’s burdens. Beginning with the instruction to; ‘mourn with those who mourn.’ (Romans 12:15).
It takes a great imagination to put myself in my friend’s shoes and lighten their burden through understanding and compassion. The silence I often crave could be deafening to my friend who desperately desires a child but cannot conceive. What I could easily disregard as an ‘easier’ situation could, in fact, be debilitating and emotionally draining.
Or maybe my friend with only two children to care for and a husband working shorter hours from home during lockdown seems like a luxury. I’m bothered by her complaints because, ‘oh, to have help at bedtime!’. Yet, at the end of the day, when my husband comes home, he praises me, connects with me, talks with me and loves me, but my friend’s husband, who is physically present, is emotionally unavailable. My friend is lonelier than I am. Without an imagination to insert myself into my friend’s story – I’m unable to mourn alongside her as she also struggles through lockdown, feeling more isolated than I do, even while she has company and help in her home.
Just before lockdown #6, I had met with my Book club to discuss the topic of gratitude. The conversation moved towards lockdowns and seeking gratitude for what God has taught us during these troubling times. One sister mentioned the Lord was asking her to slow down and rest, but every time we came out of lockdown, the business of the world consumed her once again. She found herself overscheduled, exhausted, without sufficient time for prayer and Bible study, every time.
With another lockdown looming over us, we joked lightheartedly that we hadn’t learnt our lessons the first five lockdowns. Maybe the Lord was calling us once again to slow, rest, and focus on retreating into His presence through prayer and the word. (Since then, we have entered lockdown #6, which currently has no end in sight!).
Of course, there’s much more going on here than trivialising the covid situation to learning rest lessons and creating healthy daily habits. The suffering and devastation is real and has been great. Yet, being a person who knows God and knows of His ability to create beauty from ashes, I’m encouraged to refocus my gaze on the good He is achieving in my life during this lockdown season. The life-giving lessons learnt through tears and hardship are precious because we know we suffer alongside our saviour who suffered, and through Jesus, it will not be wasted. The Lord truly uses all things for His glory and the good of those who love Him.
It’s a thought worth pondering – what is God teaching you during these lockdowns? Are we taking with us what we’ve learnt once our worlds open up, or are we reverting back to life as it was before and remaining unchanged through the trials – which God often uses as a method of refinement.
For me, I desire to grow my imagination. I desire to be that friend who mourns with those who mourn and rejoice with those who rejoice. My friend’s heartbreak and daily struggle is a burden that I am uniquely placed to help them carry – whether through empathy or sympathy, being available to talk with, providing practical support such as a meal or gift, or just offering a hug (virtually these days).
When my sister-in-Christ is rejoicing, though I may be mourning, I desire to see her victory as my own and celebrate with her. It requires dying to my human need to compare and instead, choosing to extend the kind of compassion as Jesus had. It requires the Holy Spirit’s guidance and, importantly – imagination to see what they see and feel what they feel, independently of the temptation to compare it with my circumstances.
During those times when I am tempted to sin, to judge, to complain, to gossip, or become unloving, I remind myself of Proverbs 17:17 “A friend loves at all times”. It takes a lot to be a good friend, but it takes even more to become a Christ-like friend. We will never achieve friendship perfection this side of eternity. But we do have Jesus, our only perfect friend and role model, to guide and direct us. I can’t ever imagine Jesus responding to someones suffering by saying, “oh, you think you have it bad!? I have it worse. I will die the shameful death on a cross, that you deserve, to cover all of your sins. I will endure more hardship and suffering than any human will ever have to bear.” No, instead, He says, “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friend”.
Friends, when we compare our circumstances to one another, when we decide in our heart that “we have it harder”, and when we choose to judge others or become apathetic towards a struggling friend – we are simply not loving them. Let’s be a sisterhood that chooses love. Let’s learn to obey the powerful instruction of “Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ.” Galatians 6:2