7 Strategies for Loving People in Pain
“If all religious issues were boiled down to their essence, there would be two inescapable questions: Is God there? And, is God good? Our view of the existence of God and the character of God are the truths that determine all our other answers.”
Being around people experiencing deep grief makes me uncomfortable. Whenever someone starts to cry, I feel my body involuntarily tense up. I’m not even comfortable with my own grief yet, let alone the sorrows of others.
Just like every other American, I’ve grown up thinking that suffering is unusual, an aberration of some sort.
Worse, I’ve been regularly exposed to unbiblical “prosperity” theology that equates all forms of suffering with unconfessed sin or “not praying hard enough”. If I’m not vigilant, these insidious background influences will squelch my empathy.
Honestly, my first response is to pull away from other people’s pain, like my hand's touching a hot stove.
All of this would seem to forever disqualify me from entering into ministries shot-through with suffering. And yet, my wife and I have walked with hundreds of people going through all manner of pain.
Over the years working with the Care Ministry at The Crossing, we’ve developed a few concise reminders to help us live out biblical truth. As we encounter people going through financial hardship, sickness, divorce, and death, these strategies help us love better.
Fueled by the Word of God, these simplified statements put steel in the spine. And they open the heart to do a better job of listening. I often whisper one or more of them under my breath as a silent prayer before I sit down at a table with someone, facilitate a class, take a call, or type out a text.
When the moment of suffering arrives, I might not have the time or mental bandwidth for a lengthy time of prayer. But I can always say a few quick words. Then trust God to make whatever use he will of my desire to love the person in front of me.
My hope is that these seven strategies will help you too.
1. Move toward, not away.
My heart is not fully reconciled to the everyday reality of suffering. So it helps to remember that followers of Jesus move toward pain.
First-century Christianity exploded largely because of early Christians’ willingness to enter plagued-ravaged cities and care for the dying. Many of these brothers and sisters in Christ paid for their empathy with their lives.
Remembering this strengthens me to sit across the table from someone and listen attentively as he sobs while recounting the loss of his marriage to his wife’s adultery.
2. Pay attention to your own discomfort.
Acknowledging any problem is the first step toward overcoming it.
Regularly reminding myself of everything I’ve recounted in the first few paragraphs of this article is crucial for me. It empowers me to ignore my own preferences in the interest of serving someone else. Discomfort can lead to me blurting out an ill-advised response, looking at my watch, picking up my phone, or allowing my eyes to wander.
The problem is, by focusing on my discomfort, I'm making the encounter more about me than the other person. In response, I confess my discomfort to God in the moment and ask for his forgiveness.
If the situation seems favorable, I might even confess being ill at ease to the other person and ask him or her to forgive me. “My family just lost someone to death, too, and what you’re saying is dragging up some painful memories. I’m sorry if I seem to be inattentive, I’ll try to do better.”
My experience has been that others appreciate this level of transparency. It often encourages them to go even deeper with you.
3. Be comfortable with silence.
I want to be a fixer.
Like most other men, my heart is hopelessly inclined, when listening to another’s travails, to watch for something I can do to make it better. My mind starts spinning out possible solutions. But as I’m feverishly thinking about what’s next, I’m not doing a very good job of listening.
Francis Schaeffer instructed his students at L’Abri to spend the first 50 minutes of an hour with someone else just listening. Listen and silently pray that God might give you a word of comfort for those final 10 minutes.
I’m not naturally comfortable keeping my mouth shut, so I tend to violate this guideline a lot. But I have learned to pause and ask the other person if they’d like me to comment before going in with advice.
4. Offer to pray in the moment.
Nothing can serve as a more effective conversation ender than the infamous words, “I’ll be praying for you.”
There is absolutely nothing wrong — and many things right — about offering to pray. But I’ve admittedly found myself saying this less because I intend to be prayerful over the next few days and weeks and more because I have to get going someplace else.
Now, whenever the subject turns to prayer or time is growing short, I offer to pray for the person in the moment.
Assuming I’ve been listening attentively, I’ll already know what is foremost in the heart and mind of the other person. This makes me ready to ask the Spirit to be with my friend as they navigate their dark valley.
5. Don't offer vague support.
So many sincere offers to help die on the altar of our own busyness and forgetfulness.
While our hearts may be entirely intent on helping another person, the general offer to support someone begins an unseen battle on two fronts. The first skirmish is the other person’s reluctance to accept help as an obvious admission of weakness and need. The second and more pitched conflict is our own negligence.
Over the years, I’ve come to view such offers as commitments of time, talent, and treasure made before God for the good of another. While that may sound obvious, it’s anything but.
“Let me know if you need anything” is a vague, unenforceable commitment of nothing in particular. Saying something more like “I’m going to bring you a few frozen meals on Friday” is a signal to the other person that you have a concrete plan.
If the person is in a lot of emotional turmoil, they might not know what they need in the moment. So, a specific offer not only provides that practical help, but it also alleviates their need to come up with what would be helpful.
6. Put a reminder in your planner.
Whenever tragedy hits, there’s typically an outpouring of support that peters out after a few weeks or months.
Death, in particular, brings with it an immediate flood of sympathy and support. What we can easily miss is the period of extended silence that unfolds months later, once the hard reality has begun to really sink its teeth into the heart. I’ve found that people appreciate it when you reach out to help months after the initial shock has worn off.
I don’t automatically think of something hard that someone else went through a year ago, but there's any number of smartphone apps that can help me recall and reach out. So next time you plan to support someone in pain, put two reminders in your calendar. One for right now and one for a couple of months down the road.
7. Acknowledge your finitude.
Similar to wanting to be a fixer is the irrational desire to make everything okay for someone else. More than anyone, Christians should be quick to realize that things will never be fully okay until Jesus comes back. So no amount of effort on our part will change that.
As a reminder, I find it helpful to silently pray “I am not the Christ” as I interact with others.
What I’m expressing in that short, all-too-obvious prayer is that God has a plan for this other person. And part of his plan has been to allow suffering to pass. Circumstances may be painful, but God is still good.
Even though I am weak and foolish, he has ordained that I go through hard things. And to have those hard things soften me to enter into the pain of others.
Somehow, someway, I ask God to use this interaction to have a positive eternal impact on the heart of the person I'm talking to. And in me.
During his earthly ministry, Jesus made a habit of publicly taking meager things and multiplying them into overflowing provision. He took containers of bathwater and turned them into more than enough of “the best” wine saved for last. He took one little kid’s pathetic lunch and used it to feed thousands.
Jesus can be trusted to take whatever meager investment you make in another person’s well-being and multiply it into an abundant harvest, even if you never see it.
When we experience or witness deep suffering it can cause us to wonder how a good God can allow such deep pain. Find out why evil and suffering in our world don't mean that God doesn't care.