Most people like to help others and that is a good thing, because we are surrounded by hurting people every day. They may be in your small group or Bible study, over your backyard fence, or in line at the store.
The people in your circle of influence may share with you the difficulties and trials they have going on in their lives because their burden is too heavy to bear alone. They may want counsel, or comfort, a suggestion or solution, or they may just want someone to say they understand how hard life is right now.
What do we say, and how should we respond when people entrust us with things that are important to them? How can we help them in a meaningful way?
I am addressing this because I have seen and experienced the rather painful results of the responses of well-meaning people who think they are helping a hurting person. Some well-intentioned answers can bring more pain and sorrow and add to that person’s load of pain. Responding to someone who is hurting requires a sensitive spirit.
You must listen carefully, with compassion and empathy, to what the person is telling you. Let him tell his story. You may be the first person he has trusted enough to bare his soul to, and your reaction will be important as to where he goes from there.
When people are willing to share a part of their life with you because they are in some kind of pain, the natural inclination is to want to fix it or to offer them an opinion or counsel that you believe will help them. This can be a mistake.
First, ask if the person even wants feedback or counsel before you offer it. People may not be ready to hear counsel yet, and telling them now may be a wasted effort and turn them off to you.
While “venting” is not the goal, please realize that when a person chooses to unburden his or her heart and soul to you, that is a privilege you should not take lightly. The person must really trust you to communicate that pain with you.
If a friend agrees to hear your feedback or counsel, be gentle in response. Watch your friend’s face for nonverbal communication, and if you see a stiffening up toward what you are saying, ask if the person wants you to continue or stop. Be sure to the best of your ability that the person understands you are a friend and helper and that what you say is being said in love. Be careful not to be harsh in your reply. Even if your friend needs a rebuke or correction, he may accept it better if you are gentle, even though you may have difficult things to say.
Speak the truth in love with wisdom
Many of the things we struggle to accept are related to God’s sovereignty over our lives. Understanding God’s sovereignty does not negate our human emotions or feelings. Talk about God’s sovereignty must be balanced with God’s love; otherwise it is cruelty.
If you are going to give counsel about this, realize that your friend may have a crystal clear understanding of God’s sovereignty and that he may know the Word of God very well, but it doesn’t mean your friend does not hurt anyway! Often our emotions are in conflict with our theology, and even the strongest warrior sometimes has to find a place to cry.
We all need to take care not to be chiding in our tone toward the one who comes to us for comfort. A lecture is most likely not what our friend needs from us at this point. God’s Word is never lacking for wisdom, and it is in that very Word that we see how Paul was comforted by the people around him. He frequently notes how his misery was decreased by a visit from Timothy or John Mark.
Responding with confidence and care
Listening, not fixing, being gentle, and speaking the truth with love and wisdom are four practices that can keep you from being speechless the next time someone opens up to you. Let us know what you’ve learned about responding to the hurts of others. We’d love to hear your thoughts.