Jul 29 2011

How NOT to Be a Comfort

Published by at 7:00 am under Brokenness

Sometimes as peacemakers we are called to minister to people in moments of suffering and one of the things we should seek to avoid is making the suffering worse. This is because we’re called to minister to the suffering in a biblically faithful, tender, and caring way.

Something that I commonly see (and, sadly, have done myself) is giving poor advice, hurtful words, or empty phrases to people who want to be comforted. This is why I found the following two posts helpful and wanted to share them with you.

The first is an excerpt from Justin and Lindsey Holcomb’s book Rid of My Disgrace recommending what not to say (and what to say) to a victim of sexual abuse. Although their book is written for people who have been sexually abused, I found a lot of their advice to be applicable in most situations of suffering and well worth reading.

Don’t say:

  • I know how you feel.
  • I understand.
  • You’re lucky that ___________.
  • It’ll take some time, but you’ll get over it.
  • Tell me more details about what happened.
  • I can imagine how you feel.
  • Don’t worry, it’s going to be all right.
  • Try to be strong.
  • Out of tragedies, good things happen.
  • Time heals all wounds.
  • It was God’s will.
  • You need to forgive and move on.
  • Calm down and try to relax.
  • You should get on with your life.

Do Say:

  • I believe you.
  • Thank you for telling me.
  • How can I help?
  • I’m glad you’re talking with me.
  • I’m glad you’re safe now.
  • It wasn’t your fault.
  • Your reaction is not an uncommon response.
  • It’s understandable you feel that way.
  • You’re not going crazy; these are normal reactions.
  • Things may not ever be the same, but they can get better.
  • It’s OK to cry.
  • I can’t imagine how terrible your experience must have been.
  • I’m sorry this happened to you.

(HT: Crossway)

This second article, written by David Powlison, gives some insight into how and why we should be aware of how our words are heard:

We could all generate a Top Ten List of words we spoke or received that make us shudder when we think about them. Here is one that, I suspect, makes a lot of lists.

“What is God teaching you through this?”

Hmmm. This is orthodox. God does teach us in our suffering, and he is working all things together for good. We agree with C.S.Lewis when he writes that pain is God’s megaphone to arouse a deaf world. But the story of Jezebel and her entrails being food for the dogs is orthodox too. We are after orthodoxy that is relevant, pastoral and edifying.

Consider a few of the possible problems with this question.

  • It tends to be condescending. If you heard this question from someone, you probably didn’t hear compassion.
  • It suggests that suffering is a solvable riddle. God has something specific in mind and we have to guess what it is. Welcome to a cosmic game of Twenty-Questions, and we better get the right answer soon; otherwise, the suffering will continue.
  • It suggests that we have done something that has unleashed the suffering.
  • It undercuts God’s call to all suffering people, “Trust me.”

To briefly respond to these four problems,

  • Suffering compels us to modesty. Scripture gives us a number of insights into human suffering, but no insight is exhaustive. The mystery in suffering reminds us that we are still like children who don’t understand how good parents can impose difficulties in our lives. In light of the mystery, humility is natural and necessary. For those who speak to suffering people, humility before the Lord is expressed in humility before the suffering person.
  • We over-interpret suffering. I am speaking with a person now who has gone through horrible suffering in her life, and “What is God trying to tell you?” has been the question everyone asks. She has wondered for years why she doesn’t have an answer yet. All she can figure is that she is too sinful to get it or God is not giving out the answer key – so she is alternately guilty and frustrated. Job in the Old Testament and the man born blind in the New Testament (John 9) should keep us from endless speculation about God’s precise intent. Neither one was supposed to get what God was teaching them.
  • Focus on a sin-suffering nexus to your peril. Granted, the question might not assume that the suffering person is in sin. The question might have been intended more positively, as in “How are you learning about the Lord in this?” But unless there is an absolutely clear connection between a person’s sin and suffering, and it is obvious to every believer on the planet, then we shouldn’t make the connection and do everything we can to keep the suffering person from making the connection. Most of us see more of our sin during our suffering – I know I do – but that doesn’t mean our sin was the cause of the suffering.
  • Insight can work against faith. By that I don’t mean that we should be mindless stoics in our suffering. But when our primary goal is to discover a personal message about a specific deficiency in our lives, then we are resting in our human understanding rather than the plainly revealed character of God. Faith is our calling in suffering – faith in Jesus Christ. This is not a mindless leap into the unknown. It is a turn of heart, away from us and to Jesus. In our suffering we want to remember that God is, indeed, good and compassionate. Jesus’ incarnation and his voluntary suffering culminating with the cross are the undeniable evidence. Then we trust him.

Read the whole thing over at CCEF’s blog

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