There is a time to share a story from your own life that corresponds to a story shared by a friend. For example, you tell of your experience of narrowly avoiding an accident earlier this week, and I tell of my similar experience from earlier this year. That is all fine and well. It is friendly talk, demonstrating that you cared to hear their story and that you want them to know about your story.

But sometimes it is selfish. Sometimes it is not caring. Sometimes it is a very selfish mask for empathy. For example, if you were to share of your struggle right now because of a blistering headache, and I replied “Yes, I had one of those last month”, you will probably not feel cared for. There is an element of understanding and care, but it is not really empathy. Empathy would think about one’s own experience, but then use that knowledge to speak words of comfort. Instead of speaking of my similar experience, I ought to use my similar experience to share some love and care. “Yes I had one of those last month” is sharing a personal experience, but “I’m sorry, that’s terrible, let me get you some peace and quiet” is empathy informed by personal experience.

Although Paul was writing about comforting those suffering for Christ, the principle of using one’s own suffering to comfort others is very clearly explained in his care for the struggling believers.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.

2 Corinthians 1:3-4 (ESV)

Later in verse 6, Paul explains that not only was the comfort he experienced a guide to comfort others, but even his suffering was used to comfort them.

If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation;
and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort

2 Corinthians 1:6 (ESV)

In other words, when Paul realised others are suffering in a way he had also experienced, he did not point them to his own suffering as though that would help them. Instead, he pointed them to the comfort that he had received.

Sharing stories of suffering can easily become a very selfish form of showing empathy, but sharing comfort is true empathy. To state it a little more bluntly, using the suffering of another to talk about your own suffering is perhaps the most insensitive forms of selfishness, albeit perhaps motivated by a superficial sense of care. But using your own suffering to comfort those who are suffering is true love.

Later in 2 Corinthians Paul does go into detail of his own suffering (2 Cor 1:8-10), but by then the purpose had changed. Paul was no longer focussing on comforting them, but was instead asking them to pray for him (2 Cor 1:11). This change in the purpose is very enlightening for us. When a person is suffering in a way that you have, perhaps still are, suffering, then comfort them from the comfort that you experienced, but do not draw attention to your own stories. However, if you are truly also suffering, then, after you have blessed them, ask for their prayerful intercession for you.

When others suffer, comfort them the way you were comforted before. When you suffer, ask for prayer. When you both suffer simultaneously, first show them comfort, and then request prayer for self.