How to Comfort Hurting People
List of Practical Suggestions
Tragically, Christians with the highest of motives are often blissfully unaware of the needless pain they inflict on the people they think they are helping. You, however, can avoid the pitfalls. This webpage summarizes how to move from the illusion that you are a blessing to really blessing people who need support.
* There is so much help you can offer people without resorting to advice-giving. Be vitally aware that giving even simple advice is like handling a bomb: even experts are in danger of it blowing up in their face. As much as possible, leave it alone. It is so important to grasp this that if you have not already done so, I urge you to read Don’t Know What to Say? before proceeding. In the eyes of the receiver, giving advice usually blasts you from the position of warm-hearted friend (the position from which you can offer maximum comfort) to that of cold superior. It can also greatly add to a hurting person’s pain. If you are asked to give advice, see more.
* Think the best of people. See them in the best possible light. View them through the eyes of love, knowing that love covers not just a few, but a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8). If what we noted in the first point is true of seemingly harmless advice, try to conceive the danger of a deliberate word of correction or implying the person has demons or unconfessed sin or is not trying hard enough, or that the problem persists because of lack of faith. The impact of such ‘helpful suggestions’ is usually nothing short of horrific. Mouth them and you could incur the wrath of God for devastating one of his children. Like Simon Peter, you could temporarily become the devil’s mouthpiece (Matthew 16:23). Disregard this warning, and you could end up driving the person away from the church and even away from God. Your well-intentioned remarks almost make you guilty of spiritual murder. Don’t infect third parties with your poison by sharing with them your suspicions about a person. At the very least, the more people you tell, the more likely it is that it will reach the person and help destroy them. Pray that if your suspicions are true that God clearly reveal it to the person, with your only personal involvement being prayer and the giving of comfort. Talk it over with your pastor or a very mature Christian if you must, but don’t take things into your own hands. Clearly, you need to find the best possible light in which to interpret the actions of the person you wish to help, but the more the person sees that you have this attitude toward everyone, the more secure he or she will feel. It will increase the person’s confidence that you will not be critical behind his or her back. Your example will also aid healing by helping to diffuse any ill feelings the person may have toward people who have hurt him or her and will inspire the person to be open with you.
* Rely heavily upon your Christ-bought union with Almighty God. This alone gives you an edge on the help that a godless person could offer. Prayer enables you to burst through human limitations into divine omnipotence, bringing the unlimited power of God into someone’s life. Do not for a moment, however, imagine that it makes you infallible or any way better than the person you are trying to assist. Draw from the Lord all the patience, self-control and other graces you need to be as Christ to the people who need you. Pray also for divine insight into the person’s needs and for revelation as to how the Lord would have you express God’s love, wisdom and humility. And don’t underestimate the power of doing nothing but pray. Far too often people are smart enough to seek only prayer and instead get mowed down with advice from the one they had trusted to pray.
* Be convinced of God’s goodness and of his wonderful plans for the person you wish to help. Strongly believe in God’s love and forgiveness and in what God can achieve in and through the person. Know that encouragement works miracles because God is already working powerfully within the person. Encouragement empowers a Christian to see through the Deceiver’s ploy. It enables God to burst through the drizzle of despair and negativity that dampens the fire of God within a person. It builds the faith that gives God free rein to do the beautiful things he longs to do in the person’s life.
