I don’t know about you, but I often feel incredibly hesitant in approaching people who are suffering. What if they don’t want to talk about it? What if they do want to talk about it and I say the wrong thing?
As believers, we have a responsibility to care for those who are hurting as it tells us in Galatians 5:2, “Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ.” But how do we do this without making things worse?
I often think how I need to have faith for the difficult things God brings into my life, but how often do we think about having faith for the suffering God brings into other people’s lives? More often, I’m inclined to show sympathy by expressing pity and discontent over what they’re going through, thinking that’s what will comfort them.
In talking with a grieving friend I tried making suggestions for how I thought she could make things better. Unable to change her circumstances and not knowing how to comfort her, I resorted to saying things like, “I wish you didn’t have to go through this” and “I hate this for you.”
My disapproval over her situation was directed at God.
God loves His people and knows that suffering is good for our souls (Hebrews 12:10-11 and James 1:2-4). When we don’t have faith for the suffering God brings into our lives or the lives of others, we undermine His work.
When we do have faith for the suffering God has placed into their life, then we can point them toward Christ in their suffering, and then we can be a true source of comfort. But when we lack faith for their suffering, we are in danger of embittering their souls against God.
Helping hurting people is a sensitive thing because everyone grieves differently, and the last thing we want to do is make things harder for them. But we can all learn how to encourage suffering people, even if it’s something we’d rather avoid. Particularly as believers, we must learn, because we have been commanded by God to bind up the brokenhearted, to comfort the weak, and to bear one another’s burdens.
Here are some practical points for comforting hurting people:
1. Comfort others with the comfort God has shown you
Loving someone in their suffering begins with having compassion. Remember the ways God has shown you comfort when you were hurting and your compassion will be stirred for others. Then you’ll be in a place to use what God has taught you to comfort others (2 Corinthians 1:3-5).
The promises of God are abundant to His people. You can share His promises with them, or you can share how God has been faithful to you when you were hurting. But if you share from your own life and experiences let it be about pointing them to Christ, not about yourself. Don’t let it become a game of comparison, “whose-suffered-the-most.” It should be about helping them see that God is their comforter and the One who gives peace.
2. Be present
Probably about the only encouraging thing Job’s friends did for him was to simply be with him. They sat silently, not saying a word, but they were there. When you don’t know what to say, and most of the time we don’t, your presence alone can communicate more care and give more encouragement than most of the words you might speak.
3. Speak little
It was when Job’s friends did begin to speak that the encouragement began to unravel! They did not know how to understand Job’s suffering; just as we often don’t know what God is doing in our loved one’s suffering. We can’t take the place of God to understand His purpose in their pain. But we can encourage them to seek God to understand what He is doing in their life.
In light of not speaking too much, what we can do instead is listen. A listening ear is often what will minister to a hurting person the most.
Knowing that someone cares enough to hear about the heartaches and the struggles in their life is an enormous source of encouragement. Often what we really want to do is take the persons suffering away, and knowing that we can’t do that we tend to feel like we don’t have anything to offer. But not only is that not true, it’s a lack of faith. We should want God’s work to be accomplished in their suffering. So listen. And if you must speak, do it in a way that shows you have faith for what they’re going through.
5. Encourage them with truth and sincerity
You may have heard it said that if you really want to be an encouragement to someone you shouldn’t give them a Bible verse because it just sounds flippant. We don’t want to be the person who gives a pat answer, “Just trust God,” and is on their way.
Well, no you don’t want to be flippant. But don’t let this keep you from sharing God’s truth. One of the most helpful things to me when I was suffering was when people shared God’s promises with me. Often they would say, “I know you already know this but…”
And I was thinking, “Sure, maybe I’ve heard that verse before, but I need the reminder of it NOW more than ever.”
6. Forget yourself
Leave your insecurities behind in not knowing the best way to encourage, and let the Holy Spirit bring the encouragement. Part of what makes us insecure in reaching out is we don’t always know what will bring comfort. There were times in my life where the comfort someone intended to give me didn’t comfort me, but God used it for good in my life in ways they hadn’t intended.
7. Use discernment
There are lots of ways to encourage someone, but we don’t use all of these all the time. Sometimes we talk, sometimes just listen. Sometimes we share a verse, sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we help them laugh, sometimes we cry with them. Sometimes, we’re heavily involved in helping and comforting someone, while other times our role is minimal. Use discernment in these things. Discernment is something we have to practice, learn, and get better at.
8. Pray often
In all cases, we can pray for those who are suffering. We can pray right there with them. One of my dearest friends said early on in our friendship after a long heart-to-heart, “Well, it’s nice to talk about these things, but really God’s the One who can do something about it, so let’s pray.”
We should also pray at home. And we should let our hurting friends know we are praying for them. But then we should actually do it! Often Christians tell each other they’ll pray for them, but how often do we walk away and forget to do it? If this is a struggle for you, you might make a habit of praying for them right then and there, with them. Or pray after they’ve walked away. This may also spur your memory to pray again later. And the more we pray for someone, the more we’re able to love them. The people I’m spending time praying for are the ones I’m remembering to ask how they’re doing when I see them later.
9. Have faith
Not knowing how to encourage someone who is suffering is never an excuse. If you are a believer, you know how to encourage, because you know Christ, and He has comforted you.
And if you try to comfort someone and walk away feeling you’ve made a mess of it, have faith for that too. The Holy Spirit is the one at work in their heart and He can use even your failings. Of course, if you’ve sinned again them, go back and seek their forgiveness. Even that, God can use for good.
What God is doing is a work of eternal value in their life because that’s what suffering is in the life of a believer. The worst thing we can do is undermine God’s work by not having faith for it. The greatest help we can be to someone who is hurting is to help them remember that God is God. That doesn’t mean you become a preacher. It can be as simple as giving them a hug and saying nothing at all.
However you do it, have faith, and your faith will bolster theirs.