"What miserable comforters you are!"
She never actually uttered those words, but her eyes shouted them from behind her tears. She had just laid her soul bare telling us about her recent miscarriage. The silence afterward lasted only a moment before those around her erupted in a chorus of "Trust God—everything will work out," and immediate quotations of Jeremiah 29:11.
I really wanted to cheer up my brokenhearted friend, but how could I avoid adding to the chorus of trite clichés? I had no idea what to do or say.
Ever been there? When we see someone downcast, we want encourage them with meaningful, restorative words. True encouragement, though, is a tall order. It requires more than a pithy quip and pat on the back. So what are we to do?
Close your mouth and open your ears
When we encourage someone, our words need to fit their situation. Therefore, we need to begin by really hearing what the situation is. One day an acquaintance asked me about my new job and I told her about the difficult day I had … or, to be more accurate, I tried to tell her. After every few words, she butted in with some advice or a not-so-winsome "You just need to …" suggestion. She didn't hear me. All I wanted to do was yell, "Shut up and listen!" As a result of her "encouragement," I felt frustrated and unloved.
When a hurting friend opens up about a struggle or crisis, we have to stop talking in order to hear them well. In addition to closing our mouths, we also need to turn off the imaginary conversation playing in our heads as we listen. If we're preoccupied with planning what to say to them next, we can miss hearing their story. We ought to take this good advice from The message paraphrase of James 1:19: "Lead with your ears, follow up with your tongue."
When we're encouraging someone who's hurting, sometimes we won't ever make it past this step of listening. That's okay! Our silence isn't failure. Sometimes the ministry of our presence is exactly what the other person needs most.
Don't take cues from Job's friends
While the "shut up and listen" tactic can be an effective way to minister to someone who is hurting, we also need to pay attention to what we eventually do say. In Scripture, Job's friends serve as a great example of how not to respond.
Satan afflicted Job with loss of property, family, and personal health in an attempt to prove that Job wasn't as righteous as God said he was. In response to his misery, Job's friends stopped by to encourage their downtrodden friend. In Job 2:13, we read that Job's friends didn't say anything to him at first because they saw how miserable he was. They definitely got the "shut up and listen" part right. They heard Job describe his deep misery: "I have no peace, no quietness. I have no rest; only trouble comes" (Job 3:26). What could they say?
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