Most people, including myself, have said things that are unhelpful and have made things worse for brothers and sisters who are suffering.
Here are four things not to say to people who are hurting:
1. Good things through impersonal forms of communication.
Sufferers often struggle with feeling isolated and alone. One of their biggest needs is to have people reach out and pursue relationship with them. A common mistake among younger people is the tendency to reach out in the least personal way possible. Rather than calling and having a conversation, they text. Rather than having face-to-face conversations or visiting people in their homes, they send Facebook messages. These methods of communication are good, but often aren’t sufficient by themselves to comfort hurting people. Individuals suffering with chronic illnesses, and other situations that produce prolonged suffering, are most likely to feel this isolation. This was true for my wife after she had a liver transplant. While she appreciated people who texted, she still struggled with feeling disconnected from community. The less personal the communication, the less help you are to the hurting person who feels isolated or alone.
Instead, try doing this: Have face-to-face conversations and visit hurting people in their homes. Texting and other impersonal forms of communication are not bad, but they are insufficient by themselves to care for the hurting person. People need to intentionally communicate with sufferers in the most personal forms of communication, even if this is difficult and inconvenient for them.
2. Untimely problem solving statements.
Attempting to help a person solve their problems can be a wise and loving thing to do. If a hurting person wants someone to help them problem solve, offering advice on how to fix things can be just what they need. However, if we try to fix the problems of a hurting person who does not desire help and has not asked for it, then our efforts will usually make things worse, not better. Let me be clear, problem solving is not always a bad thing, but it is almost always unhelpful if it’s not what the hurting person wants to talk about in that particular conversation.
Another reason to avoid jumping into problem solving is that is can distract you from the work of giving Gospel-centered encouragement. On many occasions, I have been guilty of jumping into advice giving and problem solving, while failing to listen well and speak Gospel-centered encouragement to someone who was hurting. I suspect I am not the only person who has struggled in this way. Hurting people often need us to remind them of the hope of the Gospel more than they need us to be a problem solver. We can give Gospel hope by pointing the hurting people to the cross and the Savior who suffered to save them. Remind them of the guaranteed promises of God’s Word. Remind them they can trust God in their suffering because they have the same favor, love and perfect standing before God the Father that Jesus has because they are in Him. Remind them of who God is in the midst of their uncertainties, questions and doubts. To do this well requires us to carefully listen before we speak. Don’t let your desire to problem solve distract you from this work of Gospel encouragement.
Instead, try saying this: “I am sorry brother/sister. I want to be here for you and support you. Do you want to talk about what you are feeling/thinking right now or talk about some ways to try to make things better?” You will not know what the hurting person needs and wants in your conversation unless you ask them. Trying to problem solve the issues surrounding the hurt another person is experiencing should be avoided unless the person says he or she wants this or you ask the person’s permission to share your advice first. Don’t spend so much time, effort and energy focusing on problem solving that you short change the need to give Gospel centered encouragement to the hurting person. Ask, “Brother/sister, things sound really tough for you. Can I tell you why Jesus gives me hope for you in this situation?”
3. Saying either nothing to them about their suffering or nothing at all.
It’s hard to know what to say to sufferers. People who haven’t gone through significant suffering or death yet may feel especially uncomfortable, overwhelmed and dumbfounded in the face of someone else’s suffering. Because of this, some people find that the easiest thing for them to do is avoid talking about the problem. They talk to the hurting person about sports, current events, TV shows and a million other things, but they don’t talk about the person’s suffering. Some people’s discomfort goes further and leads them to completely avoid talking to a hurting person. This may be the most hurtful response to someone who is suffering. Don’t do this!
Instead, try saying this: “How are you doing with (whatever their situation is)?” or “Friend, I care about you and am sorry, and I honestly have no idea what to say to you right now. I care about you a lot though.” If you are nervous or at a loss for what to say, just admit it. It shows love and concern in a way that will be meaningful to the hurting person.
4. “I know what you are going through.”
People who say this usually have their hearts in the right place. They don’t want the other person to feel alone and say this to show that they understand. But here’s the problem: The person who says this actually doesn’t know what the other person is going through. The same experience, such as the death of a grandparent, is different for every person because each person is different, the circumstances are different and the relationship is different. Saying this doesn’t help the hurting person. In fact, it often makes it worse.
Instead, try saying this, “I don’t know exactly what you are going through, but it seems painful, sad, etc., and I am sorry.” Often the most helpful thing that sufferers can hear is that you want to be present for them and to listen. Hurting people need to hear “I care about you and I am here to talk or just be with you.”
Ministering to those who are hurting can be tough. But, with God’s grace and some practical wisdom, God can use us to make a real difference in someone’s life.