5 wrong ways to comfort hurting people

It is inevitable that we will have “trials and sorrows” in this life (Jn. 16:33, NLT). If it hasn’t, wait until you live a bit longer. Many of us are aware of suffering, and even have a collection of beloved Scriptures to warn or exhort us for when it transpires. Surprisingly, not all Christians know how to behave or act when someone else is going through difficulty. Below are five of the most common ways Christians attempt to comfort others who are suffering. They are all wrong. Listed is each type, followed by an example, and an interpretation of what the grieving person actually hears.

1) Correction

Example: “Don’t be sad; God is in control,” “this happened for a reason,”  etc.

Interpretation: being sad is not biblical, and feelings are sinful unless they are super spiritual, so buck up, worship God, and move on with your life.

2) Hijacking

Example: “You know, I had a similar experience once…let me tell you all about it.”

Interpretation: Your situation isn’t that bad; you should sympathize with ME. 

3) Explanation

Example: “God is sovereign, and he has a reason for doing this.”

Interpretation: You’re doomed by God, so stop crying, because I don’t want to listen. 

4) Enthusiasm

Example: “God is good!!!!! It’s gonna be OK!!!!!! Praise the LORD!!!!! Hallelujah!!!! Wowie!!!”

Interpretation: I am not in touch with reality, or your situation, because I read romantic, fictional novels all day long, and frankly, your sadness is depressing and is making me uncomfortable. I am going to numb the pain of awkwardness by singing worship songs to myself.

5) Preaching

Example: “The Bible says in Romans 8:28…blah blah blah”

Interpretation: Your pain is my opportunity to impress you with my extensive knowledge of the Bible, and of 16th century hermeneutical discussions of the doctrine of predestination and church history. Also, I want to sell you my book, but at 50% off the shelf price, since you are going through a dark night of the soul. 

Though some of these are over the top, this is how hurting people receive such “encouragements.” I’m sure we are well-intentioned when we give them, but we must recognize that good intentions without tact may actually cause more harm than good. Here’s why.

It communicates judgment and not compassion

Because we are not listening to them (Jam. 1:19).

Instead, we are waiting for our turn to shine by fixing problems instead of empathizing with people in their pain. Jesus never sought the spotlight. He listened to people’s plight, even those who deserved the trouble they were in (John 4).

Because we are belittling the human experience.

To be more specific, we are belittling their experience–and a painful one at that. In any of the five responses I mentioned, we are indirectly correcting others for feeling the way they do. But Jesus never belittled human experience; He entered into human suffering, even going through it with us. To offer comfort without sharing the sufferings of others, is as far-removed as the self-help books on the shelf of the corporate book store; it will only add to their pain the fresh sting of a friend who is grossly out of touch.

Lastly, we are ignoring God’s command and example…

The Bible tells us to share in the sorrow of those who are grieving

  • Romans 12:15Be happy with those who are happy, and weep with those who weep.”
  • Psalm 35:13-14 “Yet when they were ill, I grieved for them. I denied myself by fasting for them, but my prayers returned unanswered. I was sad, as though they were my friends or family, as if I were grieving for my own mother.”
  • Job 30:25 Did I not weep for those in trouble? Was I not deeply grieved for the needy?”
  • John 11:32-35When Mary arrived and saw Jesus, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping and saw the other people wailing with her, a deep anger welled up within him, and he was deeply troubled. “Where have you put him?” he asked them. They told him, “Lord, come and see.” Then Jesus wept.”

Instead of elevating ourselves as the hero, we are to lower ourselves like Jesus, in times of suffering. 

Though it seems second-nature to develop a heroic posture when suffering arises, it is neither biblical nor effective. Sometimes, silence speaks more powerfully than words, as too many words can dig us into a hole.

You may object,

Yeah, but, they are not thinking straight, because they are in pain! I need to lovingly exhort them, or at least tell them how the Bible addresses their situation.” 

But remember, it is not enough to have the right answers. There will be opportunities to speak truth into people’s lives, but timing is everything. We are not given a fast track without first listening and grieving. Listening and grieving take time!

There is also a wrong time to say the right thing.

  • Proverbs 15:23, 28Everyone enjoys a fitting reply; it is wonderful to say the right thing at the right time!…The heart of the godly thinks carefully before speaking”
  • Proverbs 27:14A loud and cheerful greeting early in the morning will be taken as a curse!

Sometimes, our well-intentioned love with a deep Biblical understanding is too eager to offer formulaic expressions of hope, and it usually has the opposite effect. Our quick answers, unsolicited advice, and even ill-timed Bible verses, when they come too early in the grieving process, shows our attempt to bypass the suffering of our brothers and sisters. Jesus never bypassed grief—he stepped into our grief, felt our pain, then wept with us. And he took his time. Any amount of time is difficult to go through, because grieving leaves us uncomfortable, unsatisfied, and out of control, since we, the self-designated “comforter,” are not making any progress—we’re left with nothing to show for our efforts. But it is not about us.

If we are honest, we should admit that sometimes our greatest priority in comforting others is to look like a great pastor or counselor.

