“The doctor called at 8:00 last night to tell me they found something suspicious on my mammogram and I need an ultrasound! I haven’t even told my family yet...”
My dear friend shared this sobering news during coffee and cookie fellowship time after Sunday service. As I looked into her glistening eyes, tears ready to spill over, I had an instant flashback of my own suspicious mammogram results. My friend already knew of my battle with breast cancer, so she didn’t need to hear, “I’ve been there. I know just how you feel.” Or “I’ve had ultrasounds before; they’re painless and it’ll probably be nothing.” Or, “God knows the outcome.” She knew my questionable mammograms had turned into something... three times.
My friend wasn’t coming to me for patronizing sympathy. She didn’t need me to minimize her fear or chastise her for waning faith. She just needed a hug, a prayer, and reassurance that I was there for her however and wherever she needed me.
And that’s really what every person suffering needs from us, even when we haven’t experienced what they’re going through... especially when we haven’t!
We don’t know what to say or do when a friend or relative is suffering. Often our natural response is to recoil, retreat, or respond by trying to lighten the moment, which results in even more pain. Most people don’t intentionally set out to hurt someone who is already hurting, but we’re uncomfortable around someone suffering. No one trains or prepares us to go to the depths of their despair with them. Maybe it’s the fear of time and emotion required if we get involved. We ease our conscience by thinking: She would rather be alone right now anyway. Or he needs his family at a time like this. Or they have so many friends; I know someone will help them. So we do nothing or maybe even avoid them all together.
We may send a card or make a phone call, closing with “I’ll be praying for you,” then go on about our life while his or her life crumbles. Yet the Bible clearly tells us to, “Help each other in troubles and problems. This is the kind of law Christ asks us to obey” (Galatians 6:2 NLV). How can we put that verse into practical terms? What does it truly mean to help each other in troubles and problems?
“A wound that goes unacknowledged and unwept is a wound that cannot heal.” -John Eldredge
From personal experience, and talking to many people in researching three books I wrote on topics of intense suffering—breast cancer, infertility, and parenting prodigals*—I’ve compiled the Top 10 Don'ts When Helping a Sufferer.
“Worry weighs a person down; an encouraging word cheers a person up.” (Proverbs 12:25 NLT)
1. Say, “Call me if you need anything.” Take the initiative to do something tangible, specific, and helpful. Something you know you would need if you were in their situation.
2. Say, “I’ll pray for you,” unless you mean it. Best scenario is to pray for them on the spot. Ask if they have specific prayer requests, put them on your prayer list, and periodically ask for updates, praises, or more requests. Important: if you commit to pray, then pray! They’re counting on you.
3. Say you understand how they feel or what they’re going through. You may be trying to establish empathy, but it minimizes their crisis. Even if you’ve experienced something similar, everyone’s situation is unique. We can never know exactly how someone is feeling.
4. Try to fix their situation, offer solutions, or ask probing personal questions. Just listen. Only offer suggestions if they ask for them. Take their lead how comfortable they are talking about their situation
5. Compare them with someone with similar or worse problems. Good or bad stories are not helpful. This is their story, their pain, and their problem.
6. Say, “God is in control,” “It’s all in God’s plan,” or similar Christianese. If they’re Christian, they may receive these as a platitudes. If they’re not Christian, you could push them away. Show them God’s love.
7. Avoid, exclude, or forget about them. Makes them feel rejected, different, and forgotten. Maintain normal contact.
8. Act like everything is normal, minimize suffering, or not allow sadness. Allow them to grieve, cry, hurt, be mad, or sad around you. Healing takes time.
9. Tell others. Unless you receive their permission. This includes asking for prayer.
10. Resent how their suffering affects you. Around them, keep their suffering all about them, not you. Help them learn to live with a “new normal” that might also change your life.
Suffering takes so many forms and dimensions—visible or unseen. Physical, spiritual, mental, emotional, financial, grief, pain, loss, worry, loneliness, fear, abuse... Ask God to open your eyes to those around you who might be suffering, and then ask Him what He would have you do to lighten their load. How could you help and not hinder? How could God use you in some small or large way to give a cup of cold water to a sufferer in the name of Jesus?
A Prayer to Help the Suffering
Lord, we know there are so many around us who are hurting... suffering... and we often feel at a loss to say or do the right thing. In our rush to make things better, to alleviate their pain, we inadvertently may do more harm than good. Give us wisdom and discernment. Teach us to listen more than we speak. Let our eyes be a window of compassion and love that others would be drawn to us as a safe place of solitude and peace when they are suffering. We depend on You Lord to make us Your sanctuary. Amen.
Janet Thompson is an international speaker, freelance editor, and award-winning author of 18 books including, new release Forsaken God?: Remembering the Goodness of God Our Culture Has Forgotten, The Team That Jesus Built, and the Face-to-Face Bible study Series. She is also the founder of Woman to Woman Mentoring and About His Work Ministries. Visit Janet at: womantowomanmentoring.com.
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