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How Do You Help Someone Who Is Suffering?

Have you ever said anything dumb? Me too. The absolute worst time to do this is when someone is suffering. When people are enduring tragedy you may feel the urge to say something that will bring comfort. My caution is this: choose your few words extremely carefully and just be available. You don’t tell someone who just lost their baby, “God must have needed them more.” I head an idiot say that once. How does that bring comfort? You’ve just portrayed a selfish God who enjoys yanking away babies and hording them all to Himself. Totally not the character of God at all! Terrible advice! He is good and does good (Psalm 119:68). Another cruel phrase is saying, “I understand how you feel” when you obviously don’t. Don’t pretend to know how it feels when someone’s friend is brutally murdered when you’ve never experienced that. Even comparing someone’s situation with that of a worse situation isn’t recommended. Saying, “It could be worse” or “at least it’s not as bad as…” are not ways to bring comfort in the midst of suffering. Minimizing pain does not relieve it. Cliché statements are the last thing someone in pain wants to hear and they do not help.

In the Bible, Job was a man who suffered much tragedy. He lost his family, fortune, fitness, and seemingly his future. Along come his friends and make his situation much worse. Now I must give them a little credit. They found Job literally “down in the dumps” in the city dump mourning his loss and spent a week of silence with him waiting on him to speak. They even wept and tore their clothes to show their sympathy. Job’s friends were great counselors…until they opened their mouths. For about thirty chapters, yes thirty chapters, they try to figure out what Job did wrong in front of him and blaming him for it! These four friends gave four lame reasons why Job was in his wretched state. They would have been better off remaining awkwardly silent and lovingly present. They got caught up in trying to figure out the “why” instead of loving Job through the hurt and reminding him of God’s faithfulness. These friends wanted Job to share his darkest secrets because he obviously had sinned or was hiding something horribly wrong. Sure you can cause your own grief and suffering but these friends were wrong in their assumptions. I met a guy once whose pastor told him and his wife they must have sinned when their child mysteriously died of SIDS. That crushed them to the point of running away from Jesus and the Church instead of to them.

Job’s friends perpetuated his pain. Their words wounded Job and worsened his situation. “But I feel like I have to say something. I can’t just be silent.” Be careful with your words. Often the most consoling acts you can do is simply be quick to listen and slow to speak (James 1:19). What they initially need is your presence. One of the worst things I’ve ever heard someone say to someone else sounded super spiritual but instead was super hurtful. “I know you’re suffering right now but it doesn’t compare to how much Jesus suffered.” That person had just lost two children in a car wreck. Jesus did suffer and can understand our suffering (Hebrews 2:18; 4:15) but it came across as, “Suck it up. This is the least you can endure for Jesus who suffered so much for you.” That leaves me speechless and angry. What they needed was someone to listen, be available, patient, and compassionate. Remember, the ministry of presence is what they need most. Don’t feel like you have to be God’s mouthpiece in the awkward silence. A timely word is best (Proverbs 15:23). God is near to the brokenhearted (Psalm 34:18) and an ever present help in time of need (Psalm 46:1). He sent His word to heal (Psalm 107:20). Quick words will not heal tragedy quickly.  While most people mean well and desire to be helpful, the best support is to be as practically helpful as possible by being available, generous, a good listener, and a faithful prayer partner.

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Stephen and his wife Haley have called Arkansas home all of their lives. Stephen has served in several ministry roles over the last 25 years and as a lead pastor for the last 8 years. Stephen attended Williams Baptist College and earned a BA in Biblical Studies from Ouachita Baptist University, an MA, MDiv, and DMin in Christian Leadership and Pastoral Ministries from Liberty University. When not pastoring, Stephen enjoys running, cycling, reading, writing, camping, fishing, and spending time with his family.

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