“Why would anyone say that to me?” Eyes pleading, perplexed and full of pain, friends facing extremely difficult circumstances and/or loss have posed this question to me after a well-meaning person added insult to injury with words meant to comfort. I’m not sure they even expected me to answer as much as they just couldn’t believe someone would utter something so insensitive.
To try and answer this “Why?” would be as unproductive as trying to answer the “Why?” of whatever has them in a vulnerable, grieving place in the first place. So what do we say when someone is suffering? How do we avoid inappropriate incidents where we think we’re doing good, but we end up wounding someone who’s already hurting?
Job has something to say about this: “Oh that you would be silent and it would be your wisdom!” (Job 13:5).
Sometimes saying nothing is the wisest thing we can say! As we saw in Isaiah 55:8-9, we simply don’t and can’t know the ways and thoughts of God. Our attempts to say the right thing might be met with Job’s sentiments: “Miserable comforters are you all!” (Job 16:2).
So how can we soothe the suffering?
1. Pray first, and be led by the Holy Spirit in all we say and do. Ask the Holy Spirit to show us their needs and to give us comforting words that will relieve their grief.
2. Sometimes, it’s best to say nothing at all; just be there. As a picture is worth a thousand words, our silent presence can be, too.
3. Listen. Let them talk, and don’t try to have the answers.
4. Don’t strive to say the right thing, simply tell them we love them and that we’re here if they need us. Proverbs 10:19 counsels, “In the multitude of words sin is not lacking, but he who restrains his lips is wise.”
5. As the saying goes, “Actions speak louder than words.” Take food, look for ways to physically help and serve them. Clean their house, watch their kids, run their errands. Do whatever we can to ease other burdens so they have time and strength to grieve.
6. Pray for them. Ask permission to pray for them when we’re with them, and pray without ceasing when we’re not. We can even write our prayers to them in a card, email, or text. Pray scripture over them and their situation. Pray with understanding and with the spirit.
7. ALWAYS point them to the cross, to the comforter Himself. To the source of peace that passes understanding. To our eternal hope.
8. Share God’s words of comfort. Assure them that as they place their faith entirely in Jesus, staying their minds on Him, He will give them perfect peace. He will not leave or forsake them. He is all-present, all-knowing, all-powerful, and in control. Encourage them to trust in Him, even in the midst of their suffering, that He is faithful, good, trustworthy, and always the only answer. Faith doesn’t always change our circumstances or bring about our desired result, but faith always is the answer in our circumstances, trusting Him to carry us through.
9. Be extremely discerning and sensitive (see number one). The right words at the wrong time might have disastrous results, whereas those same words spoken at the right time can be exactly what a person needs to hear. Someone who just lost a parent, spouse, or child might not respond well to sincere encouragement that God will work even that to good. It is true, and I have turned to that promise more times than I can count, but in the freshness of a grave loss, those words may be met with bitterness rather than relief.
10. Some of what we say may depend on whether we’ve walked in their shoes. Words spoken by someone who has been through the exact same circumstances might be received differently than the same words spoken by someone who has no idea what they’re experiencing.
In the last chapter of Job, the Lord commands Job's friends to go to Job and offer up for themselves a burnt offering. He tells them Job will pray for them, explaining, "For I will accept him, lest I deal with you according to your folly; because you have not spoken of Me what is right, as My servant Job has (verse 8).
All the things they accused Job of, calling him a hypocrite and insisting he deserved his suffering, and now he has to pray for them that their offering will be acceptable to the Lord?!?! Don’t you know that required forgiveness?!?!
Yet, after Job was obedient in this, “the Lord restored Job’s losses…Indeed, the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before…the Lord blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning” (verses 10-12).
No matter what stupid, insensitive, or prideful things someone says to us in our suffering, we must forgive. We must not question our faith just because someone else does. We must pray for those people. And let us remain humble in Christ and guard against pride and stupidity in the things we say, always erring to the side of saying too little versus saying too much.
Lord, help us to know what to say and when to say it, surrendering our opinions and lips as we become more wholly Yours today.