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Almost everyone I talk to lately seems to be going through something difficult. At the time of writing this article, my grandmother was in failing health, struggling to adapt to life in a nursing home. Relatives watch as a loved one makes poor life decisions. Others struggle with debt and difficult situations with work. My 34-year-old friend suffers from a calcified brain tumor that impairs his vision, balance, and causes nausea every day. There can be no doubt about it, we live in a fallen world and people around us have problems. Jesus even predicts this in John 16 when he says that, “In the world you shall have much tribulation…” His words do not end there, however, and in half the sentence following, he speaks the calming words, “…but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.” These are easy words to say, but how can we effectively encourage those around us who are in the midst physical or emotional pain to “be of good cheer”? After talking with several friends and family members, here are a few Do’s and Don’ts about encouraging those who are struggling.
DO find out what the person is really experiencing before offering any sort of advice or encouragement. It’s important for us all to be heard and understood by others; it connects us on a deeper level. When one senses their feelings and experiences are truly appreciated, they will be much more open to encouragement or admonishment. The key part here is patience and the expression of genuine concern, which might take the form of attending the person’s story with verbal and nonverbal cues of understanding and affirmation.
DON’T think that you have to offer earth-shattering advice or encouragements to help the person feel better or fast solutions to get them out of their bad circumstances. Many times situations are out of our control and there’s absolutely nothing anybody can do to make things better. Take my friend with the brain tumor, for instance. He had the best doctors in the state attending him, the entire church praying for healing, his family around him for support, and a loving, incredibly strong wife; no procedure or person was able to make him feel better. He was in pain physically, but the accompanying feelings of depression, anxiety, helplessness, and anger were almost more of a burden that the actual pain. According to him, what he desperately needed was someone to be with him and listen patiently while he talked through his personal struggles and attempted to understand what was happening to him. When people hastily offered advice or explanations without knowing what he suffered, it rang hollow and felt cheap. Suffering and grief produces a complex series of feelings, and people often need someone to listen while they attempt to make sense of their emotions.
DO be genuine with your encouragement and offers for help. After listening and truly understanding what your friends or family might be experiencing, seek wisdom from the Holy Spirit for the right words, scriptures, and actions that would best minister to the hurting person.
DON’T offer chipper platitudes or clichés like, “Just have faith,” and, “Everything will turn out fine.” Faith is not a simple concept and we don’t always know that things will turn out okay. A friend who has recently been going through some very difficult relationship issues commented on how frustrating it was when others flippantly used the phrase, “I’ll pray for you,” and never followed up on her struggles. What she found extremely helpful was when others offered to pray with her, or asked her for specific ways they could help. Remember, no one is the same and words of encouragement or acts of service should be tailored to each person.
DO attempt to help the person find meaning through their suffering and encourage them to understand their circumstances with an eternal perspective. After you have listened and encouraged someone in a meaningful way, you are in a better position to offer perspective and maybe advice…if any. Understand that last part to mean that any advice should be given sparingly and only attempted when God has clearly laid something on your heart.
DON’T chide them for questioning God’s purpose and don’t shame or condemn them for struggling in their faith. Remember, it’s very difficult to know a person’s heart, and condemnation or judgment only adds to the burden. Another friend of mine, who was dealing with some very painful marital issues, found herself questioning why God had allowed such evil into her life. After discussing her question in more depth, it became evident that essentially, she wondered if God was indeed good. She felt anger, fear, and confusion toward God, but struggled with these questions alone for fear that others in the church would condemn her. After listening to her struggles, praying with her, and attempting to encourage her, she was open to admonishment. She was willing to see that though her circumstances were hard, God was still good, faithful, loving, and true. And, when viewing her circumstances from an eternal perspective, that is, that God could have been using her pain to drive her into His arms, she could wait on the Lord with confidence, knowing that what others “meant for evil, God meant for good” (Genesis 50:20).
Remember, people DON’T need or expect you to have all the answers and they know you can’t fix their problems. They DO need you to listen, to encourage through prayer, and to gently provide them with perspective. Keep in mind that the Lord has promised us trials and tribulations in the world, but simultaneously promised us that we could “be of good cheer” in the midst of such circumstances. In other words, we can experience the peace of God in spite of our problems. Let us all, then, be ready for God to use us as a means of grace and peace for our hurting brothers and sisters and selflessly, patiently, and humbly walk with them through their trials.