* Arm yourself with the attitude that your friend is delirious with pain and so can say or do anything out of character for a Christian without it affecting your opinion of him or her. Hold your friend in high regard and know that it is the pain talking, not the real person. People under pressure can explode at the slightest additional pressure. If you happen to add that tiny extra pressure, don’t take the explosion personally. Do not feel badly about the person, nor about yourself for what happened. If someone lashes out at you, feel honored. It is usually a mark of trust for someone to let you see an unpleasant side to his or her character. Letting people reveal an ugly side or express their deepest fears or grief, could be a most valuable contribution to their eventual healing. They will almost certainly feel condemned about the outburst. Being critical of them is therefore quite inappropriate. If, for instance, an ex-smoker reacted to the stress by reverting to smoking, the person would feel defeated enough without your contribution. Like Peter just hours before he denied his Lord, we have little conception of how we would react to new pressures, much less how we would cope with an entirely different set of genes and background. Don’t dare feel superior to a fallen brother or sister. Instead, be as gentle and longsuffering as you would like God to be with you if you had fallen into the same quicksand. It is common for people to say deliberately anti-God things, not because they really believe it but because they ache for the added assurance of God’s goodness they hope you will provide. To blast them for what they say would be to completely misunderstand their heart.
* Don’t inflame a situation. Don’t give more fuel to someone who is already embittered toward a person. Don’t provide more doom and gloom.
* Agree with the person as much as possible and show disagreement as little as possible. Naturally, this must be done whilst keeping the above point in mind, but remember that trying to help them see another point of view is dangerous because it can cause them to feel isolated and even betrayed by you and can drive them to defend their position even more. Often they simply need an opportunity to vent to a sympathetic ear because doing so empowers them to rid themselves of ill-feeling more quickly.
* Listen intently. Hang on to people’s every word. Enjoy their jokes, feel their pain, be thrilled with their triumphs. Be their best friend. Eye contact can reinforce the person’s awareness that you are interested in what he or she is saying. Don’t stare, however.
* In most situations, talk less than the other person. Aim to let the other person do a minimum of two thirds of the talking. Be relaxed during times of silence. Perhaps give a reassuring smile or squeeze the person’s hand. Don’t feel pressured to fill the silence with chatter. Have confidence in the comforting power of simply being there.
* Gently probe. Asking the occasional question shows genuine interest. Moreover, some people can be longing to talk but, due to shyness or their conception of good manners, they feel they do not have permission to say much about themselves or mention a delicate matter unless invited to do so. By asking appropriate questions you confirm that you really want to know and that they are not imposing on you. For them to broach the subject on another occasion some would feel the need for you to ask again. Of course, there are people on the other extreme who feel offended if asked, so we need to try to raise these matters with gentleness and sensitivity and in a manner in which the person can easily decline to answer without embarrassment.
* Get this right: Satan is the Accuser; God is the Forgiver. Our calling is not to help the Accuser by exposing a Christian’s sin. Our task is to undermine the Accuser’s schemes by lessening the condemnation that tragically leads to people keeping their distance from a loving and forgiving God. Neither trivialize sin, nor highlight sin. Instead, highlight the love and forgiveness of God.
* Avoid anything that could possibly give the impression of putting yourself above the person. Don’t be a know-all. Where appropriate, briefly confess your own struggles. Give the person opportunities to minister to you.
* If God reveals to you something about a person, and prayer and fasting confirms that it really is from God, use further prayer to ascertain why you were given this information. Chances are, it was to assist your intercession, not for sharing with anyone. If it was for sharing, you have a grave responsibility to determine exactly how and when God expects you to express it. You must prayerfully find the most uplifting and beneficial way to word the message. It is vital that everything you say must be wrapped in love, humility, and sensitivity.
* Be as ‘wise as serpents and harmless as doves’ (Matthew 10:16, KJV). Try to anticipate and avoid anything that could be misinterpreted or that has the slightest possibility of adding to a person’s pain.
* Match the person’s mood. In the precious words of the apostle renowned for his emphasis on joy: ‘Weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15, KJV).’ Obviously, you want the person to be more cheerful, but only gradually and gently edge in that direction. Occasionally, try a little humor and fun to gauge whether the person is emotionally able to respond positively to it, but do it sensitively, never forcefully.
* Regard tears as being as natural as breathing. If a person cries, try not to add to the person’s embarrassment by displaying your own embarrassment. Give a reassuring squeeze of the hand, or by some other means try to show that you are relaxed about any emotion that is displayed. Assure the person that tears are fitting and nothing to be ashamed of.
