You may want to read:
Funerals and weddings are some of the tensest and most self-aware public moments. My friend Eddie performed his first funeral in the early 80s. He was a young preacher boy who was nervous about what he needed to do for a grieving family, so he led in prayer by saying, “Father, it is so good for us to be here today.” That was a big oops. It was the wrong prayer for the occasion. Eddie had pulled out his trusty “so good to be at our church meeting prayer” rather than his “don’t say you’re glad to be here funeral prayer.” Have you ever done that? When the time called for prayer #32, you whipped out prayer #47? There was nothing more for Eddie to do but keep on praying—heads down and eyes shut, hoping he could stealthily switch prayer tracks to bless everyone rather than leave them shocked.
You have probably been on the regretful end of unredemptive communication, and though it was decades ago, you retell the story like it was yesterday. I have my stories, too. Eddie’s prayer story became humorous as time passed, but there are other moments when the things we say, especially during suffering, can create unhelpful memories that sting for a while. There are many illustrations of these pet sayings that pop out of our mouths before the brain tells us to read the room. Perhaps nothing is more misguided during our grief than when we are too quick on the draw with the “all things work together for good” line.
It is not that Romans 8:28 is inappropriate, but its timing can make all the difference. I remember when one of my friends pulled out his “8:28 bullet” during the darkest season of my suffering. Though I did not say this to him, I wanted to come back with: “Has it ever occurred to you that I do not want ‘all things to work out for good?’ I want my family to return home—my wife and two children. I know that what I want and what the Lord is giving me right now are not the same, but I cannot get on with the Lord’s plans. I want my agenda right now” (Isaiah 55:8-9). When the hurt is that deep, we can dismiss sound theological judgment because we want a quick fix, including an early exit, not whatever is in the mind of God about what is happening to us.
I was hurting. I’m not excusing how my theology was wrong, as well as my attitude toward my friend, as he embarrassingly holstered his gospel gun with one spent 828 round. It was not his fault, but he learned at that moment that sometimes it might be best to give your struggling friends a broader berth to work out their salvation imperfectly (Philippians 2:12). What other option do we have except to develop our relationship with the Lord imperfectly when things fall apart? Though friends don’t let friends go off the theological rails, we must give them room to wobble, especially during times of crisis. The goal is to be like Jesus, but may we be honest? Being like Jesus can be too high of a bar when we wallow in the depths of suffering.
When it comes to doing things wrong, probably the most criticized people in the Bible for giving inadequate counsel are Job’s friends. It bothers me a bit with the criticism they receive because I am not sure we (especially me) could do much better. I feel for Job’s friends as I do for Adam. Who wants to be known as the guy who messed up the world? Imagine if it were the “fall of Rick” in the garden rather than the fall of Adam. “We all are in this mess because of Rick.” We would no longer be Adamic but Ricket. Yikes! I wonder what it will be like as we walk by Adam in heaven. What about Job’s friends? Branding and identifying people for their mistakes is easy to do. What if we leveled the playing field by assessing our competence to bring quality soul care to a man who lost his children, cattle, and livelihood?
What would your counsel be to Job? How would you walk him through his ordeal? All of us have given poor advice, and if we continue to care for people, we will provide inadequate guidance in the future—especially when we must come alongside our suffering friends. What are our choices? Don’t say anything, never helping anyone? Or do we step into these moments, trusting God while knowing we might not wordsmith the problem correctly? I do not have an exhaustive list of helpful ideas for you, but I believe these seven things will serve you as you interact with your friends through their situational challenges. Perhaps you will add a few things to my list. I hope so.
Perhaps your struggling friend sinned somehow and is reaping personal suffering because of his sin. It happens. If your friend did wrong and he’s reaping from his transgressive sowing, there will be a time to talk to him about the repercussions of sinful actions and a pathway to repentance. But we want to pace ourselves by working a biblical sequence that ensures the sufferer is in the right place to reflect on what you’re saying and take action for what he did.
