Introductory Note:

“I remember with some embarrassment my first attempts to lessen the suffering of people in my hometown,” writes Trevor Hudson. Trevor goes on to tell how he and a friend would hand out food to the homeless with the best of intentions, but “without bothering to get to know anyone’s name or listen to anyone’s story.” He writes, “The Spirit needed to show me how to be with those who suffer.”

In this excerpt from his book Holy Spirit Here and Now, Trevor shares wisdom about coming alongside those who suffer, and invites readers into the spiritual discipline of planned encounters with people who suffer. This isn’t a discipline we often hear about, but Trevor explains two benefits: “On the one hand, because we can easily avoid the suffering of people around us, we need proactive planning to be with them. For this reason I often encourage those young in the faith to make this practice an intentional and regular part of their new life in Christ. Otherwise, it may not happen at all. On the other hand, because we often know about poverty, joblessness, and addiction only in theory, we need flesh-and-blood encounters that confront us with these realities.”

We hope that the counsel and practice shared here will help all of us chew on the question: How can the Church—the Body of Christ—respond to brokenness and suffering with the love and power God shares with us?

Renovaré Team

Excerpt from Holy Spirit Here and Now

Being With

To catch a glimpse of how the Holy Spirit enables us to be with persons who suffer, let me contrast my first attempts to engage suffering with another story. It goes like this: A West Indian woman in a London flat was told of her husband’s death in a street accident.

The shock of such unexpected grief stunned her. She sank into a corner of the sofa and sat there rigid and unhearing. For a long time her terrible trancelike look embarrassed her family, friends, and officials who came and went. Then the school teacher of one of her children, an English woman, called on the family. The teacher sat down beside the wife and put an arm around her tight shoulders. A white cheek touched a brown one. Then as the unrelenting pain seeped through to her, the newcomer’s tears began to flow quietly, falling on their two hands linked in the woman’s lap. For a long time that was all that took place. 

Then at last the West Indian woman began to sob. Still not a word was spoken. After a while the visitor got up and left, leaving her monetary contribution to help the family meet its immediate practical needs. 

John Taylor, who tells this story, reflects almost poetically: This is the embrace of God, his kiss of life. That is the embrace of his mission, and of our intercession. And the Holy Spirit is the force in the straining muscles of an arm, the film of sweat between pressed cheeks, the mingled wetness on the backs of clasped hands. He is as close and as unobtrusive as that, and as irresistibly strong.1

Will you join me in letting the Holy Spirit show us how to be with those who suffer? 

It will save us from a toxic charity that sometimes dehumanizes more than it helps. It will make possible a giving of ourselves uncontaminated by empty words and loveless actions. It will set us free from a cold and misdirected activism that seldom dignifies the lives on whose behalf we seek to bring justice. It will make us continual learners who never assume that we are experts in knowing what the other person needs. But perhaps most importantly, it will provide a foundation from which we can engage those who suffer — engage them with Spirit-inspired words and Spirit-directed actions that bring life and blessing. 

Speaking and Doing

There comes the time when, in our engagement with suffering, we must go beyond just being present with those in need. In order to bless and to bring life to those who are oppressed and in pain, we allow the Holy Spirit to speak and act through us. When we read through the New Testament, the Spirit does this in two chief ways. Sometimes the Holy Spirit transforms our human abilities; at other times the Holy Spirit transcends our human inabilities.2 Both are ways in and through which the Holy Spirit empowers us to be part of God’s good-news story today in a broken and hurting world. 

Take some time to read through the book of Acts if you want to see how the Holy Spirit worked through the early Christ-followers’ speaking and doing. When they proclaimed God’s good-news story, the Holy Spirit brought many into God’s family. When they shared their material possessions, the Holy Spirit blessed people in need. When they ministered to the sick and lame, the Holy Spirit gave remarkable gifts of healing. When they reached out to people from different cultural backgrounds, the Holy Spirit created a new kind of community that had not been seen before in the first-century world. When they opposed unjust practices, the Holy Spirit set people free. When you step into the fifth book of the New Testament, you see how the Spirit transformed these early Christians’ human abilities and transcended their human inabilities as they engaged their suffering world.

Contemporary Stories

The Holy Spirit continues to do this today. Let me share three stories. First, I think of a good friend of mine who serves as the human resources director in a medium-sized company that employs about six hundred people. He knows most employees by name. He visits their homes when tragedy strikes and advocates on behalf of the workers for a more equitable sharing of profits. He creates jobs wherever he can. He has set up training programs to empower and to equip those who were previously disadvantaged. Recently he facilitated a wage agreement for the next three years, which was agreed upon by the workers involved. I am amazed at how the Holy Spirit transformed his natural abilities for the sake of the common good. Yet he also tells me that the outcomes of his efforts have far exceeded what he could have achieved in his own strength and wisdom. Without a doubt, the Holy Spirit has been at work! 