* Feel the person’s pain. Don’t imagine you need to hide your own distress.
* Where appropriate, use the power of touch. Treasure with holy awe the fact that not even God can hug someone like you can. Ensure, however, that any physical contact is welcomed, restrained, and not misunderstood.
* Cultivate a friendship in which the person feels secure to confide the darkest of secrets. Your love must be unshakable. The person should know he or she will be held in high esteem regardless of what is revealed; that you take no pleasure in anyone’s fall; and that you guard secrets as jealously as you would your own most embarrassing revelation (Scripture). (Be aware, however – and make the other person aware – that if someone confesses to a criminal offense you may be legally required to divulge certain things to authorities.) In the plastic world we live in, many Christians are desperately lonely. So few seem to admit to having problems that it can seem that no mature Christian could possibly have the problems you and I have. Surely if the crash of Christian superstars proves anything, it’s that underneath an impressive Christian exterior beats a heart as vulnerable as ours. Trying to suggest otherwise is fraught with danger. People might not just be embarrassed about the feelings and temptations assaulting them, they could be genuinely shocked. It might have been so long since they had experienced such an onslaught that they expected never again to feel that way. They do not realize it is normal for even strong Christians to be hit by temptations, prayerlessness, doubts, fear, anger or resentment toward God or people, or feelings of being abandoned by God.
* Unless you are married to the person, one must be cautious about attempting these suggestions with the opposite sex or with someone vulnerable to same sex attraction. There is probably nothing on earth more powerful in bonding one person to another than the sharing of a dark, long-kept secret. The effect is greatest with the very first person to both hear the secret and remain warmly accepting after the revelation. To varying degrees, the other suggestions in this webpage also contribute to bonding and, of course, the combining of several suggestions intensifies the effect. The result can easily be confused with romantic feelings and could have embarrassing, sometimes devastating, consequences.
* Look for a positive twist to the situation and with great sensitivity ease the person’s attention in that direction. An unmarried woman felt she needed male help in choosing a good second-hand car to buy. She lamented that such help was unlikely because her marital status caused wives to see her as a potential threat to their husbands. I expressed genuine sympathy. Being treated like a leper is one of the great burdens single people often have to bear. (I did not, however, use the word ‘leper’ lest it magnify her feeling of isolation.) After ensuring she knew I was moved by her plight I casually mentioned that being considered a potential threat proves these women see her as being very desirable to men. Immediately, the woman brightened to think that she really must be desirable. ‘I guess we can’t have it both ways,’ I said. ‘No one can both be an eligible, desirable woman and not be a seen as a possible threat.’ She left feeling much better about herself and her predicament. If every cloud has a silver lining, hunt high and low for the silver, then gently direct the person’s gaze toward it. Never, however, do this in a way that seems a put-down, such as giving the impression that they should have seen the silver themselves. Neither imply they should find the positive side comforting. Leave it to them to decide if it’s the slightest compensation for the pain they are experiencing.
* Ask if the person would like you to read a Scripture. Don’t be surprised if the answer is no, but come prepared with passages that could not be misinterpreted as being judgmental. Particularly helpful are readings that grapple with emotions and trials in a down-to-earth manner. An example is Psalm 13. The singer starts off complaining about the raw deal God seems to be giving him, then finally staggers to the point where he praises God. Psalms are a rich source of comfort for people enduring trials, as well as an effective way of helping people feel more comfortable about admitting to problems. (Examples) The psalmists were more in touch with reality than many modern writers and preachers.
* Consider practical help, such as shopping, housework, cooking. This can be most valuable and yet surprisingly complicated. See more.
