I was at the end of my rope. My husband had been out of town for three days already and his trip was only half over. We were smack in the middle of a busy few months of work trips for him, leaving me home alone with twin toddlers (while pregnant with another baby) most days of the week. So I opened up about my exhaustion and discouragement to a friend one night. She knew our situation and was eager to listen to my outburst of discouragement. But as the words spilled out, I paused and blurted out: “I know I shouldn’t really be talking about my situation after we heard how tough Katie’s life is right now.”
Though my pain was real, in comparison to Katie’s (not her real name), my difficulties seemed rather small. After years of infertility, she faced another difficult pregnancy only to be faced with the realization that the child she now carried would never live a normal life. We were pregnant at the same time; my baby was healthy while hers was not. And even though I knew my situation with my husband’s travel was hard, it just seemed so trivial compared to the suffering she faced—and would continue to face.
“You don’t need a caveat when you talk about your struggles, Courtney,” my friend said. She reminded me that my story matters—and so does our hurting friend’s.
I’m not the first person who has faced this dilemma. Maybe you have too. You hear of a friend’s suffering and hold back on sharing your own prayer request because you don’t want to come across as calloused or complaining when your difficulty seems so small in comparison. There is so much worse suffering out there, right?
The truth is there are both good and bad reasons to downplay our stories.
When to Downplay Your Story
Proverbs provides us with a lot of wisdom regarding how we can think about our words. Proverbs 25:11 tells us that a word “fitly spoken” is of great value to the hearer, namely a word spoken in proper context. Proverbs 10:19 reminds us that there is a time to refrain from speaking. Proverbs 12:18 cautions us against using our words rashly, without thought to who we are speaking to. This passages speak broadly to our general communication, but they can be very helpful principles to keep in mind when we consider good or bad reasons to downplay our stories or struggles when speaking with others.
In addition to Proverbs, there are other practical principles to think through as we consider if we should “hold back” from sharing our own trials or struggles with a friend. Wisdom also tells us to consider the setting (Are you in a group or one-on-one setting?), consider the context (How recently did your friend experience this suffering?), and consider the relationship (How close are you to this friend?).
In a group setting, if everyone is sharing prayer requests, it’s inevitable that one person’s pain may be another person’s joy. An infertile woman may be sitting next to a mom who is in the throes of morning sickness. A widow may be sitting next to a newlywed who just had her first fight. Part of living in community is walking through difficulties and heartache with each other. We shouldn’t hold back from sharing our struggles in community settings or we will never be able to walk through grief and difficulty together. However, we can certainly practice discernment about when and, especially, how we share.
When it comes to sharing difficulties in one-on-one interactions, discernment is just as essential. For example, if you are struggling relating to your mother or find yourself in constant conflict with her, wisdom would say that sharing this difficulty with a friend who just lost her mom to cancer is not the best choice. Your grieving friend would most likely give anything to be in conflict with her mom if it meant she could still have her here with her.
Downplaying for the Wrong Reasons
But, as my friend pointed out to me, there are also bad reasons to downplay our stories or struggles. For example, I tend to shrink back from sharing a prayer request about difficult toddlers or pregnancy sickness in a group setting if I know that anyone in my group is dealing with negative pregnancy tests each month. I feel like the trials of my day are minimal compared to the constant weight of her unmet desires. Wisdom would guide me to weigh my words carefully.
This sort of caution is driven by compassion—and rightly so. But if I end up refraining entirely from sharing because of my fear of sounding ungrateful, or if I stay mum because I’ve engaged in comparison and have begun to think my own struggle isn’t real, then I am not being honest about the difficulty of life. And, more importantly, I am missing a very real help afforded to me in the body of Christ.
We are commanded to bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2), and the primary way we do that is by opening our mouths and honestly acknowledging that life is not always a walk in the park.
Everyone Is Going Through Something
I’ve been on both ends of the comparison spectrum. I remember in the early days as a mother to twins I could feel resentment and frustration rise inside of me whenever a mother of one baby would talk about how hard it was to adjust to this whole motherhood thing. One baby? Try having two! I would think haughtily to myself.
But I have also felt a little silly for crying over my husband being gone on a business trip for a few days when I observe a friend try to parent her three children while her husband is deployed for months on end. A few days is stateside with no threat to my husband’s life is nothing compared to what she deals with for a much longer than me, I think as I wipe away my tears and try to find the good in my situation.
I’m learning that both of these responses miss something crucial about our lives: We are all going through something. Life in a post-Genesis 3 world means we are all living with the daily reality of sin, death, sickness, separation, and just plain difficulty. We can’t escape it.
What is That to You?
My friend was right: I don’t need to provide caveats when I’m sharing about the suffering I face. I don’t need to belittle what I’m going through, hide it away, or convince myself it isn’t real. There will always be someone who is suffering more than me, but that is not the point. What is hard for me is hard for me, and I need the body of Christ to help me through it.
This is where Jesus’ words to Peter in John 21:15-22 are so helpful. After hearing how he was supposed to suffer for Christ’s sake, Peter looked at the disciple next to him and asked about the path Christ had for him. Just like we tend to, Peter turned his mind to comparison.
Jesus’ response is the same for us today: “What is that to you? You must follow me.”
We all are given suffering in varying degrees and in varying seasons. Some of us are walking in a season of strength with little suffering. Some of us are walking in a season of deep darkness with trials on every side. Some of us are walking in a season of moderate difficulty with gnawing trials that at first glance seem miniscule but threaten our faith every day.
Christ’s call is the same for all of us: Follow him. He doesn’t look at Peter and minimize the pain he will endure. And he spends no time talking about the other disciple that Peter is so curious about. He simply tells Peter to follow him in his trial. No comparison. No minimizing. He is called only to trust the Christ who holds his circumstances together.
Learning from Jesus
Just like Jesus has words for us when we are tempted to compare our stories of suffering, he also is a model for us in how we handle the varying difficulties we all face as exiles living in a fallen world.
Jesus’ response to brokenness of any kind was the same: compassion and care. He didn’t tell a blind person that their blindness wasn’t as bad as being filled with multiple demons. He didn’t tell the Samaritan woman that her difficulty as a sinful woman was hardly a match for the family who just lost their little girl with a full life ahead of her. He didn’t tell the wedding host that running out of wine was a minor detail compared to running out of food for five thousand people. In every interaction with people, he acknowledged the painful reality of living in a fallen, sin-cursed world and he made it right.
While we can never make suffering right, we can learn from Jesus’ response. We can acknowledge the difficulty and pain of life after the Fall that plagues all of us. We can weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15). We can let compassion—not comparison—guide our discernment. We can remove a false hierarchy of suffering from our minds when we listen to someone share about the struggles they face. And we can point our hurting friends to the Jesus who not only wept over sin, death, and suffering, but endured all of those things himself so one day every tear would be wiped from our weary eyes (Revelation 7:17; 21:4).
We are all dealing with something, aren’t we? I’m glad I shared my difficulties with my friend that day; if I would have held back from sharing with her, I would have missed a very precious opportunity to allow her to walk with me through my trial.
We don’t need caveats when sharing our stories with others; we need discernment, grace, and compassion. Most of all, we need a future-oriented perspective that reminds us that one day all of our stories of trial and suffering will fade away in the light our Redeemer’s triumphant face.
Courtney Reissig is a wife, mother, writer, and speaker. Courtney is also the author of The Accidental Feminist: Restoring Our Delight in God’s Good Design. Connect with Courtney at CourtneyReissing.com or on Twitter at @CourtneyReissig.