My husband and I (Cheryl) sped down the highway to reach our long-time friends as quickly as possible. A few minutes earlier during our Sunday morning worship service, I had received a text asking me to call right away. Hurrying out to the church patio, I made the call and learned that our dear friends’ teenage son had died unexpectedly in the early morning hours. As we rushed into the city, we were stunned and numb. All I knew was that we had to get to our friends.
When we arrived at the house, those of us who had gathered simply cried, hugged, and stared. We sat close together on the couch and floor, holding hands and leaning on each other’s shoulders or knees. It was very quiet—except for the crying, a few spontaneous prayers, and the heart-wrenching thoughts that naturally flowed from the grief-stricken parents.
That day, I entered uncharted waters as a friend. The gravity of the situation—the severity of my friends’ loss—would require that I love and support them to the best of my ability, but I was unsure what that should look like. More specifically, I was unsure what that should sound like. In the weeks, months, and years to come, how could I be sure that my words were helping and not hurting my friends? I knew there would be times I’d fail, but I wanted those times to be few and far between.
Almost two years have since passed, and God has been faithful. My grieving friends continue to experience the daily upholding and steadfast love of the Lord. And he’s taught me more about speaking helpful words to those I love in their time of need.
We’ve All Been There
Many lessons can be learned from the life of Job, including what not to say to those who are suffering. Job experienced unspeakable tragedy. In a single day, his finances were ruined and his children died. He was then struck with terrible sores that covered his body from head to toe. Job’s wife urged him to “curse God and die,” and if that wasn’t discouraging enough, his well-meaning yet ignorant friends showed up.
They began well. At first, Job’s friends were so struck by his suffering that they sat silently beside him for seven days. But when they began to speak, hurtful words came out: “If your children have sinned against [God], he has delivered them into the hand of their transgression” (Job 8:4); “Are the comforts of God too small for you, or the word that deals gently with you?” (Job 15:11); “Is not your evil abundant? There is no end to your iniquities” (Job 22:5).
Apparently, Job’s friends believed the most important thing he needed was a sharp rebuke. Without much consideration of the effect of their words, they went on to expound their own concept of God’s system of rewards and punishment. Their conclusion was that Job must have displeased the Lord, resulting in the disaster he suffered. When Job protested, they responded even more firmly. Yet, after the conversations came to an end, the Lord vindicated Job. Looking back on the entire account, the kindest act of Job’s friends was sitting quietly in sympathy.
Unfortunately, we’ve all been in difficult or awkward conversations in which we’ve failed to say the right thing. A friend tells us she’s been diagnosed with cancer. A former coworker mentions his wife’s passing. An engaged friend says she won’t be getting married after all. A high school senior explains that he wasn’t accepted to his university of choice and now his parents are upset. Even though we’ve wanted to be helpful, maybe our words have been insensitive or hurtful to the one who is struggling. As people who want to love others well, how can we know if our words are helping or hurting?
Watch Your Heart
When I (Caroline) advise women how to speak graciously, I always begin by addressing the heart. The attitudes in your heart will determine the words in your mouth. To explain this reality, Jesus used the example of what I like to call the “mystery tree” (Luke 6:43–45). To determine the identity of a plant or tree, you can look at what it produces. If it’s a thorn bush, you’ll see thorns. If it’s a fruit tree, you’ll see fruit. And if it’s a healthy, desirable plant, it will continually give you delight. In the same way, your words will be wise and gracious if your heart attitudes have been formed by the wisdom and grace of God. If, by the Spirit and through his word, you’ve developed a heart of kindness and compassion, those qualities will be reflected in your speech.
Watch for Cues
To determine if your words are helping or hurting, pay careful attention to the body language of the person listening. Instead of rushing like a race car through what you want to say, take more of a horse-and-buggy approach. Slow down and observe the surroundings. What is the listener’s non-verbal communication saying to you? If your friend is leaning back, crossing arms and legs, or tapping the table, your words might be exasperating her. If she’s frowning, looking down or away, or even laughing awkwardly, realize that what you’re saying may be missing the mark.
