When something terrible happens to a friend, our instincts are often to rush in and try to fix things. But our well-intentioned efforts can sometimes add to the pain of the one who is already hurting.
Telling someone that “everything will be OK” or even that “God will make it right” can indicate a lack of understanding. Already devastated, the other person sinks lower because you, their friend, just doesn’t get it. Trying to heal a wound with platitudes implies that you think dealing with the problem will be easy.
Although you can gain empathy for a person by mentally placing yourself in a similar situation, you cannot share the same emotions. Saying “I know how you feel” tends to take away from the severity of the situation. Even going through or having gone through the same type of experience yourself doesn’t give you complete insight into the other person’s emotions, because every experience is different.
As valuable as Scripture is for dealing with life, it may not always be the most helpful thing to do to quote what seems like an appropriate verse. That truth jumped out at me after a conversation with a friend.
Ruth had suffered from depression because of her inability to have a child. Healing did eventually come via an adoption, which brought about a happy ending to her story.
“What was the hardest part of what you went through?” I asked.
“Listening to people say, ‘Just trust the Lord,’ ” she quickly responded.
But when I asked which Bible verse she leaned on during her times of trauma, she told me it was: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5).
The two messages are identical; so what was the difference? Why was the message when it came from real people so painful, but a comfort when it came from the Bible?
It was because when people said it, it sounded easy, as though the speaker was an authority who had just solved the problem. It also implies that the other person isn’t trusting God, which in my friend’s case, obviously was not true.
Urging someone to pray can have the same effect. When told that she just had to pray more, one woman said, “While she was sleeping, I had been wide awake all night praying!”
With so many warnings about what doesn’t work to bring comfort to someone who hurts, you may think it better to back off from trying to help at all. You might reason that, rather than say or do the wrong thing, it would be better to stay completely clear of the situation. That’s poor logic. You need to be there for friends in crisis.
Confused? What can you do when trouble strikes a friend? Here are a few suggestions.
1. Tears can speak louder than words
At church, Stephanie learned the terrible news that Amber’s cancer had returned. After the service, Stephanie rushed to Amber’s side and threw her arms around the distraught woman. In silence, they cried together and the bond between them grew stronger with each tear.
Sharing her tears was all Stephanie could do for her friend at that moment. Later, she kept Amber company during her chemotherapy treatments, while homemade soup simmered on the stove at home. Afterward, the two women enjoyed a simple meal together.
2. Telling someone you’re sorry shows that you care
Teresa’s modelling career had just begun to take off when the terrible accident happened. Extensive injuries to her face and body ruled out a future as a model. On the way to the hospital, Erica wondered what she could do or say.
Still groggy from pain medication, Teresa barely acknowledged Erica’s presence. Erica took hold of Teresa’s hand and said, “I’m sorry, Teresa. So, so sorry.”
“Thank you,” Teresa whispered as she closed her eyes with a peaceful expression on her face.
3. Tell them God loves them and offers forgiveness
One day, Nicki confided in Jessica that she’d had an affair. Even though she’d ended the relationship and sought her husband’s forgiveness, Nicki still struggled to forgive herself.
Stunned by the confession, Jessica wondered how to respond. Nicki already knew the seriousness of her sin. Now she needed to know that God still loved her and would forgive her.
So Jessica quoted Isaiah 1:18, an apt message for the situation: “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.”
When Nicki didn’t respond, Jessica continued, “Remember that Jesus loved you so much, He died for you. Wasn’t that sacrifice great enough to take away all of your guilt—even from yourself?”
It took time for Nicki to heal, but Jessica stayed in close touch.
4. Prayer is in order for any situation
Sarah knew something was terribly wrong when Marla turned down an invitation to go for a milkshake. “OK, Marla. Out with it. What’s got you down?”
“David and I are splitting up.” Marla’s shoulders drooped even lower.
“Yeah. David’s lawyer is drawing up the divorce papers as we speak.”
As they talked, the situation sounded more and more hopeless. Sarah could think of nothing to say to ease Marla’s pain. Yet she desperately wanted to help.
Her pastor had often suggested praying with people instead of promising to pray for them. Sarah had never done that, but now seemed like a good time to do so.
Sarah’s prayer was awkward but it came from her heart. She acknowledged that David might still go through with the divorce, because God will not interfere with a person’s free will. Nevertheless, placing the matter in God’s hands seemed to lift Marla’s burden.
“I could go for that chocolate shake now,” she said.
There is no magic formula for dealing with another’s pain. Each situation is different.
With prayer and practise, though, you will bring comfort to those who hurt and a sense of fulfilment to yourself.