Standing in a hospital waiting room with some Christian friends and several members of their family, I knew that I was not sufficient to rescue them from the circumstances they were facing. Another member of their family was on a breathing machine in the intensive care unit, and had been given a disheartening prognosis. Before the fuller family had arrived at the hospital, I had taken some time with my Christian friends and we gathered together in a circle to intercede for their family member who was in such poor shape. A few hours later, when the rest of the family arrived, the dynamic changed as there was now a mixture of committed believers, casual believers and non-believers. All of them were hurting and something within in me wanted to be used of God to minister comfort and hope to them - all of them - in their time of struggle.
So what should a Christian say or do when someone who does not share faith in Christ needs counsel, help and hope?
"Light in a messenger's eyes brings joy to the heart, and good news gives health to the bones."
Experience has revealed that wisdom must be employed when we are seeking to connect with others in ways that touch their sensitive and fragile emotions. When a follower of Jesus is going through a hard time, there is common ground: point them to Him and then walk alongside in any way we are able. Jesus is the clear focus when believers comfort and minister to one another. However, when the person needing hope or encouragement does not believe in Jesus, what can we do? I believe that wisdom guides us to consider the following four steps...
1. Don't assume that their hour of need is your moment for evangelistic ambush
Christians have a reputation, whether valid or not, for hijacking difficult moments in non-believers' lives and turning them into an open door for proselytization. Be sensitive to their surface needs as you prayerfully seek direction from God about the needs of their souls. If they sense you rushing past their fear, their pain or their emotions in order to bulls-eye them for spiritual conversion, you may actually take them backwards in their considerations about the Gospel. Obviously you want to be ready for the possibility of them meeting Jesus personally, but do not assume that the immediate moment is sovereignly designed for their salvation. Listen carefully for God to guide you.
2. Slow down and listen intently
This step applies to more situations than just our discussion today! We Christians tend to speak more quickly than we listen. Additonally, we also listen sometimes only in order to find a way to give a rebuttal or clarification of something being said to us by non-believers. Hurting people sometimes say things they don't mean, or which are inaccurate or even, in our opinion, ungodly. Non-believers can be refreshingly honest about their doubts toward or anger with God. Avoid turning their emotional words into an argument, especially when they need to know that you are a safe place for them to express their struggle or confusion about what is happening to them. Listen to them and don't give in to the impulse to "set them straight" theologically if they process raw emotion in ways and language that Christians might never utilize.
3. Offer them objective hope
Christians know that God loves our non-believing friends and family members. They may not share our confidence about God's love, but we know that He cares for them. Look for ways to gently share how God has come alongside you in your own times of heartbreak, doubt or pain. If the opportunity arises, tell them your own story, leaving off that grappling hook to reel them in to see things the same way you do. All humans share one thing in common: we have all known pain and suffering on some level. Connect with them as a fellow human and offer them true compassion as you tell them how your own personal hope continues to rest in the Lord. You may simply be the gentle seed-planter during this season of struggle in the person's life. Be content with that. Planting and watering belong to us. Plant testimonial seeds of hope within them from your own life. God harvests those seeds later at the appropriate time.
4. Remember that there is only one Savior (and He is not you)
You likely cannot fix their dilemma. You probably won't be able to make all of the pain go away. Their fear will not magically disappear simply because you care for them. Jesus ultimately has to do the heavy lifting in times of struggle, so you can be free to serve your non-believing friend or family member without any sense of guilt or failure if things do not immediately change for them. God will use you in those lives, and this is contingent more so on your availability than your ability. Do not fear messing things up; you will not create any catastrophe as long as you are intentionally loving, relationally sensitive, and sincerely compassionate.
Before I left the hospital that day, I was, for a couple of hours, able to make small talk with all of the family members – both the Christians and those who were not. When it came time for me to leave them, they knew that I was more of a friend than someone trying to play the rescuing hero. I politely asked if it would be appropriate for me to pray for their loved one in the ICU and, interestingly, all of the family members came and joined hands as we went to the throne of Jesus to petition aid for the man in the hospital bed.
Whatever God did that day in their hearts and minds, my hope is that they considered the possibility, as non-believers, that Jesus is very real and able to do abundantly more than we asked or thought during their season of hardship. At the very least, I wanted to leave them with an opportunity for valid hope. I presented that package as best as I could. They would have to decide whether they wished to unwrap it and discover for themselves what was inside.
Publication date: December 9, 2015