Note: This article is also published on The Gospel Coalition. It was also discussed on Moody Radio (you can also listen on Spotify and most other podcast platforms).
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.
Listening is 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.”
- “Why are you anxious? You must be sinning.”
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:
- God sees, hears, knows, and cares about your suffering (Ex. 3:7–8; 1 Pet. 5:7).
- God is with you in the midst of your suffering (Ps. 34:18; Heb. 13:5).
- God is pleased by your efforts and will reward you (Matt. 6:4; Gal. 6:9; Heb. 11:6).
- God will one day rescue you from your suffering (Rev. 21:1–7; cf. 2 Tim. 4:18).
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 depressed? Philippians 4:4 says, “Rejoice always!”
- 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.
Blake Glosson is a pastoral resident at Chapelstreet Church in Geneva, Illinois, and an MDiv student at Reformed Theological Seminary. He has been published by The Gospel Coalition and Crosswalk.com and republished and/or referred by Eternal Perspective Ministries (Randy Alcorn), Challies.com (Tim Challies), Moody Radio (here, here, and here), The JOY FM (The Morning Cruise with Dave, Bill, and Carmen), ChurchLeaders.com, The Aquila Report, Monergism.com, and numerous other sources. Previously, he served as the director of young adults at New Covenant Bible Church in St. Charles, Illinois.
Listen to Moody Radio’s discussion of this article here (or on Spotify here).
Read “In Suffering, God Isn’t (Simply) Teaching You a Lesson” here.
Read “When to Give Advice and When to Listen” here.
Read “Four(teen) Ways to Improve Your Listening” here
Read “Three Ways to Glorify God in Worry and Anxiety” here.