What If I Never Get Better?

How Not to Comfort Suffering People

I called her when I heard the news. Her husband has cancer.

When the doctors first detected an irregularity, they were unconcerned. It was probably nothing. But they decided to run tests just in case. Despite what they had predicted, the tests came back positive. Malignant.

She ran into a neighbor soon after they received the diagnosis. Her neighbor sympathized, but then immediately dismissed her fears. Countless people get cancer and ultimately live, long healthy lives. She needn’t worry. Everything was going to be fine.

How could her neighbor know that? What if her husband wasn’t fine?

My friend left that encounter feeling misunderstood and minimized. Her neighbor doesn’t know how this will turn out. No one does. To my friend, easy comfort and quick reassurance feel hollow. She doesn’t need “Don’t worry; it’ll all be fine” comfort. That comfort isn’t based on truth. It simply looks away from hard things.

Whitewashed Comfort

“When people keep assuring me that I’ll have a positive outcome, it feels like my pain is being dismissed.”

Why do we offer whitewashed comfort anyway? I have done it, so I’m indicting myself as much as anyone. I wonder why it’s our go-to script when sorrow is at the door. Perhaps we want our friends to feel better immediately. Even if the comfort is temporary, we want them to move on and not dwell on the negative. We also subtly believe that God will be more glorified in healing and wholeness than in sickness and brokenness.

Is the comfort we’re offering in those moments true? Is it helpful to hear anecdotes of people who had a good outcome? Or being quoted encouraging survival statistics? Is it really that reassuring knowing 70% of people recover or survive — when 30% don’t? Is our comfort based on assuming we’ll be in the majority?

This is the only kind of comfort the world can give. Sadly, it’s how many believers try to comfort the hurting. People assured me that God would be most glorified in my infant son’s healing. Besides, his heart surgeon had an 80% success rate. Don’t worry; it’ll all be fine.

When my son died at two months old, God was glorified in a different way.

What If I Never Heal?

When I was first diagnosed with post-polio, friends felt sure that I wouldn’t deteriorate physically. I would beat the odds, and that would glorify God. But years later, as post-polio sets in, I realize I can glorify God even if my body isn’t healed.

When my ex-husband left, everyone had God-glorifying stories of broken marriages being restored. They were sure that would be our story too. But I have learned that God can still be glorified after a heartbreaking and unwanted divorce.

When people keep assuring me that I’ll have a positive outcome, it feels like my pain is being dismissed. My friend felt the same way as she was constantly being “cheered up.” She wanted true comfort. Comfort that would hold her up regardless of the outcome. Comfort that would not shift or fade as the news unfolded. Comfort that was not based on wishful thinking.

My friend then told me where she had found true comfort. She had committed the Heidelberg Catechism to memory, and as she was processing her husband’s diagnosis, the words came back to her. These words brought a waterfall of comfort, especially because her husband was also a believer. They had found true comfort.

The Greatest Comfort We Have

“As post-polio sets in, I have realized I can glorify God even if my body isn’t healed.”

When she had first memorized the catechism, they were just words. Good, sound theology. A great framework thinking about God. Now, they were springs of living water.

I vaguely remembered the words when she began, “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” She paused and then said, “That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.” I was startled by the power of this simple statement. The greatest comfort we can have is to know that we belong to Jesus. That nothing can separate us from his love or snatch us from his hand. Our lives now belong to Christ, and in death we will still belong to him.

She went on, “He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood and has set me free from all the power of the devil.” His precious blood has redeemed me. There is no outstanding debt with God. And Satan has no power over me, so there is nothing to fear. This is true comfort.

She continued speaking, enunciating her words slowly, thoughtfully. They weren’t just words. Each phrase was packed with meaning. She continued, “He also preserves me in such a way that, without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head. Indeed, all things must work together for my salvation.”

At this point, I was on the edge of tears. Scripture was woven through every line, beautifully entwined to give a breathtaking picture of comfort. No matter what happens, God will preserve me. He knows every detail of my life and every hair on my head. Nothing can happen to me apart from his sovereign will. Everything that happens to me is for my good and God’s glory.

Comforted by the Sufferer

Why had I not meditated on this Scripture-drenched catechism question before? These words, steeped in Scripture, are rock-solid assurances for every believer. They are timeless truths, based on the eternal promises of God. This is true comfort and it is unchanging.

“The greatest comfort we can have is to know that we belong to Jesus.”

She finished, “Therefore, by his Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for him.” Because we are assured of eternal life in heaven, we can endure anything in this short and fleeting life on earth. When we know our end is glorious, we can joyfully and willingly live for him, no matter what our circumstances.

When my friend finished reciting the catechism, I was speechless. Those words had such power. Though I had called to comfort her, she was comforting me with the comfort she had received from the Lord.