If you’re old enough to remember the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, you remember where you were when you heard the news. Driving down Coulter Drive in Bryan, Texas, I was on my way to a staff meeting at church. The radio broadcaster interrupted to report the shocking news that American Airlines Flight 11 had flown into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
This seemed inconceivable. Unfortunately, it was true, and within minutes, the awful reality of terrorism was verified when United Airlines Flight 175 slammed into the South Tower.
When I got to the office, we watched in horror as the two towers came crashing down. The images of people covered in ash running for their lives were devastating. Seeing others plummeting hundreds of feet to their deaths was ghastly. The tragedy continued as American Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon. Due to the bravery of the passengers of United Flight 93, which was headed to Washington, D.C., that plane was taken down before it could cause further damage.
We didn’t have our staff meeting; we prayed—intensely. Sixteen years later, these images are still horrifying to watch.
The number of people who suffered this evil is incalculable: 3,000 people died that day, including more than 300 firefighters and 70 law enforcement officers; thousands more were injured; and the residents of New York City, as well as those working at the Pentagon, suffered greatly. In defiance, the response of the American people to all of this devastation surpassed the evil that caused it. For one of the few times that I can remember, the rancor of politics was dropped, and the nation actually resembled “one nation under God.” Support came from across the country, prayer was earnest, and people were more open to Christ than any time in recent memory.
Amid all of this support and care (though largely unreported) were thousands of Christ’s people, many with churches and Christian organizations; they comforted, cared for, and counseled the hurting, meeting spiritual needs along with physical needs. The reason for such a response among God’s people is simple: God is “the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For just as the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through Christ” (2 Corinthians 1:4-5).
Suffering is reality, and no one wants it. Ironically, believers in Christ are at their best when giving comfort to the afflicted.
I’ve seen the power of God’s people comforting the afflicted many times. I remember it when I took a group to Turkey in 1999 following the devastating earthquake in Izmit and the surrounding area, which killed 17,000 and left more than 300,000 homeless. The largest presence of any aid group was Christians from all over the world, working as one to care for the needs of the people and finding ways to share Christ with them. We set up shelters, organized food and clothing distribution, and simply sat down to listen to people, cry with them, love them, and show Jesus Christ to them. Most of this was never reported—but, if you were there, you saw it firsthand.
As I write this, Hurricane Harvey has just overwhelmed the Texas Gulf Coast, causing destruction from Corpus Christi to Orange. Houston has been devastated. As in previous disasters, the response to the suffering has been spectacular: emergency workers, government agencies, and businesses have given and done so much. These organizations should be recognized and thanked for all they’ve done. Volunteers with boats, trucks, and any other means of rescuing people have just shown up to help—truly remarkable.
Among these are thousands of Christians. One news broadcaster said he had never seen so many churches and Christian organizations doing so much to help in so many ways.
Southwestern Seminary is putting together plans for faculty and students to go down to help in the relief efforts. The effort will take months, even years, to accomplish. Prepared to meet the physical and emotional needs of those who are suffering, we will also be prepared with the Gospel. And be there we will—serving in the midst of suffering is what Christ’s people do best.
We know what it means to suffer spiritual poverty and affliction; most of us also know other forms of suffering. Because we know the comfort of God in Jesus Christ, we will comfort the afflicted, not for recognition, but for the Kingdom of God, so that those who suffer will also come to know the abundant comfort of Jesus Christ.