During times in my life when I was suffering the most (like when my wife was killed by a drunk driver or when my son had a traumatic brain injury) many Christians tried to provide comfort and consolation. Although their heart was in the right place, often Christians said things that were hurtful rather than helpful.
Here are three hurtful things that were said to me by well-meaning Christians when I was hurting the most:
- “DONNA IS IN A BETTER PLACE!” – While this was absolutely true, it was absolutely not helpful. People said this to me as if they expected me to respond, “O well in that case I’m not grieving anymore. I feel so much better now that you told me she is in a better place.”
Now don’t get me wrong, I knew in the depths of my soul that she was in a much, much better place—in the presence of her Lord in heaven—but this statement of the obvious didn’t help take away my pain. The fact of Donna being in a better place made an enormous difference in my grieving. The Apostle Paul expressed this truth when he wrote,
“And now, dear brothers and sisters, we want you to know what will happen to the believers who have died so you will not grieve like people who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13).
We grieve, but not like those who have no hope. My hope is in the Lord Jesus Christ and my future with him when He wipes all tears from my eyes and,
“He will swallow up death forever! The Sovereign Lord will wipe away all tears” (Isaiah 25:8a).
But when people said “Donna is in a better place” it did more to irritate than comfort. It just sounded trite when it was said.
- “HAVE YOU CONSIDERED IF YOUR LOSS IS GOD’S DISCIPLINE?” – When this was said to me my heart sank to the pit of my stomach. It almost made my physically ill to think that maybe Donna’s death was my fault. But as I asked the Lord if this was His discipline for something I had done wrong, He quickly affirmed to me that it was indeed a test, but definitely not discipline. In fact, I believe this question impugned the character of the Lord. Do we really think that if you’re disobedient God kills someone you love?
The Lord’s discipline is real and we are told,
“For the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes each one he accepts as his child” (Hebrews 12:6).
But the Lord’s discipline will be consequences to bear upon you for willful and persistent disobedience. His discipline is loving and appropriate. He is never abusive. God used Donna’s death as a test of my faith, but not as discipline. This is contrary to God’s character.
- “YES, YOU LOST YOUR WIFE, BUT MY HUSBAND LEFT ME, AND THAT IS WORSE.” – When the lady said this to me it made me very angry. I wanted to respond, “So let me try to understand this, we’re having a hurting contest and you are declaring yourself the winner?”
But then I realized that everyone’s pain is as bad as they can imagine it to be. It’s not a contest. Her pain was overwhelming her, just as my pain was overwhelming me. Instead of comparing pain we should minister God’s grace to one another and encourage one another.
“For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ“
(2 Corinthians 1:5).
As people said these things to me, I tried to pour out grace on them. They were trying to be helpful and definitely did not mean to provide additional hurt.
It is very awkward to try to talk to someone who has experienced deep hurt. Christians have never been taught how to help someone who is suffering.
SO HERE ARE SOME DO’S AND DON’TS IN HELPING SOMEONE WHO IS HURTING:
- DON’T EXPECT TO SAY THE “RIGHT” THING – Stop and think about it for a minute, do you really believe you could say something that was so profound that the person would stop grieving? Of course not. Don’t try to say anything profound, but rather simply express you are sorry for their hurt.
“the words of the wise bring healing” (Proverbs 12:18b).
“The heart of the godly thinks carefully before speaking” (Proverbs 15:28a).
Don’t try to say “the right thing.” Instead listen to them. Let them pour out their hurt. Don’t try to fix, just be there to listen.
- MAKE IT ABOUT THEM, NOT ABOUT YOU – Often I hear people say, I feel like I should reach out to this hurting friend, but I don’t know what to say. You may hesitate to reach out to them because you’re afraid you may get emotional yourself. A deeply hurting person brings the reality of suffering front and center, and that scares us. You may not want to wade into their hurt, and so make excuses for avoiding them. If you’re a loving friend, they need you. Go! Weep with them as they weep.
“Be happy with those who are happy, and weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15).
Jesus wept when He stood in front of the grave of His dear friend, Lazarus, even though He knew He was going to raise him from the dead. He was entering into their pain and expressing genuine empathy for those who were hurting.
- IT’S ABOUT YOUR PRESENCE – As a chaplain for Fishers Police and Fire Departments, I often remind myself that being a chaplain is a “ministry of presence.” It isn’t that we can say something that will take away the pain, but our gentle and caring presence is a comfort to those who have suffered a loss.
“The Lord is close to the brokenhearted; he rescues those whose spirits are crushed” (Psalm 34:18).
Just as God is close by the broken hearted, our presence is important. Being there for those who are hurting is what you should do.
And one more thing about this that’s really important: when the funeral is over the real grief hasn’t yet begun! A person seriously grieves for the first year…at least. You need to be there for them when thoughts of the funeral or event are long past.
- PRAYER IS SO NEEDED – Pray for the person who is hurting. One of the greatest fears I had when our son, Graham, was injured is that my friends and loved ones may forget to pray. I can’t tell you how much the prayers of believers all over the world upheld us with strength and faith. Your prayers matter. Pray for your friend consistently and let them know you’re praying for them.
“pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective” (James 5:16b).
The hurting heart of a grieving person can find healing through prayer. For them, just knowing that you care and are continually calling their name before the Father is a tremendous source of strength.
- LOVE IS WHAT MATTERS – Here is the single most important thing you can say to someone who is grieving or hurting:
“I love you, I’m here for you, and I’m praying for you.”
This is the most helpful thing you can possibly say.
“Love each other with genuine affection” (Romans 12:10a)
Your presence, prayer and support is a genuine expression of your love. This is powerful in bringing the healing to the hurting.
- DON’T POINT THEM VERY FAR INTO THE FUTURE – People would tell me that I will feel better in a few months. They had no idea that I wasn’t sure I could make it through the end of the day, and they were talking to me about months in the future. It almost made me hyperventilate! Jesus taught us to live in a “day-tight” compartment—one day at a time—when He said,
“So don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring its own worries. Today’s trouble is enough for today” (Matthew 6:34).
In fact one of the great things the Lord taught me was that in the “night times” of life when things are dark and bleak, and when you feel that the day will never dawn when you are past your suffering, don’t look to the future, look back and remember God’s past faithfulness.
While I was in the depths of discouragement and unrelenting grief after Donna’s death I was studying the book of Exodus and came across this passage,
“In the evening you will know that it was the Lord who brought you out of Egypt, and in the morning you will see the glory of the Lord” (Exodus 16:6b–7a).
It was as if the Lord was telling me, “Right now it’s nighttime for you so don’t try to look forward, meditate on my past faithfulness. But know this, there is a day coming when you will see My glory.” In fact, an article was published in Experiencing God Magazine (see picture) about our story titled, “From Mourning to Morning” that described how God walked with me through the mourning and ultimately brought me to the morning when the sun dawned on a new day and I was past the worst of my grief.
- DON’T BE AFRAID TO EXPRESS JOY – There is a time for sharing a laugh or a moment of joy in the midst of grief and hurting. When Graham was injured we were surprised by the times when we would be laughing about something even as we walked daily through extraordinary hurt.
“he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness” (Romans 12:8b).
You don’t have to be all doom and gloom when someone is hurting. Of course be sensitive to the situation, but expressing joy can be important to the healing process.
We can all be better at helping a hurting friend. I hope some of these thoughts will be helpful as you minister to those in your life who are suffering. God desires to use you to bring His comfort and strength to those who need it.