The Right Way to Comfort Someone Who's Hurting
- Dr. Roger Barrier Preach It, Teach It
- 2020 6 Oct
I recently attended the funeral of one of my best friends. As I listened to the comments, I was surprised by how many people weren’t really helping the family deal with their grief—me included.
I heard explanations about why God let the deceased person die so young; encouragement that they would eventually get over the pain; advice on how to handle life without their loved one being around; promises that this must be God’s will. Some even said things like, “All things work together for good to those who love God.” Then, they’d ask the family, “You love God, don’t you?” The family would respond, “Of course, we do.” Then, the friend would say something like, “Well then, God promises that everything will work out good.”
But as the family gazes into the casket, things don’t seem so good after all. Could you please share some things to say and some things not to say when comforting those who are hurting
Alexander Maclaren, the well-known Scottish pastor from the last generation, said:
“Please be kind to everyone you meet, because everyone is fighting a battle.”
Everyone is hurting about something.
It’s hard to miss seeing a broken arm when it’s covered by a cast. On the other hand, it’s hard to see a broken heart.
Sometimes all I need do is say a certain name, and tears will come to a friend’s eyes. We all hurt.
That’s why Julie and I begin every marriage conference with each of us holding a can of Coca-Cola. We move near the front room and begin to shake the can.
Maybe you just lost your job. Shake the can. Maybe the refrigerator broke down. Shake the can again. One of the kids got expelled from school? Give it a big shake. The doctor just said you have cancer? Give it a big shake, and don’t stop for at least a minute.
Then, we pretend that we’re going to open the cans and spray Coke all over the room. People dive for cover!
Everyone understands the symbolism. No one is sitting there perfectly at peace. We all have stuff shaking around on the inside.
Photo Credit: ©Unsplash/Ben White
The Biblical Model for Healing Hurts Is Surprisingly Simple
We deal with hurting and mourning people all the time. Unfortunately, too often we have no idea how to comfort them.
In Matthew 5:4, Jesus said:
Blessed are the ones who mourn for they shall be comforted.
He lived his life and ministry with hurting, mourning people. Think about the lepers, tax collectors, and prostitutes who found healing in Jesus’s love and acceptance. They mourned. He listened...and He comforted.
The apostle Paul wrote:
Praise be to the father of compassion...And the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God – 2 Corinthians 1:3-4
Take heart in Paul’s words for a moment. God comforts us, so we can comfort others. We don’t comfort alone! The Master Comforter works in and through us.
What Not To Say To Those Who Are Hurting
My friend David Ferguson poignantly illustrated the very worst way to handle someone who’s struggling:
Imagine your 10-year-old struck out with the bases loaded and his team lost. Or, maybe he came home to tell you that he didn’t even make the team.
What do you say?
“Better luck next time.”
“You didn’t really expect to make it, did you?”
Imagine your 14-year-old daughter was mercilessly teased on the school bus and comes home weeping. She is trying to describe to you the pain and the embarrassment and the ridicule.
What do you say to your child?
“What did you do to cause them to treat you like that?”
Those children needed comfort. They got condemnation.
Look at what Jesus said again:
Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall receive comfort. – Matthew 5:4
Let me turn that verse around a little bit to illustrate some of the things we say that don’t help:
Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be told how to fix it…
For they shall be told, all things work together for good to those who love God...
For they shall be told, “Don’t cry. It really doesn’t hurt as much as you think!”
For they shall receive a pep talk…
For they shall be given logic and reasons…
For they shall be told how to do it better next time…
For they shall be told why it really was their fault…
For they shall be told, “What happened to you isn’t nearly as bad as what happened to me”…
For they shall be told, “Stop worrying, it will all be OK.”
Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall receive comfort. – Matthew 5:4
Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/Prostock-Studio
What To Say To Those Who Are Hurting
Comfort is emotional, feeling words.
Let’s return to our imaginary scenarios from earlier. Try these answers for your kids instead:
“I am so sad that your friends treated you harshly...that had to hurt so badly.”
“You were so embarrassed when they teased you on the bus. That just breaks my heart.”
“That is not the way life is supposed to be. I’m so sorry.”
