Have you ever wanted to help someone through a struggle or trial only to be dismissed or ignored because, well, you’ve never had to go through the same thing? Maybe you’ve been put in your place by that defensive line, “You don’t know what it’s like!”
I recently ran into this ministry road-block when I was interviewing for a part-time position ministering to young men in difficult situations. My life experience came into question. I guess I’m a little too naive when it comes to the hard knock life, and I don’t have a rough enough past (for which I blame my parents). Now, to be fair, I really don’t have a clue why I wasn’t called back for a second interview (other than God’s sovereignty). It could have been bad breath or my receding hairline or lame attempts at comic relief, but in all likelihood it was because there was another incredible man of God who is going to be used by Him in unique and mighty ways within that ministry role. But the interview itself hurled me back into insecurities about the basic nature of Christian ministry. I had walked in confident that I could serve effectively because I love God, I love people, and I’ve experienced the power of the Holy Spirit using Scripture to transforms lives into the image of His Son. I walked out feeling like I’d been patted on the head and sent back to just deal with middle-class white people. …maybe if I had picked up a fake Mike Tyson tattoo before going in…
Could I even do this job? Could God really use me to impact young men who’ve seen and done things that are way outside of my everyday life experience? Or should I just shut-up and go back to helping people who are more like me?
Can I only help someone if I’ve gone through a similar situation?
The employer was in no way accusatory, and I am confident that they are also fully convinced of the power of God’s Word. But they openly admitted to me that the last guy had had great success getting through to young guys in trouble because of how he could relate. He had been through some really dark times, and was able to recount his own struggles and trials. And when I was asked about the toughest thing I’ve ever been through my answer probably wasn’t what they were looking for. I just said repentance.
I suppose that answer wasn’t sizzling and juicy. I guess I could have brought up death or cancer and tried to cry, but I meant what I said. And the more I’ve pondered repentance, the more I’ve regained my confidence that God wants to use me to impact people with whom I have seemingly nothing in common. There is something that is far more terrifying and awful than pointing a gun at your own head, and that’s coming face-to-face with a holy God when every fiber of your being is dripping with the refuse of your repulsive sin. There’s no escape. No excuse. No hope.
Unless you know Christ.
And that’s why everyone who has been saved by the power of the gospel and who is being washed by the water of the Word can be used by God to speak into the heart of any soul wallowing in the muck of despair. The blood of Jesus is a better word than a sympathetic condolence. Salvation and repentance are God’s work in my heart, and He has and will continue to do the same in the hearts and lives of people who are nothing like me but exactly like me. None of us have the same story. But we all share the same story. I may never suffer as you do, but I know your weakness. Because it’s the same weakness in my heart. Remember, “no temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man“ (1 Cor. 10:13). We are all in desperate need of Jesus and His grace.
There is no doubt that God uses the circumstances in our life to help us connect and teach others (see Psalm 51:13 after David repented from his sin with Bathsheeba). That’s why Paul wanted to boast of his weakness in 2 Cor. 12, because God told him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” The gospel shines through our weakness. And God often uses similar struggles to connect others who have or are going through the same thing. But just because He can and often does use similar circumstances, does not mean that He has to. And swapping stories does nothing if it’s not connected to The Story, in which we will all one day bow before the same Name.
So I can help people who are nothing like me. Because they are just like me.
I don’t need to impress people with my own horrifying stories that are similar to (or more fascinating than) the trial they are facing. In fact, if I can’t connect or share truth with them until I’ve assured them that I completely understand their circumstances because of my own experience, than I run the risk of them dismissing me completely because of a small wrinkle or detail that I haven’t had to deal with and in their minds changes the whole ballgame. But I can impress upon them their need to turn to the One who can truly sympathize with their weakness. ”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).