Bringing up his sin as a first call to action will prove careless more often than not. Of course, it could be that there was no sin committed, as in Job’s case. If so, doing what Job’s three friends eventually did to him is wildly inappropriate. The most important “S” word to think about during suffering is suffering. What if you hug the sufferer and tell him you are there for him? Being there is where Job’s friends got it right. They did well by being there and not saying anything; they silently sat with their friend.
And they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great (Job 2:13).
Job’s friends were wise. Being there can make all the difference. There is something sacred and holy about “being” with another image-bearer during their time of suffering. “God with us” (Matthew 1:23; Genesis 39:2) is a significant aspect of the gospel; it is beautiful when we imitate that to others. My friend Randy was Jesus to me. The painful reality of what was happening was rolling over me as the bad news was rolling in. Late one night, Randy knocked on my door. He said he was not sure why he came other than the Lord placed me in his heart. He hardly said anything else to me that night. I was hysterical; Randy was quiet.
Though it was 1988, I am still comforted by his presence that evening. It had to be an awful scene for him as I was pounding my fists against the brown paneled walls. He was on his knees, pleading with the Lord, and I was walking around pleading differently. His approach was more sacred than what I was doing, though having him there put a governor on my discombobulated heart and out-of-control tongue. Randy was with me, a stable and steady soul comforting a hysterical friend with his quiet presence.
Too often, in our effort to relate to others, we begin telling them our stories. Imagine sharing a wonderful memory with a friend, and in their desire to connect, they override your story, telling you about their fantastic experience. You quietly set aside whatever you were anxious to share and make it all about them. While there can be a place to connect to another person with your life’s narrative, it is more important to dive into their story and listen to their suffering, whatever it may be. Sometimes you will hear this when people say, “I know how you feel,” and they launch into their experiences. The truth is, the comforter does not know how you feel—not precisely.
Personal suffering is unique to each person, and the Lord uniquely relates to each of His children. It is impossible to accurately know how they feel or what they think because there are too many variables. The most important thing to do is find out what they think about their situation. As appropriate, and when suitable, begin to draw the hurting person out. Try to understand how the Lord may be relating to them. Listen to their suffering. There is a lot to learn. Guard your heart against mapping your experience over their experience. If you do not guard your tongue, you may begin to give tips that worked for you while missing the things the Lord wants the other person to hear and do. He’s writing a story in their lives that is not your story.
Nobody suffers perfectly. While Randy was with me, he could not console me. The news I had learned cut deep into my soul. My heart was bursting as I wrestled with the breaking of human trust. Randy discerned this and gave me space and time to be imperfect. Giving imperfect people room to wobble can be wise. Expecting them to respond with Christlikeness is expecting too much and can burden them to be what they can never be at that moment.
Perhaps you have had this experience. The pain was too much, or the disappointment too deep. You knew what to do, but it was a bridge too far at that moment. I am not making a case for allowing a person to sin, but it may be possible for you to overlook what they are doing, especially if it is an episode rather than a pattern. You must consider their trajectory: do they want to do good, but they are struggling right now? Would you characterize their life as someone who wants to follow Jesus? If so, they will spring back into His steps soon enough. Be wise. Be patient. Be with them. That horrible night was a unique one for me. It has been many years since, and I have yet to walk through my house again, beating my fist into the walls. Randy gave me room to wobble.
Hopefully, you will have the opportunity to begin realigning their theology, especially their theology of suffering. Nobody wants to suffer, and everyone does, Christian and non-Christian. The difference in how believers suffer is that we do it with hope. However, hope seems to escape when things are the darkest. Carefully realigning the sufferer’s heart to the light of the gospel is a gift that will set them on a new trajectory and teach them how to suffer well. If you know them and are not planning on popping in and popping off, do not refrain from giving them sound Bible wisdom like Romans 8:28—at the right time.
