How to Discourage a Suffering Friend

suffering friends+

 

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. To encourage him. To think about what he needed in his grief.

I’ve been like Job’s friends more often than I care to remember. And 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 trite comments. 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 for those who love God is absolutely true, but it feels hollow at a funeral. Besides, unsolicited 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 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 should we treat our suffering friends?  What does being a friend to someone in need even look like? What should we say to our neighbors who are struggling? 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 finished the way they began.

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.

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 try to “fix” them. Or bludgeon them with our theology.

Instead, let’s sit with our friends. Cry with them. Support them as they grieve. They need grace to heal.

Remember, we don’t need to be a savior for our suffering friends. They already have One… and so do we.

 

 

Adapted and reposted from the Archives

 

  • October 20, 2016 - 11:18 pm

    Jacob David - This is exactly how I feel. As you put it rightly the words of Job comes to my mind ” What miserable comforters you are! Won’t you ever stop blowing hot air? What makes you keep on talking?”

    Yes, very true of what you said, “But when people minimize my struggle, it magnifies my pain.”

    May God continue to bless you and be of comfort and help to others.ReplyCancel

    • October 21, 2016 - 11:24 am

      Vaneetha - I’m sorry for other’s minimization of your pain. So thankful that Jesus knows exactly what we are going through and doesn’t minimize it. Yet He redeems it. ReplyCancel

      • October 22, 2016 - 12:39 am

        Jacob David - Thanks Vaneetha, Reading your writings are a great help and comfort.ReplyCancel

  • October 21, 2016 - 9:55 am

    Laura - Thank you, thank you and thank you again for sharing this. We can’t hear it often enough. Prayers for you and your friend.ReplyCancel

  • October 21, 2016 - 1:18 pm

    Keisha - This is literally my life right now, I am more discouraged the more I talk to my friends about my struggles. I even think that if I explain my struggle in detail, that will help them understand but that hasn’t been the case. How should I respond when I am the struggling friend?
    I’ve already said “I appreciate what you’re doing but it isn’t helpful, what helps me is when you just listen,” but I get responses of how I need to be understanding and give them grace.ReplyCancel

    • October 21, 2016 - 2:55 pm

      Vaneetha - I’m so sorry, Keisha. Its hard when people are trying to help you feel better and they think perhaps their words can help do that.

      Maybe you could say,”Its so hard for me to process words right now. There may be a lot of things I’m doing wrong, and a lot of things I could do differently, but I just can’t take that in right now. I know you really care but what would be the biggest blessing to me would be just to sit and listen. It may sound like ranting to you, but your listening ear would mean more than you know.”ReplyCancel

      • October 24, 2016 - 1:23 pm

        Keisha - Thank you Vaneetha!ReplyCancel

  • October 23, 2016 - 10:51 pm

    JAD - This is all very well good and true, and it is good to read this from one who has suffered much. But what happens when listening and saying nothing is ALL that friends do in one’s suffering? Or, when all one does is shove Gospel verses in one’s face? Depending on the trial, oftentimes it is needed for friends to “man the troops” than to continue to listen. There is only so much living in Job 6 and Psalm 88 that a sufferer can take.ReplyCancel

    • October 24, 2016 - 2:51 pm

      Vaneetha - Yes, I agree. Sometimes God calls us to speak and not just listen, but I think we need to make sure we do that prayerfully, at the prompting of the Holy Spirit. The Lord knows what our friends need, and if He calls us to act, we need to prayerfully obey Him. He will show us what to do and/or say.ReplyCancel

  • November 10, 2016 - 3:34 am

    Casey - Thank you for this! I have been on both sides as well. To have a friend who simply LISTENS when you want to just speak what is on your heart is invaluable. We need to be so slow to speak. How quick we are to fix, advise, counsel…ReplyCancel

    • November 14, 2016 - 9:25 pm

      Vaneetha - You are welcome, Casey. Having someone listen is such a gift…I wish I could remember that more often myself!ReplyCancel

  • January 17, 2017 - 3:29 pm

    Best Blogs for Christians with Chronic Pain and Illness | Life in Slow Motion - […] of my favorite posts are How to Discourage a Suffering Friend, The Blessing of Failure, and When the Detour Becomes the New Road. Go read them! You won’t […]ReplyCancel

  • March 8, 2017 - 1:45 pm

    It’s Complicated – lindsaymader - […] stumbled upon an article that ties well into this. You can read the full article here but here’s a few things that stuck with […]ReplyCancel

  • April 27, 2017 - 9:03 am

    Gloria - Thank youReplyCancel

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