At some point in life, we are all going to be faced with heartache, loss, failure, disappointment, conflict and other painful struggles. Sometimes we will experience these things personally, but other times, we will watch as people around us are faced with a crisis. It’s important to ask ourselves—what kind of friend am I when things get hard?
As a culture, we seem to be very uncomfortable when people hurt. We don’t know what to do with their grief and their questions. There can be a general mentality that might remain unspoken but still communicates, “Well, you can be upset for a little bit, but then you’d better get over it soon.”
In church culture, it can be even trickier. After all, there are promises in Scriptures that contain a lot of comfort and hope; plus, we know we can take anything to God in prayer. Yet it can be easy to offer these things up as trite, quick answers. It appeases the speaker—they feel like they’ve done something or offered a solution—but is it actually helpful to a heart that is hurting and doubting?
A Lesson from Job
If you’ll recall the story of Job, as he faces the loss of his family, his wealth and his health, he has three friends who come along, presumably to try and help him. Primarily, the friends seem to be convinced that Job must have done something to bring all this trouble on himself; therefore, there must be something he can do to get himself out of it.
At the end of the story, after God finally speaks to Job, He offers a stern rebuke to the friends and tells them to make a sacrifice in repentance. Very specifically, He says to the friends, “You have not spoken of Me what is right” (Job 42:7, 8).
I find this statement interesting because, if you read the various speeches made by the friends, they say a lot of things about God that we might actually agree with or consider true, things about God’s character that could even be reinforced by other verses in the Bible. But God says they did not speak of Him what is right; they misapplied what they thought they knew about Him and misunderstood their place in Job’s suffering.
This is something sobering for us to consider: do we sometimes misapply what we know about God when faced with another person’s struggle? Do we not understand our role in their lives at that time?
Sitting in the Pain
In the book of Romans, as part of some practical instructions for relationships, Paul writes, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15). Simple advice, yet we struggle with it. We want to fix it. We want to say the right thing. Sometimes we want them to get over it and figure out how to help themselves already.
But it doesn’t say, “Observe the other person’s mourning while thinking of something profound and preferably spiritual to say.” No—it says to mourn with each other. Grieve together. Hurt together. Sit in the pain with your friend.
We can all agree that there are some things words are just inadequate for; in fact, many of life’s hardships fall in this category. When we’re personally faced with these pains, we aren’t looking for comforting words, but we would welcome a comforting presence.
There have been seasons of struggle in my life when all I wanted was someone to come and sit on my sofa, just be in the room, unafraid to face the depth of what I was feeling. This can be uncomfortable, especially depending on your personality and life background, but it is an opportunity to be the presence of God to someone.
Paul also instructs believers to “carry each other’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2). This verse is particularly intriguing because its immediate context has to do with when someone is caught in or struggling with sin—unfortunately, a place where we as Christians can be quick to abandon each other.
Thinking back to Job, his friends adamantly insisted that Job needed to fix the issue of his sin, certain he’d brought the suffering on himself. They didn’t carry his burden; they made it heavier. And sometimes we can be guilty of the same, looking at someone’s struggle and thinking (or saying), “Well, if they would just sort out this certain issue, the problem wouldn’t be happening.”
A Time and a Place
When people are faced with a crisis—even one of their own making—they cycle through various responses and emotions. Often, the initial one is shock. There can be complete numbness and disbelief that this is even happening.
It is often well down the road of grieving or mourning before people are able to absorb any kind of advice or wisdom. It’s not that there will never be a point when a Scripture verse, spiritual insight or other words will be helpful. But it is going to take time. And most often, it will be the friend who was faithful to walk through the pain with them that will finally be able to speak truth into the circumstance.
In the meanwhile, there are practical ways we can come alongside someone in their suffering and tangibly be the hands and feet of Jesus to them.
Be a good listener: Sometimes people need to vent or process all the thoughts and emotions whirling in them; they need to get it all out. They aren’t looking for answers or solutions; they are looking for someone who will hear the cry of their heart. Open your heart to hear, and resist the urge to try and fix it.
Be present: Often, the best gift or help you can offer is simply yourself. There is something powerful about a friend who is willing to say, “I can’t fix this, but I can make sure you are not alone as you face it.”
Don’t try to tackle questions that are too big: People ask hard questions in their suffering. Why me? Why is God letting this happen? Where is God? What did I do wrong? But when these questions erupt from the place of pain, it is not a good time to respond with any variation of “God works all things together for your good” or “Just keep praying.” There is a time for reminding people of basic spiritual truths, but there is also a time for sitting with them in the uncertainty, in the hard questions that only God Himself can truly give us any peace about.
Allow your heart to be filled with compassion: Almost every account of Jesus performing a miracle is prefaced, “He was moved with compassion.” Compassion makes room for the miraculous like few other things do. It also protects our hearts from critical or self-righteous attitudes that think nothing like this struggle could ever happen to us.
Look for simple actions to take: A common response when we hear of someone’s problem is “Let me know if I can do anything.” But most of us can’t think that clearly when faced with something that shakes our hearts. Can you provide a meal, mow a lawn, watch their kids? We can’t solve all the problems, but we can make the burden lighter.