It’s not that the text is wrong, but the timing could be. They must hear that our good Lord is sovereign and works good in our lives. More than likely, your friend will know this, though he may not have this at the top of his mind at the moment of his suffering. Guard against coming up with something new. Sufferers do not need that; they need something old, tried, and true. They need to hear the trustworthy gospel message again and again. One of the most effective ways to connect with an individual is by speaking to their understanding and experience—to what they already know. The Lord does not need our sophisticated theological nuance in a new way. Be plain, clear, and simple: tell them about God.
God’s Word brings hope and help to the hurting soul. Talk to them plainly about the greatness of our God and the counter-intuitiveness of His ways. It is rare for a suffering believer to say, “Wow, I have never heard that before.” There are times when disciplers want to be new and inventive, as though they fear being redundant, saying the same things to everyone they meet who is going through a crisis. Imagine trying to create different ways to change a tire. The saying is true, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
There is nothing broken about the gospel, and it does not need our “new and improved” label slapped on the side of it. More than likely, they will say, “There is nothing you have told me that I did not already know.” I would hope that would be the case. It would be much harder if you told them things about God that they did not know. If so, you would have to build a theological foundation for them. Creating a doctrinal construct for them to stand upon while caring for their soul is too arduous and much more challenging than reminding Christians of truths they already had a familiarity with because of their former associations.
Though prayer is assumed, you should not overlook or underrate it. It is not a tack-on at the end of a meeting as though it was a routine Christian expectation. Prayer is the most powerful way to engage the Sovereign Lord, the One who is behind all the sufferings we experience. Prayer does many things. For example, it acknowledges that the Lord is God and we are not. But there must be more than knowing God, especially if the sufferer is broken but not humbled. There is a difference. The broken person can sit in the dust of his catastrophe, acknowledging God while still relying on himself. The humble person can sit in the same place but humbly acknowledge his need for the Almighty and take action steps to that good end.
With that kind of humility comes empowering favor from the Lord (James 4:6). The man who can pray with open hands and no hidden expectations sets himself up for God to impose Himself into the suffering. This kind of prayer-filled attitude softens the heart, which gives shape to the Father’s will to grow inside us rather than our agendas (Luke 22:42). The only way Jesus could index forward to do His Father’s will was through the portal of prayer. Prayer also creates a trinitarian koinonia between the Lord, the sufferer, and you. When you three are in communion together, it is one of the most intimate things you can do. In addition, it is the only way you and the sufferer can access God’s strength for the moment.
What I have communicated here are a few ways that might help those you are serving as you walk with them through their suffering. I have not given you a formula but tools that you may or may not use. The Spirit can move you differently, and discerning the Spirit is one of the keys you will need when you step into a unique suffering opportunity. I trust you will add other things you want to use when those moments arise.
Another key thought is that you must do something. Who has the Lord put on your heart, and what is something you should do for them today or this week? The nature of the gospel is going, doing, moving, acting, loving, giving, serving, and helping. To do nothing when a person is hurting is “another gospel,” not the one the Savior modeled for us. We must go to those hurting and seek to enter into their pain.
My friend Eddie might not have had the perfect prayer opening, but he was willing to go, care, and give what he had for a hurting family. Randy did not know what to do, but he did something. Would he do it differently the next time? Probably. I remember my early counseling sessions; I was unsure, but I cared deeply for those struggling. All caring Christians are this way when they begin. We want to know how it will turn out before we step off the boat and walk on water. Faith does not operate that way. God provides faith as we step out of our boats. The moment of activated faith and our actions are invisible to us.
Rick launched the Life Over Coffee global training network in 2008 to bring hope and help for you and others by creating resources that spark conversations for transformation. His primary responsibilities are resource creation and leadership development, which he does through speaking, writing, podcasting, and educating.
In 1990 he earned a BA in Theology and, in 1991, a BS in Education. In 1993, he received his ordination into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with an MA in Counseling from The Master’s University. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).