“Your heart is aching that you didn’t make the team. My heart aches with you.”
“I hurt for you because I love you.”
This is what comfort sounds like. It has emotion. It enters into the person’s pain with love.
Only mourning and comforting heals hurts—and we cannot do this alone.
Julie was teaching a seminar for church orchestra conductors on trends in contemporary worship. The conference leaders told me that I could have the next two hours with the wives and teach on any subject that I wanted.
I know something about ministers' wives. Their hurts are so deep that if you give me five sentences, I can have the room in tears. So I started teaching on mourning and comforting.
As I was teaching, I noticed great big tears cascading down the cheeks of one minister’s wife. As she raised her hand, she blurted out, “It is no wonder my children are so hard. I haven’t cried in 16 years.”
“Excuse me,” I said to the group. So I began to comfort her, “I’m so sorry you’re hurting so badly. I can’t imagine how much you must hurt inside if you can’t even cry.”
She wasn’t used to this at all. Suddenly, she said, “Stop it! Stop it! You’re doing it to me.”
“You’re trying to comfort me.”
“Well, what do you expect? You just spread hurt all over the room, and I know what to do when I see hurt. I comfort it.”
As I paused to gather my thoughts she said, “Well, don’t stop now, this feels really good.”
At that moment I realized that I still had an hour of teaching time left. But I’d said enough.
“Do you think you could circle your chairs in groups of three or four, and share some hurts and comfort each other?”
Did they ever!
In most of our life journeys, we’ve not done a good job of healing these hurts.
Chuck Swindoll shares several simple thoughts regarding comforting. Let’s use six of them as a guideline on how to be an effective comforter:
1. Comforters Care Enough to Come Uninvited
If a friend has a heart attack, it’s not long before you’re down at the hospital. You don’t wait for an invitation.
No one needed to send a telegram to Job’s comforters. They were already there.
2. Comforters Listen Carefully to Minister to Emotions, Not React to Words
We have to learn to listen to what hurting people are really saying.
This reminds me of a story:
A man asked his wife, “If you could have anything in the world for one day, what would you want?”
She said with a smile, “Well, I’d love to be six again.”
Early the next morning, the morning of her birthday he got her up, and off they went to a local theme park. What a day. He put her on every ride in the park—the death slide, the screaming loop, the wall of fear—five hours later she staggered out of the theme park. Her head was reeling, her stomach was upside-down.
Off next to McDonald’s. He ordered her two Big Macs along with extra fries and a thick chocolate shake. Later he bought her popcorn, M&Ms, and Pepsi. It was a fabulous six-year-old’s adventure.
Finally she wobbled home with her husband and collapsed into bed. He leaned over and lovingly asked, “Well dear, how did you like being six again?”
One eye opened, she said, “Well, actually, I meant my dress size.”
Listen carefully so that you can enter into their emotional world. Be sad when they are sad. Feel the same emotion that they are feeling.
Julie’s best friend, Ellen, lost her husband to a massive heart attack at age 45. One thing Julie discovered that deeply blessed Ellen was when Julie would talk about how much she missed Larry, too. They reminisced and wept with each other about their lives together.
Comfort means that we listen and respond to their emotions and not react to their words. Most women have this figured out. Men tend to stumble here.
Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/Lorenzo Antonucc
3. Comforters Openly Express the Depth of Their Feelings
It’s not uncommon to see a comforter in the room—fighting back tears—when he or she sees pain. John tells us that “Jesus wept” (John 11:35), not because Lazarus died, but because He felt compassion for the pain of Mary, Martha, and the many friends of Lazarus gathering around the tomb.
Job’s friends were aghast when they saw him. They didn’t recognize him. They went to his homestead, and the place didn’t even look the same. Everything was destroyed. Not even a baby goat was around. Somebody asked, “Where is Job?” The answer, “I don’t know. He left some time ago. I think he’s at the city dump.”
They went to the dump. Job had no hair, his robe was torn, and he was sitting there with dung burning near him and dogs nearby and the garbage around, and they wept. They got down in the dust with him.
