1 My son, keep my words and treasure up my commandments with you; 2 keep my commandments and live; keep my teaching as the apple of your eye; 3 bind them on your fingers; write them on the tablet of your heart. 4 Say to wisdom, “You are my sister,” and call insight your intimate friend, 5 to keep you from the forbidden woman, from the adulteress with her smooth words. 6 For at the window of my house I have looked out through my lattice, 7 and I have seen among the simple, I have perceived among the youths, a young man lacking sense, 8 passing along the street near her corner, taking the road to her house 9 in the twilight, in the evening, at the time of night and darkness. 10 And behold, the woman meets him, dressed as a prostitute, wily of heart. 11 She is loud and wayward; her feet do not stay at home; 12 now in the street, now in the market, and at every corner she lies in wait. 13 She seizes him and kisses him, and with bold face she says to him, 14 “I had to offer sacrifices, and today I have paid my vows; 15 so now I have come out to meet you, to seek you eagerly, and I have found you. 16 I have spread my couch with coverings, colored linens from Egyptian linen; 17 I have perfumed my bed with myrrh, aloes, and cinnamon. 18 Come, let us take our fill of love till morning; let us delight ourselves with love. 19 For my husband is not at home; he has gone on a long journey; 20 he took a bag of money with him; at full moon he will come home.” 21 With much seductive speech she persuades him; with her smooth talk she compels him. 22 All at once he follows her, as an ox goes to the slaughter, or as a stag is caught fast 23 till an arrow pierces its liver; as a bird rushes into a snare; he does not know that it will cost him his life. 24 And now, O sons, listen to me, and be attentive to the words of my mouth. 25 Let not your heart turn aside to her ways; do not stray into her paths, 26 for many a victim has she laid low, and all her slain are a mighty throng. 27 Her house is the way to Sheol, going down to the chambers of death.
Arguably no moment is more formative than immediately after a loved one shares her pain with you. Relationships are defined by what happens in these sacred seconds. Your words can bring healing or harm, communicate love or judgment, build or destroy trust.
Listeningis almost always the surest way to care for a hurting friend, as it establishes trust, facilitates understanding, opens the door to self-discovery and growth, and powerfully communicates the heart and love of Christ. Jesus excelled in the ministry of listening, and he wants us to follow in his footsteps.
Yet Jesus did more than listen to sufferers; he also spoke life-giving words to them. While we should always take a listen-first approach with hurting loved ones, we should also look for opportunities to speak words of hope and encouragement. A timely word of encouragement can bring blessing and even healing: “Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body” (Prov. 16:24; cf. 12:18; 25:11).
Unfortunately, we often find ourselves ill-equipped to speak words of life to hurting loved ones. Consider seven helpful phrases to keep near.
1. “Thank you for sharing this with me.”
When someone reveals her heart to you, she entrusts you with a priceless possession, saying, “I trust you enough to handle this with care.” Recognize the preciousness and privilege of this moment. It is an honor that she trusts you enough to make herself vulnerable. Dignify her by vocalizing your appreciation of this reality.
Expressing gratitude communicates, “You are valuable to me, and I am grateful you would entrust me with something as precious as your heart.” Acknowledging the value of a sufferer’s heart and feelings is one of the easiest and most effective ways to honor her.
2. “This is a difficult situation.”
Suffering can be a breeding ground for accusation. Sometimes this accusation is self-inflicted, but often it is perpetuated by a misguided (or abusive) authority figure, peer, or the Accuser himself, who says to sufferers:
“Toughen up. What kind of Christian are you?”
“You shouldn’t still be grieving about this.”
“Why are you hurting? You must not trust God.”
“Why are you sad? You brought this upon yourself.”
“Why are you confused? You must not have genuine faith.”
When you acknowledge the difficulty of a situation, you remind the sufferer that she’s not crazy, stupid, or sinning for feeling hurt or confused. As limited people walking alongside limited people in a broken and complex world, often the most fitting thing we can say is simply, “This is hard.”