It takes conscientious effort to observe the non-verbal cues of your friend while you’re formulating and speaking your own thoughts. But be sensitive to the fact that as she hears you speak, she’ll have thoughts and feelings that are informed by her suffering. And understand that those inner responses will often be revealed by her body language. If you sense that your words may be hurting her, then stop. It may be time for you to just listen and pray.
Watch Your Words
Before we consider what’s helpful to say when someone is suffering, let’s clear the conversational table of what should not be said. These things can be hurtful in the immediate moment and detrimental to how your suffering friend processes her trial in the future:
Avoid careless words that sound trite. Don’t offer clichés or empty remarks like these:
- Everything’s going to be okay.
- I know how you feel.
- Don’t worry, it’s all for the best.
- You can always have another baby.
Such statements often reveal a shallow understanding of the person’s loss and only cause more pain.
Bible Verses Out of Context
Avoid sharing verses or phrases of Scripture out of context. We must “rightly handle the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15), even in our personal conversations. Poorly used snippets of Scripture and comments—such as “I know God will save your child” (based on Prov. 22:6), “Just ask God and he’ll do it” (based on John 14:14), “God doesn’t want you to be sick” (based on Isa. 53:5)—can portray callousness to your friend’s distress or plant confusion about God’s character and work.
Avoid making theological statements that aren’t in agreement with the clear teachings of the Bible. When someone is struggling, they can be vulnerable to false teaching about God, Satan, sin, suffering, prayer, and even the gospel. As a faithful friend, be careful that what you share with them accurately reflects what the Scriptures say, even if that means you take time for extra study.
Your words will be wise and gracious if your heart attitudes have been formed by the wisdom and grace of God.
Avoid blaming the sufferer for the suffering, as did Job’s friends. Even though Job honored the Lord, he still suffered. Your friend’s suffering may not have resulted from her choices. It’s not necessary to make judgmental remarks such as, “If you only would have . . . then that wouldn’t have happened,” or “I told you not to . . . so don’t come crying to me now.” If the sufferer needs to take any responsibility, the immediate aftermath of the crisis is not the time to address it. Be patient and give her time for God to graciously address that in her life.
Avoid telling stories that compare your experiences to those of the sufferer. Don’t try to minimize her pain by saying, “That happened to me and it wasn’t so bad” or “That’s like what happened to me when. . . .” Also avoid comparing the listener’s troubles to something worse. You don’t need to tell her about another situation more drastic than her own. These comparisons are thoughtless and unnecessary.
Right Words at the Wrong Time
Finally, avoid saying the right things at the wrong time. Be sensitive to discuss truths when your friend is ready to receive them: “Like apples of gold in settings of silver, is a word spoken at the proper time” (Prov. 25:11 NASB). Give your friend space to process her suffering with the biblical truths she already knows, and gently discuss them with her when it’s appropriate. Understand that some truths will be easier for her to hear and accept as time passes. It will require prayer and wisdom on your part to know when the time is right.
Words that Heal
What, then, can you say to help a friend who’s suffering? You can tailor these five general responses to her need:
- Say nothing at all. Sit with your friend and let her cry. Listen, and let her talk.
- Let your friend know that you’re sorry for what she’s experiencing. Be compassionate toward her.
- Ask how you can help meet your friend’s physical needs. Offer to help in ways she hasn’t considered or mentioned. Your actions will loudly display your love for her.
- Ask how you can specifically pray for her. If possible, pray for her when you are together, and commit to continue praying for her when you’re apart.
- Ask if you can share verses with her or read portions of the Bible to her, particularly from the Psalms. Gently remind her of the character and promises of God as she progresses through her trial.
The Lord is the one who ultimately “heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds” (Ps. 147:3). As you have conversations with those who are suffering, remember how the Lord’s healing words have strengthened and sustained you in your own times of trouble. As an instrument of his grace, you can now offer to others the comfort with which he has comforted you (2 Cor. 1:4). And trust that he will help you to do it well.
C. Marshall and C. Newheiser