What’s the best way to discourage a suffering friend?
I can tell you what I’ve done.
I’ve told suffering friends about how other people are going through more painful trials. I’ve given examples of how brave, godly and optimistic these other people are. I’ve freely doled out advice, even mini-sermons, about how their horrible situations will turn out for the best.
I wasn’t trying to be discouraging. I was trying to help. Surprisingly, my advice didn’t help at all. My words just added to their pain.
I know, because I’ve been on the receiving end of that kind of “help” as well.
That “help” has cut deeply. It has left me feeling judged and misunderstood in the midst of my struggle. It has made my burden heavier. It has made me feel lonely and isolated, unsure of whom to trust.
So when my friend Jane is told her circumstances aren’t that bad and she needs to trust God more, I feel bad for her. She has been dealing with a difficult situation for years, and it is getting worse. When she says she’s being compared to others, I understand her pain. I’ve been there before. But when she tells me that I am the person she’s being compared to, I am mortified.
I feel like I’ve just added to her burden. That’s a horrible thing for a friend to do. Jane feels like she’s surrounded by Job’s comforters, who went on and on, speaking about things they did not know or understand.
As Job said, “I have heard all this before. What miserable comforters you are! Won’t you ever stop blowing hot air? What makes you keep on talking? I could say the same things if you were in my place. I could spout off criticism and shake my head at you. But if it were me, I would encourage you. I would try to take away your grief.” Job 16:2-5 (NLT)
Job wanted his comforters to stop talking. Stop blowing hot air. Stop criticizing and judging. He longed for them to listen. Encourage him. Think about what he needed in his grief.
I’ve been like Job’s friends more often than I care to remember. I’ve been in Job’s place too. I’ve been a miserable comforter and I’ve received miserable comfort. Here is what I’ve learned from both sides of the fence:
When I’m in agony, I don’t want stock answers. When someone tells me to count my blessings; my plight could be worse; there are starving orphans in Africa who have a much harder situation, I want to scream. Of course, these things are all true. But at that moment, they feel irrelevant.
Pat answers sound sermonizing. Saying that all things work together for good is absolutely true, but it feels hollow at a funeral. Besides, unasked for advice is criticism.
It’s hard to be compared to the seemingly perfect Christians in the world. Who appear to face every trial with smiles on their faces. Who never seem to get discouraged.
True, I may not be healing as fast as they have. Perhaps they are trusting God more than I am. Maybe their situations are harder than mine. But when people minimize my struggle, it magnifies my pain. I feel judged. Misunderstood. It also makes me want to explain my miseries in excruciating detail, to get corroboration that my situation is difficult.
The fact is, I don’t always handle my trials well. I’m broken. A work in progress. I don’t like having things unravel.
I can take some suggestions, but I’m fragile. I need much more encouragement to balance out any advice. And mostly I need grace. It’s hard to present a perfect, put-together self when life is crushing me.
I know Jane’s friends meant well. We all do. We don’t want our friends to be overwhelmed, held captive to their struggles. We don’t want them to be defined by their trials. We want them to learn from their mistakes and find joy in the present.
Those are worthy goals, but we cannot presume that our mere words will bring them about. Transforming our suffering is the work of the Holy Spirit and not the product of good advice. Our main work is to pray.
So how do we treat those who are suffering? What does it look like to be a good friend? What should we say to our neighbors who are struggling?
From my experience, the most comforting thing we can do is to sit and say nothing. When Job’s friends first saw him, “they sat with him on the ground, seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.” Job 2:13. Job’s friends should have quit while they were ahead.
Having someone listen as I pour out my heart has helped me more than any words ever have. I just want someone to be there. To weep with me. To say they are sorry that things are so hard. To not expect me to have perfect theology. To let me rant. What an amazing gift it is not to feel judged by every word I utter in desperation.
I’m encouraged when others can find something, anything, I’m doing well. When they show me evidence of God’s grace in my life. When they remind me that Jesus weeps with me. My sister, who pulls me out of the pit more than anyone else, reminds me of all of those things. Regularly. She tells me that God is doing something bigger with my pain than I can possibly see. That He will use it for good. That my suffering will not be wasted.
In my grief, I have also appreciated reading encouraging articles. I love getting specific applicable verses from Scripture. I covet people’s prayers. I love to get texts, emails, notes or phone calls to remind me that I am not forgotten.
We need to remember there is mystery in suffering. We don’t understand the ways of God. Job’s friends thought they did, which was why they blamed Job for his plight. There are no easy answers in grief.
It’s easy to discourage a struggling friend. Trust me, I know.
But I’m challenging you, me, all of us, to put down our expectations of our suffering friends. Not to bludgeon them with our theology. Not to try to be their savior.
Instead, let’s sit with our friends. Cry with them. Support them as they grieve. They need grace to heal.
Remember, our struggling friends don’t need a savior. They already have One… and so do we.
photo courtesy of Jonathan Davidar