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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 12:15 “Be 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 11:32-35 “When 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, 28 “Everyone 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 27:14 “A 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.