Engaging with someone in the middle of a trial is difficult and at best, a learned skill. It is uncomfortable when we engage in others painful lives. Not everyone has experienced difficult times, so it is hard to know what to do and what to say. We don’t always have the insight or experience needed to respond in a way that makes a difference.
In the Bible, there is a good example of what not to do. The Book of Job is not only about the question of why we suffer and where God is in all of it, but how we respond to our neighbor in their times of distress.
Job had four friends come to visit him, who did their best to cheer him up. They spent a lot of time (and a lot of hot air) trying to convince Job that if he would just follow God better, all his misery would go away. Somewhat ironically, God makes it clear at the end of the book that Job’s four friends didn’t do it right.
Since our brushes with suffering, I’ve experienced “friend of Job” type comments. People try to be helpful, they really want to be. But as I’ve often said – good intentions don’t make up for bad execution. If we are to love our neighbors, to be the hands and feet of Christ, how do we respond?
Phillip Keller puts a fine point on the life of a Christian in his book A Shepherd Looks at the Twenty-Third Psalm. In it, his summarizes, “Many people have the idea that when a child of God falls, when he is frustrated and helpless…God becomes disgusted, fed-up and even furious with him. This simply is not so. One of the great revelations of the heart of God given to us by Christ is that of Himself as our Shepherd…When I read the life story of Jesus Christ and examine carefully His conduct in coping with human need, I see Him again and again as the Good Shepherd picking up ‘cast’ sheep. The tenderness, the love, the patience that He used to restore Peter’s soul after the terrible tragedy of his temptations is a classic picture of the Christ coming to restore one of his own.”
It is easy to slip into a mindset of “helping” with words, but I will tell you, words quickly hurt more than help. As one who knows of the acute pain of misguided words, I would say: follow the example of Christ. He got to the heart of healing – by using His own heart, not His mind, though His intellect was staggering.
This is where the friends of Job went wrong. We are called to minister to the broken-hearted in ways that are tangible rather than verbal. I’m fond of saying “Talk less, hug more.” We can pick up those in crisis much better when we seek to restore the whole person to health, not aim to change their mind about the situation.
I have a laundry list of ways of how not to respond, but also just as many shining examples of the best ways from those who went out of their way to love on us; both two years ago in my daughter’s cancer treatment and currently as our week-old youngest daughter spends time in the NICU. They have made all the difference:
• A friend texting me every day to see how I am and to let me know she is praying for me, for any and every specific need.
• A friend who goes out of her way to drive me to the hospital when my husband can’t.
• A friend who set up a meal service that lasted for months.
• A friend who took both my girls out to see a movie and sent them cards to make them feel special.
• Parents who come sit by you without asking, or drive thousands of miles just to be with us.
• A monthly care package that arrived from a Sunday School class two thousand miles away.
As I close on this idea, I want to share a thought from a prayer warrior who has seen us through cancer and what we are currently experiencing. She continues to encourage me as I face this new challenge. She had this to say: “God keeps our hearts permanently tender when we walk through desperate times and live to tell the tale. The picture of you holding your daughter with a huge smile on your face makes me cry, because it was like yesterday that I remember almost running down the hall to the NICU, hoping for good news from the nurses, and beside myself with the need to hold my boy.”
Jesus never tried to convince someone to be better. He always demonstrated His love through His actions. In Matthew 11:29, He declares, “Take the yoke I give you. Put it on your shoulders and learn from me. I am gentle and humble, and you will find rest.” When we encounter those in pain, gentleness and humility is required. We can’t aim to teach or convince, we must aim to love. When we aim to care, to help them with their burdens, we are teaching them all they need to know about Jesus. When we learn from Jesus, we don’t have to use our own wisdom and knowledge but trust we will be His conduit for mercy and grace. We can know He will give us the knowledge and words (if needed) to speak His peace into the lives of the hurting.