Another useful phrase is, “This is wrong.” This sentiment is especially appropriate when the sufferer has been mistreated or abused. Acknowledging the wrongness of injustice is right; Christ hears your words and says, “Amen.” Jesus sees and hates the ravaging effects of sin (Prov. 8:13; Isa. 59:15), mourns with his people (Isa. 53:4; 63:8–9; John 11:33–35), and will one day return to bring judgment and make all things right (Rev. 21:1–8; 22:1–7).
3. “My heart hurts for you.”
I still remember the first time someone (a long-time family friend) spoke these exact words to me. I remember thinking, “I don’t think five words have ever made me feel so . . . loved.” Not only did this person see and acknowledge my suffering, but she cared enough to enter into it.
Expressing your sympathetic pain incarnates the heart of Christ, who enters into our pain and suffers with us in all our affliction (cf. Isa. 53:4; 63:8–9; John 11:33–35; Acts 9:1–5). It also alleviates the sufferer’s loneliness, if only for a moment. The words, “My heart hurts for you” remind your loved one that she does not walk alone. Not many assurances are more comforting to a hurting soul.
4. “Thank you for modeling Christlikness by [insert one specific way the sufferer is demonstrating Christlikeness].”
Encouragement is universal medicine for hurting souls. Do not leave an interaction with a hurting loved one without administering this tonic. Even if you can’t change her circumstances, you can buoy her by speaking a specific word of encouragement.
As your loved one explains her hardship, listen closely for things she’s doing well. Acknowledge these things and thank her for her example. Useful phrases include:
“I admire the way you [insert behavior].”
“Your [insert behavior] encourages me and glorifies God.”
“Your [insert behavior] is clear evidence of the Holy Spirit at work in you.”
When you acknowledge how a sufferer’s efforts encourage you, reflect Christ, or serve God’s people, it reminds her that God is at work and that her suffering is not pointless.
5. “This verse has been meaningful to me: [read/quote Scripture].”
No words help a hurting person more than God’s words. Scripture is food for famished ones (Matt. 4:4), comfort for the afflicted (Ps. 119:49–50), life for those walking through the valley of the shadow of death (Ps. 119:25, 50, 107; John 6:63). When walking with a hurting loved one, remind her of God’s presence and promises:
Praying with a hurting loved one is another effective way to use your words to bless her and point her to God’s presence and promises. One of my favorite passages to pray with hurting loved ones is Psalm 143 (especially vv. 6–12).
We do need to be careful with how we introduce Scripture to someone suffering. God’s Word should never be used to downplay suffering (band-aiding) or to show superiority over the other person (disparaging). You’ve heard the unhelpful advice:
You’re anxious? Philippians 4:6 says, “Be anxious for nothing!”
You’re lonely? God’s Word tells us to pursue relationships. Have you tried spending time with people?
Unhelpful statements like these communicate arrogance (Look at how much wisdom I have that you don’t) and ignorance (Your suffering is an easy problem to fix; you just need to read this verse). A sufferer’s pain is never as simplistic as a problem to fix or a lesson to learn. Let’s be careful not to communicate these harmful messages.
6. “What can I do to help?”
During the conversation, you might ask, “What would be most helpful for me to do right now? Would it be most helpful for me to listen? To pray with you? To share my thoughts?” Asking this question (and honoring her request) will communicate love and direct you on how to serve her most effectively.
After the conversation, you can ask, “How can I best care for you in the days ahead?” Often it is useful to offer specific suggestions:
“Could I bring you a meal on Thursday?”
“Would it be helpful if I picked up your son from school on Friday during your doctor’s appointment?”
“Would you like to meet before your interview on Monday to talk through some of your potential responses?”
Don’t assume you know what a sufferer needs (whether in the conversation or after the conversation). Feel free to offer suggestions, but—generally speaking—it’s best to let her tell you what would serve her most effectively.
Silence is, at times, the most appropriate response to someone’s suffering. For example, immediately after a friend loses a loved one or undergoes a traumatic experience, words can be stifling or even hurtful. The same is often true whenever a loved one begins weeping while sharing her pain. In moments like these, often the best way to show love and support is non-verbal. Hug her. Weep with her. Hold her hand. Usually, when someone’s suffering is intense, what she needs most from you is simply for you to be there (see Job 2:12–13).