The second story comes from the classroom of my wife. Early this year Debbie asked learners in one of her new classes about their dreams for the future. Lerato shared her wish that all the teachers in the school be killed. Debbie, while taken aback, offered a Spirit-inspired response. She decided to greet Lerato each morning by name. She went out of her way to express interest in her life. She affirmed her as often as she could. One day Lerato asked Debbie if they could speak privately. During break time Lerato told about her painful past of abuse, neglect, and struggle with poverty. From that conversation onward Lerato’s attitude changed totally. Today Lerato is one of the best learners in the class. I view this shift as the Holy Spirit at work, transforming Debbie’s teaching abilities and changing another person on the inside. 

The third story involves a pastoral encounter I had with someone who felt completely forsaken by God. Early one Friday morning, a friend brought a suicidal woman to my office. For over two hours I listened to her dark and desperate story. I felt totally inadequate to know how to respond. Before she left, I asked if we could pray together. As we sat together silently before praying, three letters came into my mind. They were BOB. I asked her if this meant anything. She recounted a horrific story of rape by someone named Bob. I told her that I believed the Holy Spirit had given this name to me as a reminder that God under- stood and had not forgotten what had happened to her. This moment became a turning point in her relationship with God and in her struggle with despair. The Holy Spirit had transcended my human inability to help someone in a life-and-death situation by giving me a piece of information to share with her that I could not possibly have known by myself. 

As the Holy Spirit helps us engage those who suffer, we can depend on the same Spirit to bring life and blessing through us. Whatever our speaking and doing abilities may be, the Holy Spirit can transform them. They could be our computer competency, our lead- ership strength, our organizational capacity, our people skills, our homemaking talent, or many other aptitudes. The Holy Spirit can set them on fire! But let us also remind ourselves that the Holy Spirit can transcend our human inabilities with special abilities that come from God. The Spirit can give us special grace-gifts3 of knowledge and wisdom, of healing and miraculous powers, of discernment and prophecy for particular situations. We would be wise to learn as much as we can about how these grace-gifts operate and to convey an openness to them. 

Planned Encounters with People Who Suffer

I encourage you to begin at a simple level. Commit yourself to spend a portion of your week, perhaps an hour, an afternoon, or an evening with someone who suffers. This person may be in prison, terminally ill, severely handicapped, economically poor, or stuck in a dark depression. In my own experience, I have found that the person’s name will usually come to you as a result of praying and watching those around you. As you plan to spend time together, keep the following thoughts in mind. 

Before getting together, ask the Holy Spirit to be with you in the encounter. When you are with the person, make sure that the emphasis of your time together stresses your being with the other person. Be present as simply as you can. Be aware of that person’s sacredness and infinite preciousness to God. Remember that you are there not to give advice or to solve problems — or even to help. You join the person in order to understand what it feels like to be in his or her situation. Your attentive presence is the greatest gift. 

During your encounter, try to listen rather than speak. The gift of ears is as important as the gift of tongues. Listening lies at the heart of all our encounters with people in pain. Remind yourself that Christ wants to meet you in the life of this sufferer. He may want to speak to you through this person. So notice your thoughts and feelings as you spend time together, and be alert for the still small voice of God. After the encounter, take time to reflect on your inner responses, perhaps noting them in a journal. Sometimes it can also be helpful for us to talk about these reflections with a soul friend who listens well. Above all, ask God what you can learn from the experience. 

As with any spiritual practice, it will not always be easy to stick with this commitment. 

You may find yourself looking for excuses to opt out or to put your time to more productive use. If this inner resistance comes along, speak about it with God and maybe with your soul-friend too. I have found that our resistance often reveals to us the hardness of our hearts. These encounters can sometimes bring us face-to-face with the deep-rooted forces of self-centeredness that lurk inside us all. We are not always the compassionate people we think we are. And yet, our acknowledgment before God of this unpleasant reality allows the Holy Spirit to go about quietly transforming our hearts. 

As we stick with this practice, divine compassion begins to flower. Nonsentimental and caring deeds are birthed. Courage to speak truth to the principalities and powers” flowers. Our hearts begin yearning for a society that encourages justice and compassion for all.4This is the Holy Spirit at work, changing us on the inside, engaging us with God’s good-news story for our time. 

  1. John V. Taylor, The Go-Between God (London: SCM Press, 2004), 243. ↩︎
  2. Scot McKnight, One Life: Jesus Calls, We Follow (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), 100. ↩︎
  3. Rather than devote one specific chapter to the grace-gifts of the Holy Spirit, I have woven in stories throughout the book that show them at work in the midst of our daily relational, communal, and missional lives. There are many helpful books written specifically about these grace-gifts. Among the many, I warmly commend Gary Best’s Naturally Supernatural: God May Be Closer Than You Think (Cape Town, South Africa: Vineyard International Publishing, 2007). ↩︎
  4. Trevor Hudson, A Mile in My Shoes (Nashville, TN: Upper Room Books, 2005), 22. ↩︎

Adapted from Holy Spirit Here and Now, by Trevor Hudson. Copyright © 2013 Trevor Hudson. Published by
Upper Room Books, August 11994

Photo by Jan Canty on Unsplash

Text First Published August 1994 · Last Featured on July 2022