Suffering surprises us. Our mother is suddenly taken to the hospital. We go through a break-up. Our husband has open-heart surgery. Each person in our group will go through a valley. But here are four things not to say to a friend who is suffering.
1. Don’t Tell a Friend Who Is Suffering, “It Could Be Worse”
We are called to lead with empathy (Rom. 12:15). So, our first reaction should be understanding rather than judgement.
What seems small to you may be big to your friend. You might think being laid off from a job isn’t a big deal, but your friend is feeling crushed by losing this identity and is reeling from financial instability.
Of course, some suffer in “worse” ways than we are. But God is never dismissive of our hardships. Jesus perfectly sympathizes with us (Heb. 4:15), and God doesn’t compare our sufferings with others. He meets us where we are.
2. Don’t Say to a Suffering Friend, “That Happened To Me Too”
Don’t compare. This conversation is not about you. It is about the person who is currently feeling the pain.
Be “quick to listen and slow to speak” (James 1:19). Patiently understand what happened to them and how they are reacting to their circumstance.
If we point to our own experiences—even if they are similar—that usually denies the person the ability to share the full context of their situation. We assume their situation matches our situation. We shove their experience into the cookie cutter of what our experience was.
The only time we should share our similar pains is if this can help build some of the relational bridge. But then we quickly point our attention back to them: “My mom died a couple years ago too. That was really hard. How are you doing right now with your mom’s passing?”
It’s not about them bearing your burden right now. It’s about you bearing theirs (Gal. 6:2).
3. Don’t Ask a Friend Who Is Suffering, “What Is God Teaching You Through This?”
There are problems with this question that author Ed Welch points out:
- It keeps us from having compassion (Will we have compassion on someone who is being “taught a lesson”? Probably not)
- This tends to be condescending
- It can suggest that suffering is just a riddle to figure out
- This response can undercut God’s fundamental call to all sufferers: “Trust me”
Dr. Welch summarizes that suffering isn’t primarily intellectual but relational:
“In our attempts to help, we can overinterpret suffering. We search for clues to God’s ways, as is if suffering were a scavenger hunt. Get to the end, with the right answers, and God will take away the pain. Meanwhile, the quest for answers is misguided from the start and will end badly. Suffering is not an intellectual matter that needs answers; it is highly personal: Can I trust him? Does he hear? Suffering is a relational matter, and it is a time to speak honestly to the Lord and remember that the fullest revelation he gives of himself is through Jesus Christ, the suffering servant. Only when we look to Jesus can we know that God’s love and our suffering can coexist” (Ed Welch, Side by Side, 106).
4. Don’t Claim to Your Friend, “I Know Exactly What You Should Do!”
Jumping to solutions is usually a bad idea. Especially because we don’t have enough information to fully understand their suffering!
A quick solution also assumes that the best thing to do is race to “the end.” Instead, process and pray in the midst of the current pain.
If we point people to a quick solution, we can also be taking too much responsibility. It’s not your responsibility to respond wisely to their suffering; it’s their responsibility. Therefore, don’t just offer them “your” solutions. Gently draw them out, asking what they think the best next steps would be (Prov. 20:5).
Don’t feel like you or they need to have an immediate solution figured out. The main thing they need is to present themselves to the Lord (even in lament) and to other supportive Christians who can pray for them.
5. Don’t Tell Your Suffering Friend, “If You Need Anything, Just Call Me.”
Instead of placing the burden on them to reach out to you, you can:
- Ask, “What can I do to help?”
- State, “I’ll plan to [help in a certain way]. If that’s not helpful, just tell me.”
Instead of waiting for them to reach out, consider what needs to be done and do it.
So, What Do I Tell My Friend?
We can say:
- “I am so sorry”
- “I want to walk with you in this.”
- “I love and care about you.”
- “Here is something from God’s Word that I’ve needed before and want to share with you to offer a little hope, even as we still process through this…”
You can also give more than words:
- Give a hug or hand on the shoulder (as appropriate)
- Ask them about their situation and listen well
- Offer to pray for them…right then!
Finally, the best friends follow-up.
So don’t allow conversations about suffering to just be one-time explorations of pain or solutions. Be willing to ask a couple days (or a week) later how they are doing. And be open-handed with what they might share.
Welch, Ed. Side By Side: Walking with Others In Wisdom and Love. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015.