7 ways to encourage a hurting friend

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Today’s guest post comes from Pastor Beau Stanley of Grace Polaris Church in Westerville and was first posted on The Frontier at Grace blog).

It’s often awkward to try to encourage someone who has just told you about a very difficult trial he is going through. Finding the right words is not easy when a friend or acquaintance tells you he has lost his job, discovered he has a medical problem, or something like this.

Having been through some significant challenges lately, and having experienced both encouragement and unintended discouragement as a result of people’s comments to me, I have some opinions on what to say and what not to say when you find out a friend is hurting. I believe if you follow these principles, you’ll be more likely to build your friend up than break him down unintentionally. To illustrate the principles, let me display below, in its entirety, a very encouraging email I received from an important man in my life whom I had just told about some significant developmental challenges my oldest son may have:

Beau, always good to hear from you. I am sad for the difficulty your son Isaiah is going through and the hurt that I am sure is there for you and Stacey. No platitudes or pontification. Just a sincere hope that the Lord will be your strength and blessing in the midst of this reality that is there to make you the man of God that HE desires you to be.

1. Respond. Whether in person or otherwise, respond to the man in distress. Don’t let your lack of clarity about what to say stop you from responding in some way, even if the response is simply giving a hug. Suffering isolates the sufferer (more on this in a minute); you can accomplish much more than you think just by acknowledging the person’s difficulty whether or not you can actually be present with him. Though he lives in Phoenix, Fred’s prompt reply to my email connected the two of us in a meaningful way.

2. Less is more. While we should respond, we should give a brief and simple response rather than one that is eloquent and elaborate. Note how short this email is. Fred didn’t try to say a lot; he just expressed his concern. The best thing Job’s friends did for him came before they opened their mouths: “When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was” (Job 2:12–13 NIV, emphasis added). The deeper the suffering, the fewer words we should use.

When I started working in pastoral care ministry, I thought that more time spent with patients was better. I’ve really changed my perspective on this. In a crisis situation, it is very important for those who care not to overdo things, with words or with time spent. I think most people visit too long at the hospital, for instance, perhaps because they feel they owe a chunk of time to the sick friend. Keep this in mind: if X minutes spent with a friend is good, X + 5 minutes is not necessarily better—it might be worse!

3. Affirm your love for the person grieving. It shocks me how easily we leave this part out. Fred started his email with a statement of affection: “Beau, always good to hear from you.” When our friends are suffering, we get so wrapped up in the situation that we can miss the opportunity to express that we care for them. It will mean much to our suffering friends when they hear that we value them.

4. Don’t quote Romans 8:28 or verses like it. Though it is true that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (NIV), when a person quotes this verse to someone in the midst of a crisis, what the sufferer hears the “comforter” saying is, “Buck up. If you really consider what’s going on here, you’ll see that it’s good, not bad.” Well, God is working for good, but He is doing so in a genuinely bad situation. Quoting the verse makes the “comforter” just seem shallow.

This is why Fred said, “No platitudes or pontification.” It is better to say absolutely nothing than to spout off a bunch of verses or Christianese phrases to a sufferer, as if they were a magic salve that could turn his frown upside down. Ugh. Please don’t do this.

5. Affirm the difficulty of the situation and do not minimize it. This is what Fred was doing when he wrote, “I am sad for the difficulty your son Isaiah is going through and the hurt that I am sure is there for you and Stacey.” As I said, suffering isolates the sufferer, and this isolation grows when people refuse to acknowledge that the situation is truly difficult. Unfortunately, whether because of a desire not to be a downer, or a belief that the suffer needs to move on, those who ignore or minimize the sufferer’s pain can push the sufferer away at the time he most needs to feel connected.

6. Give the sufferer hope . . . maybe. This is very tricky, because if we push this principle too far, we end up violating principles 4 and 5. The last sentence of Fred’s email calls my attention to the hope that my suffering is not pointless, but it avoids shallowness. Fred inspired me by pointing to the Lord’s desire to grow me, but he didn’t give me a canned phrase or verse. Even this heartfelt sentence would have been too much in a more grave situation.

7. Be patient. As time passes and the sufferer has the opportunity to process the difficult circumstances in his life, there is more room for directing and even challenging the man’s thoughts, if necessary. Don’t go down this road too quickly, though.

We can’t take our friends’ pain away, but if we keep these principles in mind we can help them in their suffering. I hope you don’t have the chance to practice these principles, but you probably will have the chance, perhaps often. “A man finds joy in giving an apt reply—and how good is a timely word! (Proverbs 15:23 NIV). Men, let’s learn to be wise encouragers who give “apt replies” and “timely words.”

— Beau Stanley

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Posted on May 12, 2011, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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