The Best Way to Discourage a Suffering Friend

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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

  • May 25, 2014 - 12:35 pm

    Diane - Vaneetha, I want you to know this has ministered deeply to my soul. I am suffering with a long standing problem that is getting much worse and the fact that you understand and can articulate what wounds the sufferer means so much to me right now. When I felt particularly judged I asked God to show me what kind of reactions godly people had to sufferng in the Bible and he directed me to 1 Kings 17: 17-24. He comforted me and gave me hope. Thanks for writing this.ReplyCancel

    • May 25, 2014 - 3:05 pm

      Vaneetha - What a great passage that is about our anguish and deliverance in suffering. Thank you for writing Diane. I’m so sorry that you are being wounded as a sufferer, and I pray the Lord Himself will give you His comfort, which far surpasses what anyone else can do or say.ReplyCancel

  • May 25, 2014 - 10:54 pm

    kimberly - This is such an insightful post- I wish everyone, everywhere could read it. How appallingly insensitive we can be when faced with the raw suffering of another. We hate feeling powerless to “fix it”, so we sometimes throw words at it-words that have not only lost any real meaning in the situation, but can border on the obscene in their insensitivity. Everything you wrote hits such a chord of truth. I will refer to this often, to remind me. Thank you, Vaneetha, for your deep insights!ReplyCancel

    • May 25, 2014 - 11:03 pm

      Vaneetha - I’m so glad it was helpful, Kimberly. I know how hard it is to be the recipient of someone’s insensitive words and all too often I spoken them myself, in an effort to “fix it.” I’m so thankful that His grace covers it all! Thank you for writing!ReplyCancel

  • May 25, 2014 - 10:59 pm

    kimberly - In hopes of bringing a smile- every time I read your blog, I am reminded of a quote from St. Theresa of Avila when she was thrown from a horse (addressing God)- “If this is the way you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few!”ReplyCancel

  • May 26, 2014 - 3:45 pm

    Cathy Evans - A timely reminder-like you I have been on both sides of the coin and I still have to gird myself to not respond with the “easy” answer-even if I have learned the truth of that answer through my own hard experiences. And to listen. My mantra “I’m sorry, that sucks, I love you”. Just had one of those conversations last night…..ReplyCancel

    • May 26, 2014 - 4:12 pm

      Vaneetha - Thanks for writing, Cathy. I can relate to your words!ReplyCancel

  • June 19, 2014 - 7:23 pm

    Really? Grace…for them? - Vaneetha Demski - […] my post a few weeks ago, “The Best Way to Discourage a Suffering Friend,” a close friend stopped by and asked, “Was that post about me? Was I the discouraging friend? I […]ReplyCancel

  • July 10, 2015 - 8:25 pm

    Arlene - I have people who try to tell me what I should or should not do after my husband passed away two months ago. I am truly tired of hearing opinions as I am the one who is grieving. Even if they have good intentions it doesn’t do any good to tell someone how to grieve. I am on this side of the fence and it looks different from here than where they are. When others haven’t lost a mate through a year of being a caregiver and then having them gone is a great big void and they don’t understand the void.. Now, alone and after 44 years with your closest friend, confidant, and partner for what you felt you would have time to grow older together. There’s so many reasons not to say the wrong thing. I appreciate your website and hopefully it can bring hope and help to those who have been there. And also for those who think they know the answers but really don’t. I think my advice to them would be to understand losing someone is painful, so don’t be so hard on us who have.ReplyCancel

    • July 11, 2015 - 2:50 pm

      Vaneetha - I am so sorry for your loss, Arlene. Grieving is such an individual & personal thing, and its hard when well meaning people offer unasked-for advice which makes us feel judged. When that happens, I try to remember that they only want to help me (even when their help isn’t “helpful”) and try to offer them grace. Otherwise, I end up getting bitter as I focus on my irritation with them instead of focussing on the Lord as I grieve and heal. I am praying as I write this that the Lord will comfort and carry you as you deal with this devastating loss. I cannot imagine how hard that is right now.ReplyCancel

    • July 13, 2015 - 1:13 pm

      Arlene - I appreciate your response to me. The thoughts I wrote were from pain. Thank you for helping me to see more clearly that it’s better not to allow myself to get bitter, and by trusting God to help me at times when people seem to use the wrong words after losing a spouse.
      I watched a movie last evening on the life of Joseph, how his brothers mistreated him and he chose to still trust God and not be overcome by their offences. In the end he showed mercy to them and won their love through his forgiveness. I am believing that with God’s help I will do the same. Thank you again for helping me to remember that.ReplyCancel

      • July 13, 2015 - 2:01 pm

        Vaneetha - You are so welcome, Arlene. With the Lord, I know you will be able to forgive as Joseph did,ReplyCancel

  • January 27, 2016 - 3:19 am

    Su - Vaneetha, thank you SO much for this.I was hurting very much, hearing words, words, words.. of good advice..I was crying to the Lord.And He brought me here.Bless you Vaneetha.ReplyCancel

    • January 27, 2016 - 10:20 am

      Vaneetha - So thankful the Lord used this, Su. Praying He will continue to comfort you…ReplyCancel

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