Sixth Spiritual Work of Mercy: Comfort the Afflicted

William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825–1905), "Compassion"
William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825–1905), "Compassion" (photo: Register Files)

The sixth spiritual work of mercy highlights an act of charity that we too often neglect. In American society we tend to avoid, “comforting the afflicted,” and either try to solve the “problem” or dismiss a person’s suffering entirely. We are even told that suffering is a sign of weakness and so many of us will never bring up our affliction in front of others.

Simply put, we are afraid of suffering. It makes us feel uncomfortable.

As an example, I certainly fail in this regard when it comes to comforting my own wife. Like so many other men I try to “fix” my wife’s problems. She begins to tell me how hard it was at home with the kids and how stressed she is and I immediately begin to think of how I can “fix” her problem. I listen, but I do not try to “comfort.” Her suffering makes me feel uncomfortable and so I try to solve it. Sometimes, what I really should say after she relates to me her suffering is, (to quote a Parks and Recreation episode) “that really sucks.”

What I fail to do is to have “compassion.” The Latin roots of this word can be broken down to “cum” (with) and “passio” (suffering). Having compassion for someone is “to suffer with” that person. It means taking part in their suffering and hearing them out. Often all a person wants is to be “heard.” That alone can comfort them in their trials.

Another example of how we often fail in “comforting the afflicted” is by dismissing suffering entirely. Men are the best at doing this (again). We are told time and time again to never show emotion and to “fight through the pain.” It is a sign of ultimate weakness for a man to talk to another man about the suffering he is enduring. In our society a “strong” man is one who keeps a straight face even through his wife’s funeral.

Instead of facing head-on the suffering in our life and going to others for comfort, we are told to “mask” our suffering by numbing it. All sorts of coping mechanisms have led to the downfall of many. We try to “drink” our sorrows away or even watch TV to ignore our affliction.

In recent years we have sought to “eliminate” our suffering through abortion or euthanasia. We are told that we shouldn’t have to suffer and are instructed to sweep it all under the rug.

It should come as no surprise that “comforting the afflicted” makes us so uncomfortable. We don’t want to hear about suffering, because it reminds us of our own suffering. Yet, performing this work of mercy is exactly what we need. In a very real way, “comforting the afflicted” has spiritual benefits for both parties. Not only does the afflicted person feel “heard,” but also the person listening becomes an image of Christ, who bore all of our sufferings on the wood of the cross.

Jesus said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). We should not be afraid of our suffering, but take it to Christ and sometimes that means we need to take it to the “Christs” in our midst. It is not a sign of weakness to share your suffering with someone. In fact, it takes great courage and it takes even more courage to listen and not try to solve the problem. Sometimes we just need to “suffer with” that person in order to comfort them.