* Don’t over-stay. Just as being forced to over-eat eventually turns one’s stomach, no matter how delicious the food, so visits that are too long or frequent can turn a blessing into a burden (Scripture). Whilst making it obvious that you are happy to stay, ask now and then something like, ‘Would you prefer to be alone for a while?’ or ‘Would you like to rest now?’
* Be aware that fear of hurting your feelings might make a person reluctant to admit such things, so pay attention to body language. Don’t, however, consider yourself an infallible interpreter of this, or any other aspect of human nature.
* Keep looking for feedback and signs as to adjustments needed in your approach. Not only is every person different, people’s needs change during the course of their ordeal. For instance, when tragedies first hit, a person is often overwhelmed with visitors and attention, but this tapers off until the person is left having to cope with the opposite extreme.
* Secret prayer is powerful, but shared prayer is yet another way of offering great comfort. Pray with the person, or (usually less comforting) assure the person of your prayers. Writing your prayer in a note or greeting card to the person can be surprisingly effective.
* Maintain contact with the person. Cards, e-mails, phone calls, little gifts, going on outings together, can be very effective. (For an outing with someone with special needs, see more.)
* Realize that nights are often the worst time for hurting people. The middle of the night – the time you probably least prefer to receive phone calls – is likely to be the time you are most needed.
* Allow yourself time out to recharge. It is both loving and wise to ensure you have lots of guilt-free fun times in which you as completely as possible forget your friend and his or her problems. This will do much to keep you primed for doing your utmost in supporting the person. (Of course, the person might not be in the mood for hearing you describe your fun.)
* Be prepared for a person’s struggle to continue for years longer than you imagine is normal. God deals with us as individuals and although our common humanity makes our trials similar (1 Corinthians 10:13) there is also a uniqueness to each trial. God might have delivered you quickly from a trial only because he couldn’t trust you to be as faithful as someone whose trial goes on and on. Some people come to Christ as tiny children and remain faithful forever; some don’t see the light until the last moments of life. Some of us take many more years to recover from grief than others. Some are instantly delivered from addiction by a miracle that proves the grace of God and says nothing about their own strength of character; some languish in defeat year after year after year until finally finding victory.
* Never give up on a person. The fact that some people recover far quicker than others can tempt us to give up on the slower ones. It can also make us think we are failures if our support has not had the anticipated result within the time frame we expected. Actually, the more frustrating and hopeless people seem and the more you feel like ditching them in favor of others who respond quicker, the more you are needed.
* Don’t abandon someone once his or her need is no longer chronic. If, when someone is well on the way to recovery, you chose to give priority to more needy people, it is important to taper off gradually and with great sensitivity, lest the person end up feeling worse than when you started. If you can begin to involve the person in your ministry, helping them to reach out to others, this would multiply your own efforts and do much to build up the person as well. You have been sent to a society so fickle that even vowing before God ‘till death us do part’ means little. In this dingy, despairing world of disposable relationships you are ordained to be light. You are called to be the ‘friend that sticks closer than a brother (Proverbs 18:24).’
* The key: humble dependence upon the Holy Spirit. What worked wonders for all of the dozens of people you have previously helped might be hopeless for the next person you meet. Your best intentions, your hardest efforts, could end in disaster. Human nature is just too complex. Every person is different. You have no alternative but the most exciting of all adventures: being Spirit-led.
“A true friend
knows your weaknesses
but shows you your strengths;
feels your fears
but fortifies your faith;
sees your anxieties
but frees your spirit;
recognizes your disabilities
but emphasizes your possibilities.”
– William Ward
~~ Web resources ~~
Webpages dealing in a sensitive, uplifting manner with dilemmas that often send us reeling
Except the last two in the list, each webpage leads to others on the same topic
Everyone’s Guide to Basic Counseling A First Aid Course For Emotions (The beginning of this webpage series)
God’s will is comforting, not fearful
Overcoming temptation and addiction
Why I Hate The Myth of a Cruel Christian God
Comfort & Help for those Devastating Times When you Feel Like an Idiot
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