A good habit when a sufferer shares her pain is to say nothing for at least five seconds when it’s your “turn” to talk. This intentional pause gives the other person a chance to breathe and share anything else that is on her heart or mind. It also communicates, “I am here to listen and understand, not merely to fix you or share my thoughts.”
When someone shares her pain, you have a golden opportunity to put the heart of Christ on display. Make the most of this opportunity by listening well, praying for the Spirit’s help, and speaking words of grace and love.
As Charles Spurgeon remarked, “No man can do me a truer kindness in this world than to pray for me.”
Yet, there are a few common mistakes we can make when praying with others that can hinder the impactfulness of these moments. Below are four and how we can avoid them.
Mistake #1: Praying “fix it” prayers
Imagine your friend Sally just learned some bad news. She is really hurting. After she explains what’s going on, you offer to pray for her. What should you pray for? Consider the difference between the following prayers (and ask yourself which example sounds more like your typical prayers):
Prayer #1: Lord, help Sally to seek you. Help her to be consistent in her Bible reading and not to forsake spiritual disciplines. Help her to exercise regularly, meet with believers often, and maybe even talk to a counselor. Help her to keep Jesus at the center of her life and to focus on you instead of her circumstances. Amen.
Prayer #1 is simply a “to-do” list for Sally. We might call this a “fix it” prayer. Notice that in this prayer, the primary person you’re asking to do things is actually not Jesus. It’s Sally!
Meanwhile, prayer #2 enters into lament with Sally. We might call this a “prayer of intercession.” The primary person you’re asking to do things is God himself.
There is certainly a time to give advice, but prayer isn’t the place for it. Prayer is not a free pass to share your opinions with the other person while pretending to talk to God (this is manipulative and the other person will feel it). Rather, prayer is an opportunity to join arm-in-arm with your loved one, to call on God to act, and to bring your loved one’s emotions and needs to God when she might not have the strength to do so herself.
Mistake #2: Skipping listening
Another common mistake is to jump to prayer too quickly, without taking time to listen and ask questions first. If we skip this step, our prayers will lack compassion and might even be misguided. One of the best ways to cultivate compassion and understanding is by asking searching questions before offering to pray. How are you feeling about this situation? What are you struggling with the most? How is this impacting your faith? How exactly can I pray for you?
In intercessory prayer, your job is to represent the person you’re praying for. You must be able to accurately enter into her emotions and needs and to communicate these things to God on her behalf. Your intercessory prayers should leave the other person feeling like, “She gets me.” This won’t happen unless you first take time to listen.
My personal favorite passage to pray over hurting friends is Psalm 143:6-12. If you don’t know how to pray for a hurting loved one, open up your Bible and pray these verses for her. This prayer asks God to provide his presence, love, direction, deliverance, teaching, Spirit, protection, and salvation. Many other Psalms serve as ready-made prayers for hurting souls.
Mistake #4: Forgetting follow-up
When a loved one shares something vulnerable with you, she is entrusting you with one of her most precious treasures—her heart. Following up not only communicates that you value her; it also reaffirms to her that you are a safe person to entrust herself to.
A useful habit is to set a “follow-up with [insert name]” reminder on your phone for 2-3 days down the road (the best time to do this is immediately after the initial conversation ends). Don’t rely on your memory alone. A visual reminder helps protect us from being blindsided by the busyness of life and by the temporary lapses in memory that all of us are susceptible to.
Praying with a loved one is a powerful means of grace and a precious gift of God. Let’s steward this gift well by using it to reflect the person of Christ—who enters into our emotions with us (John 11:32-36; Heb. 4:14-16), listens well (Ps. 66:19-20), speaks words of life (John 6:68), and never leaves us alone in our suffering (Ps. 34:18; Heb. 13:5).
Watch or listen to “Hope For Suffering Saints” here.
Read “In Suffering, God Isn’t (Simply) Teaching You a Lesson” here.