"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."1