The following is a paraphrase from the end of a sermon, which can be found here. It is but a small part of the sermon, and by no means summarizes it. I happened to catch on this point and wanted to respond to it.
We look for magic pill answers in dealing with our issues and our struggles. When our non-Christian friends come to us looking for an answer with their own struggles, looking for solace in religion, they see us as cheap and shallow in our responses. Our answers are no better than what they have already. How can we offer comfort to others in suffering when we do not know how to wrestle with suffering ourselves?
Two years ago, I was given the opportunity to start and lead a grief ministry at my church. Having done very little grief counseling, I researched in the area of grief and came away feeling overwhelmed. I was not surprised to see that our culture has no idea of how to respond or cope with grief. However, I was surprised at the journey of empathy God led me on as I dove into this. I found myself weeping with the sorrow and pain of others. I found myself constantly at a loss of words. I felt hugely inadequate. While I felt I could potentially grow into the role of grief counselor, there was no way I was ready to recruit and train a team of grief counselors.
Now, two years later, having pursued an entirely different avenue of ministry, I find that I have developed skills on parallel branches of the same tree. I have identified the following faults in the way people try to support their friends or loved ones in time of emotional duress. The following is a brief list of what not to do.
- Quoting scripture at the person in duress.
- This is a no brainer. How many people have quoted "God has plans to prosper you…" or "God is in control" after you shared a deep and personal struggle or loss? More often than not, this wasn't what you needed at the time. More than likely, you needed a listening ear and a sympathizing friend.
- Gently accusing the person of having insufficient faith or not having prayed enough.
- This really is a parallel of number one. But I wanted to set this apart because while scripture can sometimes feel deceivingly safe to do, telling someone that they don't have enough faith is simply ignorant and insulting. Just don't do it.
- Trying to push the feelings of hurt or sadness aside and opting for the happy feelings. This is usually done through jokes, movies, songs, games, and other tools of diversion.
- There is a time to set aside feelings of hurt and sadness, but this should not always be the first response to a person in need. Use discernment. Listen to the person. Are they venting? Are they getting something off their chest that needs to unburdened? Or are they dwelling and reliving past memories for the 10th time? If it is the former, let them vent. To take that away from them will make you an unsafe friend and cause a loss of trust.
- Unable to handle silence.
- There have been countless times I have had a friend request that I sit with them. They didn't ask for advice. They didn't have anything to share. They just wanted the company of a friend who will be present with him or her. Having a friend there is sometimes an anchor to reality. It is also a ward against loneliness and thoughts of despair. But more importantly than that, it is a sign of love of one friend for the other. It is silently saying to a person "I am here for you" without going through the act of saying "I am here for you" and then walking away.
- Conversely, don't feel pressure to break the silence. I know it's uncomfortable. I know it is awkward. But deal with it. And here's how: You don't have to be a savior. You don't have to say the right words to make things right or better. You're not there to take away the pain; You are there to share it. If you're feeling a little uncomfortable, you're doing something right. And don't try to be a hero and think of smart things to say. If that's the case, you're not doing it for your friend anymore, you're doing it for you. Don't take advantage of a friend's grief as an opportunity to boost your ego or feel like a great hero. Nothing is worse than having a blabber mouth companion blindly trying to make you feel better when all you wanted was a companion to sit with in silence. Anything you say now, even if it has a positive effect, will be momentary and fleeting anyways. But allowing a person to grieve in silence with your company will last far longer than your words ever will.
So those were a few don't dos (with a couple of dos thrown in) when comforting a friend. Here are a few dos to help your efforts in supporting your friend.
- Mourn with those mourn
- This is scriptural, but it has not always been clear what this means. It means to shoulder the burden with those who are mourning and suffering. It means to feel their pain and to empathize with them. It means to feel grieved, or hurt, or a sense of loss. It means to cry with them if you have the tears. It means to sit in silence with them if they are silent. It means to talk and process together the thoughts and feelings. This is an opportunity to stand side by side with your friend and see things from his or her perspective.
- This does not mean you have to agree with everything they say or believe. If a person says out loud, "I think so-and-so is a rotten jerk and I hope he gets what he deserves," you are not required to say "Yes! He is! And I hope he gets what he deserves ten fold!" This is especially true if you know that so-and-so is not a rotten jerk and probably doesn't deserve anything on the order of what your hurting friend is imagining. However, you may gracefully agree that what was said or done was hurtful, and that you wish it didn't happen that way. You can tell your friend that you are sorry or sad that your friend is in the situation he or she is in. There are many ways to express sympathy and empathy without having to agree with angry and over the top remarks, especially if they are not true. As a side note, if they are not true, don't feel the need to correct him or her right away. Wait for him to calm down a little. Speaking up for the truth will eventually happen. It just doesn't have to happen right then and there in the heat of the moment.
- Be Christ to the person who is in grief
- In lieu of telling this person that God loves them, be the living image of God. Be Christ to the person. Don't just talk about Christ love, show Christ love. Look down inside and recall that Christ lives in you. You simply need to bring him out. Let the love of Christ guide your actions, your deeds, your words and thoughts. Let His love flow through you and into the person you are ministering to. Remember that this isn't about you or what you can do. It is about allowing yourself to be an instrument in the hands of God at a very appropriate time. I easily could have listed this as the first item, but I chose to put it second for special emphasis. You can mourn with others well if you have practiced it and done it often. But if you haven't, then asking Christ to reveal himself in you to your friend will allow you to reach a level of compassion and mercy that you couldn't have done otherwise. Let it pervade your thoughts and actions. Let your every move be motivated by Christ love. In doing so, I can assure you that you will support your friend well. And all of the following steps will be accomplished with compassion.
- Cry, if you have the tears
- Don't be afraid of crying. And especially don't be afraid if your friend is crying. Crying is a cathartic experience. And cutting it off mid-weeping is just as awful as forcing someone to stop mid-laughing. Or mid-sneeze. If a person is willing to trust you with their tears, don't lose their trust by trying to get them to stop. Sit with them. You don't need to say anything. If appropriate, you can put a hand on a shoulder. Find tissues. And don't stop yourself from crying either if you feel them welling up inside of you. Let them out. Cry together. It is a heavenly experience.
- Honor the good
- Ask questions if and when it is appropriate. Acknowledge what was lost. Laugh about what was good. Ask about what was lost. Ask about what is worth celebrating and remembering. Do your best to see the whole picture. And in doing so, you will give the person an opportunity to see the whole picture as well.
- Be ok with saying "I don't know."
- At some point in time, someone will ask a tough question. At some point in time, you will feel pressured to give a really, really good answer. Either an answer that will make them feel better, or an answer that is theologically true. They are not always mutually exclusive. It probably depends more on the person receiving the answer than it does on the answer itself. Regardless, don't feel the pressure to provide an answer. They usually don't help anyways. It is more than likely better to say "I don't know" and respond at later time, after having a chance to think about the question and possibly even asking someone else for their thoughts. Tough times bring out tough questions. Questions that you may never have pondered deeply or found adequate answers to. Remember, just because you think you heard a "good" Christian response to a question before, it doesn't mean that it will be good in the context you are being asked. It is better to back off and provide no information than to provide information that will hurt more in the moment.
That is all I have for now. But I believe that following these basic principles will take you a long way in helping a friend get through a tough time. Showing a loving attitude towards someone goes a lot farther than having a smart, book answer. Shedding tears with someone as they weep goes much farther than telling a joke and trying to change the subject. Honor the trust that you have been given by your friend. If they are willing to divulge their pain with you, be trustworthy enough to share it with them.