"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?
When Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar eventually offered their words of wisdom, they did anything but encourage Job. They were convinced that Job was suffering because of some unrighteousness in his life and they repeatedly told him so.
Job's response to their nonsense? "What miserable comforters you are!" (Job 16:2). Job knew his friends were dwelling too much on the "why" of his calamity instead of giving him courage to face it. Not only that, but Job's friends kept surmising that they knew why Job suffered: God must be punishing him. Job's friends combined bad theology with bad encouragement techniques and simply exasperated their hurting friend.
When we encourage someone, it isn't for us to dwell upon why they are in the midst of their trial or struggle. We simply don't know. God's thoughts and purposes regarding our lives are often far beyond our understanding (Isaiah 55:8-9). Instead of focusing on events that may or may not have contributed to a loved one's painful circumstances, our encouragement should begin with what we know to be true about God.
Three tips to focus on God's sovereign care
- Remind your friend of God's character, particularly of God's sovereign care, goodness, and love. When your best friend is in a tough spot in her marriage, a text message saying "Philippians 4:13" or "God loves you!" is probably not going to make her feel better. Your friend is smart enough to know those truths. Instead what she needs to hear is God's truth applied well and lovingly to her circumstances. Sincerely reminding your friend that our sovereign God is in fact working even in troubled marriages "for the good of those who love God" (Romans 8:28) can have a remarkable impact.
- Point to God as one who is attentive to his people's pain. The psalmist declares, "LORD, you know the hopes of the helpless. Surely you will hear their cries and comfort them" (Psalm 10:17). Our God is strong enough to shoulder all of our anxieties and willing to do so because he cares for us (1 Peter 5:7). Scripture is full of examples of God caring for those he loves, even in the midst of difficulty and suffering. We can remind friends of the biblical accounts of the Israelites in Egypt, Ruth the Moabite, King David on the run, Elijah and the ravens, or the apostle Paul in prison.
- Pour yourself out as a drink offering. Over coffee one night, a friend from seminary encouraged my husband and me with the story of Elisha and the widow in 2 Kings 4:1-7. The widow needed money to pay her dead husband's debts and God provided miraculously more than she owed through a bountiful outpouring of oil. Like us, our friend needed a continual outpouring of God's grace to remain serving in his current ministry while waiting on God to provide new work. This story had been a good reminder to him of God's faithfulness to sustain, so he shared the story with us. Now I return to this story often because of its portrayal of God's bountiful goodness.
Reframe the hardship
Finally, we can encourage hurting friends by helping them see their current trial from a different perspective. The writer of Hebrews says, "Endure hardship as discipline" (Hebrews 12:7). Notice that the verse does not say, "Hardship is discipline." Rather the verse tells us to reframe our struggles by thinking about how God might be training us during them.
James also tells us, "Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy" (James 1:2). James continues by explaining why we should reframe hardship in this way: because God uses hardship to foster faith and perseverance (James 1:3-4). It can be really hard to view a hardship as a reason for joy, but we can find encouragement in remembering that God is working in us in the midst of trouble and pain. The hope of becoming more Christ-like can strengthen our hearts during difficulties.
When helping others reframe their hardship, we must be careful not to project onto a hurting friend what we may have learned or how we have been formed in a particular part of our spiritual journey. For example, God might use unemployment to teach me humility while he might use it to teach my husband the value of work or to teach my friend dependence on God. God writes a different story for each of our lives. I can share my story, but I must not assume it's the only paradigm for how God will work in similar circumstances.
Becoming messengers of salvation
Encouraging one another well takes practice and we must be ready to fail from time to time. Yet, in dependence on the Holy Spirit who equips us for service to others, we can become what Dietrich Bonhoeffer labels "messengers of salvation" to one another. We can speak words that are true and informed by Scripture. We can speak words that actually give life and impart hope to our friends who are feeling down.
We must remember that our God who tells us to encourage one another (1 Thessalonians 5:11) will also give us resources to do it well. By the power of his Spirit, God can multiply the effect that our thoughtful, sincere words can have. "All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is our merciful Father and the source of all comfort. He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us" (1 Corinthians 1:3-4).
Meryl Herr is passionate about adult discipleship in the local church. She is a freelance writer living in Illinois.