On Sunday, Jonathan shared the wrenching story of how a young prostitute in Thailand shared a story of abuse with him. He encouraged us that we need to be there to hear the stories of others in this dark world. But first, there may be burdens that we ourselves are carrying that we need to share with someone else so that we are not carrying a dark load on our own.
There will be those among our church family this week and in the coming weeks contemplating the frightening step of opening up to someone about their burden.
Perhaps that’s you. And perhaps some of us may be on the other end—friends or family members sharing their burden with us. We may hear stories of depression, infertility, substance addiction, sexual abuse, relational conflict, parenting struggles, domestic violence, eating disorders, sexual orientation struggles, chronic pain, porn addiction, doubt or other struggles.
Most of us don’t have degrees in counseling, and when friends come to us with a serious struggle, it can be paralyzing—we don’t quite know what to say and we can be afraid of saying the wrong thing. And, indeed, sometimes we can unintentionally say something that can harm our friend.
While the burdens our friends and family share with us may vary vastly, there are a few general tips of what to do and what not to do that can be helpful to know how to be a good friend and fellow believer to a struggling friend.
WHAT NOT TO DO:
Don’t dismiss. When someone shares something hard with us, it is tempting to find the bright side or the spiritual lesson that will make it all OK. This is a natural impulse, as we want to encourage others, and to some degree it’s more comfortable for us to give the pat “answer” to the problem. This can make our friends feel as though we are dismissing or minimizing their problem. After someone shares something hard, we might be quick to say, “Don’t worry, God has a plan.” While it’s true that God has a plan for our lives, what your friend might need to hear first is, “Wow, that’s so hard. I’m so sorry you are going through this situation.” There may be times to share spiritual truths that can be encouraging to your friend, as you walk with them through the struggle. But first, they probably need someone to sit with them in the hardness of the situation and acknowledge that their struggles are valid without feeling as though their struggles are too quickly dismissed.
Don’t offer “at least” statements. It’s easy to respond to a difficult situation with “at least” statements. If someone struggles with finances, we might say, “At least you still have a job.” Or if someone is struggling with a miscarriage, we might say, “At least you still have your other child.” But “at least” statements feel dismissive, subtly telling our friend that they should be looking on the bright side, rather than really sitting with them through the pain. These statements compare the friend’s struggles with what we perceive to be a worse struggle, and so minimize their problem.
Don’t judge. A friend might share something that is shocking to you: infidelity, sexual struggles, or other taboos. Remember the bravery it took for them to speak to you. They may already be filled with shame, and they don’t need someone to convict them of the depth of their sin. In any case, it is God’s job to convict someone’s heart, not ours. Phrases like, “I can’t believe that…”, “I didn’t think you were like that…”, or “How could you have…” will confirm your friend’s fear of condemnation. Instead, affirm your friend’s choice to open up to you. Let them know that, even if you’re not quite sure what to say, you want to be there with them and help them during this difficult time.
Don’t speculate spiritually. Did you know there’s actually a long book of the Bible that focuses a great deal on how people respond to the struggles of their friends? The book of Job tells the story of a man, Job, who faced unbelievable circumstances—the death of multiple family members, physical illness, and financial disaster. Chapters and chapters are dedicated to record the response of three of Job’s friends. They had all kinds of spiritual theories about Job’s suffering: He must not have had enough faith…he must have sinned and was being punished…he just needed to get right with God. The Lord’s response to Job’s spiritually speculating friends was stern: “I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has. So now take seven bulls and seven rams and go to my servant Job and sacrifice a burnt offering for yourselves. My servant Job will pray for you, and I will accept his prayer and not deal with you according to your folly” (Job 42:8-9). Job’s friends had lots of very religious-sounding things to say about his suffering—things about the cause of the suffering or the purpose of the suffering or the spiritual solution to the suffering. God says this is folly and it angers Him. Enough said.
WHAT TO DO:
Listen. As James exhorts us in James 1:19, be quick to listen and slow to speak. While not pressuring your friend to say more than they are comfortable, listen fully to all your friend has to say. Often what a friend needs most is just someone to listen—not someone to diagnose the problem or advise. We each have a deep soul need to feel heard and understood. Strive to give your friend that gift.
Offer compassion and empathy. “Compassion” literally means, “suffer with.” “Empathy” literally means to “feel in,” as in to have someone else’s feelings within you. Notice the prepositions “with” and “in” (not “at” or “to”). We have friends in life to have someone “with” us. We don’t need friends to solve our problems or to do things “to” or “at” us, but to simply be in the hard parts with us. When we empathize with our friends, we allow ourselves to feel what they must be feeling. We step into their shoes to try to understand their pain and be with them as they work through it.
Affirm. While we don’t want to over-spiritualize problems in a way that dismisses our friend or dishonors God, we can affirm our friend with a few truths: I love you. God loves you. You are still valuable. You are still lovable. There is hope. Change is possible. I am with you.
Help. The way your friend needs help will vary. Be open to help in the way they most need. They may need you only to listen. A friend struggling with parenting may need a few hours’ help to take a break. A friend struggling with depression might need someone to just be present in the room with them at times. Ask your friend how you can help, but don’t pressure them to come up with ideas if they’re not ready for that yet.
In the meantime, there are a lot of great resources to help us know how to respond in times of crisis. Take the time to research how to best help friends struggling with various issues. Some of the ideas in this article were adapted from the books Emergency Response Handbook for Small Group Leaders and Emergency Response Handbook for Women’s Ministry, and they are a great place to start if you want to learn how to offer compassion and empathy to your friends as they work through their burdens.