But we are not the comforter, the Holy Spirit is (Jn. 16:7). We are not the great shepherd, Jesus is (Jn. 10:11). Nor are we called to “go anywhere” with a hurting friend. We are told to stay. Stay in that place of suffering with them; be quiet, listen, and grieve along those who are grieving, while our silent weeping broadcasts that we are with them in their misery, and we dare not cheapen the weight of their hardship with mere words. We must refuse the hero complex. There is only one hero, and he doesn’t need our spiritual acrobatics. Neither do our suffering brothers and sisters. They need ears and tears. And prayer. True intercession, is in fact, not preaching, correcting, or exhorting someone, but standing in their place of suffering with them, and beseeching the Lord for them, when they have no words to utter on their own behalf.

The most effective way to comfort people in their grief is by joining them in their grief, and praying for them.

As we lower ourselves in this self-sacrificial display of identification, we will find the love of God begin to embracing our hurting friends and family. And even though words were seldom exchanged, problems could not be fixed, and suffering still exists in their situation, your friends will know that you care more about them than yourself. Enough, in fact, to join them in their misery.

Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. But before he did, the world was in awe of a God who cried.

What the world needs today is a church that can cry.

Speak less, cry more.

About Lazo

Lazo is the pastor for preaching and vision at Reality SB. He is committed to spreading the value of our union with Christ in Santa Barbara, through the expository preaching of God's Word. You might like these blog posts, 5 Wrong Ways To Comfort Hurting People, or Daisy Love and the Magic Eraser. You can follow Chris on twitter at @LazoChris.

Posted on April 24, 2012, in Church, community, discipleship, realitysb and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 26 Comments.

  1. Such a good post!
    My pastor taught something similar to this last September when we were going through a death in the congregation. The teaching really truck a cord with me because though my natural behavior is to listen and weep with people I always felt condemnation that I never said more, that I couldn’t offer similar stories, theology, or a cheerful word.

    You rock.

    • Thanks Nikelle. Such a great point you bring up…sometimes, we have a weird pressure to say something spiritual. I would love to listen to that sermon. Jon Tyson?

  2. Jessica Jenkins

    So true…..often in my flesh I feel like if I dont say something its rude! weird :/ But often and hug and a prayer is what the Lord uses to be the Comforter. Thanks bro, this is awesome. Such a helpful reminder that silence is often much better than saying anything.

  3. When my Mama left for Heaven, the last thing I really wanted to hear was “It’s ok she’s with Jesus now…..” I knew that. OR “She’s in a better place”…I knew that too…..but I also knew it wasn’t Mama that was hurting, it was me. I would miss her sweet laughs and ornery spitfire personality…….just having lunch and listening to the same stories over and over again……One of my dearest friends just gave me a huge yet gentle hug, and in at that moment when she said not a word, she actually said volumes. Thanks for this piece Chris….ty for the reminder that sometimes silence IS golden. :)

  4. Thank you for the truth here and the application. So good!

  5. Speak less, cry more………thank you, Chris, for hitting the nail on the head!

  6. Olivia Azgour- Ramirez

    Thank you for sharing this, very different and refreshing. This happened to me three years ago still dealing with how these Christian’s treated me but forgiven all and getting though this. Made me rethink of my faith and church . I went back to sqaure one on how I was raise Jewish bringing that back into my life with Christ and now walking my own road to what God sees best for my life. Church has always been a place where I felt the most sad and lost, too many lip service no action behind the words. There are not any good churches here too bad but true I have checked. Your church and Calvary Chapel in Costa Masa are the only ones I feel somewhat belong but both are two or more hours away so that being said thank the Lord for the web and the bible. Mainly wanted to say good teaching and blessings in Christ, Olivia : )

    • Olivia,
      That is a disheartening story—I’m so sorry you were treated that way. That makes me so sad.

      Church is probably the most risky place to go, since, in being there, one is constantly surrounded by other hurting people (including myself). Our only hope is that Jesus continues to direct the Church, and the little congregations that give her tangible form, teaching us to love one another in an otherworldly way. As Britt Merrick once told me, “people will always fail you, but Jesus never will. Cling to Jesus.”

      Thank you for the kind words!

  7. your blog is right on target. my mom passed when I was in my mid 20s and my christian friends felt the need to fix it and thought I should be thru grieving in 2months. just being there to listen when I needed it or let me cry silently was the most helpful thing.

    • Carol, thank you for sharing. I also have a tendency to preach to people…it was only after seeing that this wasn’t helping, just making things worse, that I started to close my mouth! Thank you for giving testimony to that.

  8. Amen! I’ve had people ask me to tell them about my husband, who died 6 years ago, and then yell at me when I cried. If you don’t want me to cry, just don’t bring up the subject!

  9. We need a church that can grieve… absolutely. I think the whole “you’re not in touch with reality or my situation” thing is felt by many people who interact with Christians.

    We need a church that listens.

  10. Sara Breschini

    Wow! Amazing, and such truth!! Thank you Chris. :)

  11. well written, and timely input for us as a body. thanks so much for writing this

  12. Good words, Lazo. Thank you for your teaching.

  13. Lazo; Thank you for your article. I have been a caretaker to three people that have died in my presence. Timing and silence is everything! Standing strong in presence (ie.by their side) says volumes to the hurting. We are a “body” that feels pain! If one suffers, we all suffer because we are members of one another. That is how God planed it! Let’s continue to practice the presence of Jesus. Thanks again Lazo!

  14. Fransea Mulkey

    Good word bro! Thank you! How we need one another in Christ Jesus! We are one body! When one hurts we should all feel it! I have a book marker that says: There shall be such a oneness between you that when one weeps- the other will tast salt! I know that is for a mariage but we can apply it to us too!

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