4. Comforters Aren’t Turned Off by Distasteful Sights
Comforters aren’t turned off because the room doesn’t smell good. They don’t leave because their friend weighs half of what he used to weigh. They don’t even notice when he’s lying in a hospital gown. They see beyond all of that.
One of Julie’s dearest friends died a horrible cancer death. Julie watched her dwindle to 85 pounds. Julie and Donna had chaperoned 46 youth trips, choir tours, and orchestra ministry trips together. They had hauled stage equipment and cooked for hungry teenagers. Donna would do all the jobs that no one else would do. She was Julie’s prayer partner and confidant.
When Donna was so sick, Julie was afraid to see her in such agony. Donna’s throat literally oozed infection. But, God said, “Julie, you need to help her die.”
So they sang together, prayed together, read Scripture together, and suffered together. The last time Julie saw Donna alive, she felt God tell her to read to Donna Jesus’ promise in John 14:
Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, trust also in me. In my father’s house are many rooms...I am going there to prepare a place for you and if I go and prepare a place for you I will come back again and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. – John 14:1-3
Julie concluded, “It’s not going to be some bright light or some angelic being. Jesus himself is coming to get you and bring you home.”
And not long afterward, He came.
5. Comforters Understand, So They Say Very Little
When our daughter Jessie was dying, we had many visitors. Some came and ministered great comfort. Some ministered condemnation (“If you just had enough faith, this never would have happened.”)
I was sitting in the hospital one afternoon, torn by grief. Someone came and talked to me of God, of God’s dealings, of God’s will, of why it happened, of hope beyond the grave. He talked constantly. He said things I knew were true.
I wished he’d go away.
Another came and sat beside me. He didn’t talk. He didn’t ask leading questions. He just sat beside me an hour or more. He listened when I said something. He answered briefly, prayed simply, and left.
I was moved, and I was comforted. I hated to see him go.
You’ve done it right when they hate to see you go.
6. Comforters Don’t Wait to Comfort
We don’t have to wait to comfort someone who’s hurting. Today is a great day to begin.
As the Saturday morning conference commenced, one pastor could hardly wait to tell us about his experience the last evening. He was pumping gas, when his daughter called to tell him that she had a car wreck.
“My old model was, criticism, judgment, and getting information,” he said. “Was it your fault? What happened? What did the police say? Was the insurance card in the glove department where it was supposed to be? Can you still drive the car? Where are you? Are you sure it was not your fault?”
Instead, I decided to try what I learned yesterday. “I’m so sorry this happened to you. You must be terrified. You don’t need to be upset. Everything will work out fine. I’ll come right over.”
My daughter paused for quite a long time and then she said, “Daddy, is that you?”
Well, Andy, I hope this helps. For certain, now you know what to do when you see pain. You comfort it.
Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/fizkes
Dr. Roger Barrier retired as senior teaching pastor from Casas Church in Tucson, Arizona. In addition to being an author and sought-after conference speaker, Roger has mentored or taught thousands of pastors, missionaries, and Christian leaders worldwide. Casas Church, where Roger served throughout his 35-year career, is a megachurch known for a well-integrated, multi-generational ministry. The value of including new generations is deeply ingrained throughout Casas to help the church move strongly right through the twenty-first century and beyond. Dr. Barrier holds degrees from Baylor University, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Golden Gate Seminary in Greek, religion, theology, and pastoral care. His popular book, Listening to the Voice of God, published by Bethany House, is in its second printing and is available in Thai and Portuguese. His latest work is, Got Guts? Get Godly! Pray the Prayer God Guarantees to Answer, from Xulon Press. Roger can be found blogging at Preach It, Teach It, the pastoral teaching site founded with his wife, Dr. Julie Barrier.
Editor's Note: This Ask Roger article features insights from Roger's daughter, Brie Barrier Wetherbee, a sought-after Bible teacher and conference speaker, author, analyst, and Christian theologian.
Pastor Roger Barrier's "Ask Roger" column regularly appears at Preach It, Teach It. Every week at Crosswalk, Dr. Barrier puts nearly 40 years of experience in the pastorate to work answering questions of doctrine or practice for laypeople or giving advice on church leadership issues. Email him your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.