When a friend is hurting

Five ways to share God's comfort in a crisis

Megan's eyes filled with tears as she talked about her painful past. I poured each of us a second cup of coffee and listened as the afternoon sun cast golden shadows on my dining room wall. I knew I was witnessing a young woman's struggle to find faith.

Megan was a beautiful, intelligent young woman who taught English literature at a nearby university. However, she'd been emotionally devastated as a youth by parental alcoholism, sexual abuse, and her own addiction to alcohol. Four years ago, she'd achieved sobriety, but Megan was still in emotional pain. She asked me to help with her recovery process, and I was delighted to say yes. Although she wasn't a Christian yet, I sensed she was close.

I knew in part what Megan was going through. I, too, came from a troubled family background and became addicted to alcohol at an early age. At age twenty-nine, God relieved my compulsion and led me to accept Christ as my Lord and Savior. In the succeeding fourteen years, he healed many of my emotional wounds and gave me the chance to work with other addicted people through my church's recovery ministry.

My heart ached for Megan. I knew she, like many wounded people, found it hard to trust others and was taking an emotional risk merely by being honest with me. But I also knew I had some valuable things to share with her—insights I'd received from believers who'd taken the time to talk with me when I was hurting and at the beginning of my faith journey.

Oh Lord, I prayed silently, help me say the right things.

We've all been there. Perhaps we find ourselves with a friend, family member, or even a stranger who is hurting. We sense the opportunity to share our faith but struggle to find the right approach.

Each opportunity we have to tell someone who is hurting about Christ is unique. Since no two situations are alike, there aren't any hard and fast rules to follow—I ask the Lord to guide me each time. However, my involvement in a recovery ministry has taught me some principles to follow in dealing with those who are hurting. Perhaps they'll help you in similar situations.

Reach out with unconditional love. A hurting person may display intense emotions—tears, anger, bitterness, frustration, or sarcasm. We may feel tempted to withdraw from such emotional displays, but we need to draw near to the person who is in pain, just as God helps us when we're in need.

Jan, a legal secretary in her thirties, was a Christian who asked me to help her deal with a difficult family issue—both her parents were addicted to drugs. Our conversations were frequently punctuated by Jan's vocal frustration and anger over her parents' behavior, and her powerlessness to do anything to stop it.

The Lord doesn't ask you to be a perfect witness—just a willing one.

It was important for me to love and encourage her even when she was angry, especially because unconditional love was something Jan had never received in her family. She also needed reassurance of God's faithfulness to see her through this difficult period. During our times together, Jan learned to handle her feelings without outbursts, and over time became a patient witness for Christ to her parents.

Try to understand rather than fix the hurting person's feelings. We may mean well when we try to persuade a hurting person to "cheer up," but suffering is often an integral ingredient of the spiritual experience. We must acknowledge a person's pain, not try to put an emotional bandage over it.

Chris, a nurse who often attended one of our groups, arrived in tears one night and sobbed that her mother had died the previous week. Several well-meaning friends urged her to stop crying. But Lucille, a group member who'd experienced the loss of several immediate family members, simply held her close as Chris expressed her grief. "Thank you," she whispered after her tears had subsided. "I find I need to cry a lot right now."

Find specific ways to be supportive. People in pain are often reticent to ask for help. Someone who is ill or bereaved may need you to bring food or offer to baby-sit. A friend facing a frightening medical test or hospital stay probably would appreciate your offer to go with her. Even little expressions of love—a hug, a note in the mail, an invitation to come over—can mean a great deal to a hurting person. There's an old expression: "If we don't demonstrate our love, it doesn't do anyone any good." Hurting people need expressions of love they can see and feel.

Share your own times of struggle. I've found hurting people benefit tremendously when they can talk with someone who's transparent about her own struggles. Such honesty breaks down the barriers of isolation that suffering often erects. God is glorified when I'm willing to tell others how far he's brought me, as well as my continuing need for his power to guide and deliver me in times of temptation or difficulty.

I shared in our group one night about some of my challenges as a wife and mother, especially my desire to erase the "critical voice" of my early upbringing and become a more encouraging, positive person. After the meeting, Jeannie, the mother of three young girls, told me how relieved she was to know someone else struggled with that same issue. After that, she called me frequently, and soon we were exchanging insights from the Lord on ways we could be more positive and encouraging.

Pray for those with whom you're sharing. We may tend to focus primarily on what we can say or do to help a hurting person, but don't forget the power of prayer. It's still our greatest tool for helping others. Pray for God's will in the life of the person who is hurting, and ask the Holy Spirit to guide your intercession for that person.

As Christ's love in us increases, so will our desire to pray for and share our faith with those who are struggling. It's comforting to know the Lord doesn't ask me to be a perfect witness to the person who's hurting. He just asks me to be a willing one. He can be counted on to do the work if we are simply willing to open up our hearts.

When Megan finished telling me about her troubles, she looked up and said, "Well, I guess you think I'm pretty crazy."

"Yeah, a little," I said, smiling, "but you know what? I identify with a lot of what you've said."

I went on to share the struggles I'd experienced after first reaching out to the Lord, especially those I sensed Megan might identify with. I mentioned the many positive things I saw in her life, like her willingness to seek God and her desire to grow. She'd expressed a lot of frustration and sadness, and I told her how normal those feelings were, considering her past. I told her, too, how Jesus had transformed my life, and how she could count on him to take her through a similar process.

Megan began to relax as she realized I wasn't interested in criticizing her or trying to change the way she felt. We talked many times over the ensuing weeks, and I saw God begin to transform Megan's life. She started attending church regularly, and some months later told me of her commitment to Christ.

Lucia Alexis Gainer is a freelance writer living in California.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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