In counseling people in the midst of difficulties or tragedies, I think one of the most common and readily available lines that a pastor might utter is: “I know how you feel.” It’s only natural that as you see someone suffering, you want to let them know that they aren’t alone. The person whose face is drenched in tears has suffered a great loss with the death of his wife, and so naturally, you want to let this man know that you too have suffered—you suffered the loss of a loved one as well. The problem with such an approach is that you might not know exactly how this person feels.
Your experience may be similar, but emotions can be as diverse as personalities. Moreover, it can sound trite when you immediately try to ease someone’s pain by introducing your own story. Or worse yet, you inadvertently try to share an experience with a hurting soul which, in your mind, was far worse. My wife and I have a label for such people, they’re “toppers.” They always try to top your story or experience. True story—I was at a church function where some of the women were talking about a mutual friend who had to undergo a double-mastectomy, which was incredibly painful for this woman. Without missing a beat, a person immediately piped up, “Oh that’s nothing, the pain that I had from having a mole removed was far greater.” To say the least, the women who heard this comment weren’t convinced.
The point here is, we should be slow to try to connect immediately with the person we’re seeking to counsel or comfort. There may be an appropriate time to share your personal experience with the suffering person, but your first goal should be to comfort with your presence, support, and listening ear. Your second goal should be to pray for them. Offer to pray with and for the person. Your third goal should be to point them to Christ. Sometimes simply reading the cries of the psalmist are medicine for hurting hearts. And then, fourth, if appropriate, consider whether something from your own experience might be helpful. In other words, put Christ first and yourself second.