Four Things NOT to Say to Those Who Are Suffering

As Christians, we are called to bear one another’s burdens, especially when we experience suffering. Yet we often do not prepare for these moments and get tongue tied, speak with general spiritual platitudes, or avoid speaking altogether. But we must learn to comfort and encourage each other in suffering, because it is a natural part of life and a supernatural part of God’s plan (see Philippians 1:29). As we help one another, we can be instruments used by God to comfort those in need.

As we seek to speak to those who are suffering, we must avoid saying these four things:

  1. Nothing

Most of the time, silence will be taken as indifference. We often do not know what to say right away, but we must say something. Even a simple “I am so sorry” is much better than silence. But to really bless someone, we must put forth the effort to develop what we will say. As we do, we must avoid the next three things that may naturally come out.

  1. “It could be worse.”

We’ve all said it: “At least you didn’t break both legs,” “At least you didn’t lose all your children,” “You know, I am sorry your house burned down, but some people don’t even have a house. In other words, we say, “It could be worse.”

We can be sure that this language is not in God’s vocabulary. He doesn’t compare our suffering with others, and neither should we. Even if we hear other people saying this about their own suffering, we must resist the temptation to chime in. God meets us in our suffering, whatever it is- to whatever scale, and attends to our need. He wants us to trust Him during the pain, not attempt to diminish the pain by considering that it could be worse. Considering worst-case scenarios can actually take away from the primary benefit of suffering: the ability to lean on and trust God who cares for us. Don’t tell people “it could be worse.”

  1. “What is God teaching you through this? Or “God will work this together for good.”

God does teach us in our suffering, and God does promise to work all things for our good, but if not done carefully, these comments can really hurt people. It suggests that they don’t understand what God is doing, that they needed to be taught a lesson, or that something better is around the corner. Thinking and speaking this way actually causes us to have less compassion. Will we have as much compassion on the widow that has just lost her husband if we think God primarily did it to teach her a lesson- or to work something better out for them?

One of the problems of the “God will work this together for good statement is that we often misunderstand and misapply the word “good.” Romans 8:28-29 tells us that God works all things for our “good”, but defines the good as being “conformed to the image of His Son” (Rom. 1:29). His Son was the “suffering servant,” the “man of sorrows” who “learned obedience through suffering” (Hebrews 5:7-9).  All suffering, for believers, serves this purpose: to make us more like Christ. To “share” in His sufferings” (1 Peter 4:13). This shows our unity and solidarity with Him. Further, it helps us long for and prepares us for heaven. This is what it means that God works all things for our “good.” Unless we have the time and ability to flesh this out with the person, its best to avoid this statement due to the way it is often misunderstood.

  1. “If you need anything, please call me.”

Hurting people often do not know what they need in the moment. Even when they come across one, they are reluctant to reach back out and ask for help. Instead, we should ask “What can I do to help?” Even better, we should consider the things that need to be done and do it. Does grass need to be cut? Do pets need to be fed? Can we pay the mortgage for a few months? Do kids need babysitting? Do dishes need cleaning? Can we help with medical bills?

Think of ways God has specifically gifted you so that you may help. If you sew, make a blanket as a gift. If you are good with finances, offer your help if its needed. If you do hair, offer to give a free hair cut or color to lift their spirits. If you have a nice lawn-mower and a trailer, take it on over to the house and cut the grass. If you’re musically gifted, write a song for the person. Take the time to consider ways you can help, and do it.

Even if the person declines all of these questions and offers to help, do not end the conversation without offering to pray. Prayer for those who are hurting can be one of the most powerful tools of comfort and strength. Ask for what you can pray for, pray right then, remember them, and follow up.

Application steps: What then should we do?

  1. Pray with and for the person. Continue to pray specifics for them and remind them of what you are praying for them.
  2. Ask the person if they would like to talk- Ask how they feel- Listen.
  3. Think of ways you can serve them, ask for specific ways to help, do whatever you can.
  4. Set reminders on your phone to reach out on important dates (especially dates of loved ones passing). Let them know you are thinking of them and praying for them.
  5. Be patient. Grief times vary- don’t become impatient with a person who takes time to heal.
  6. Invite them into your family of faith (local church). Let your fellow brothers and sisters know ahead of time that you are bringing them and need their help in ministering to and loving them.
  7. Finally, if they are not a follower of Christ- share the gospel. Share how evil, pain, and suffering were not God’s purpose for us, but through our sin and disobedience they entered the world. Share how Christ came and suffered for us, paying the penalty for our sins that we might be forgiven and reconciled to God. Share how Christ, through His sacrifice, is one day going to unite all things in heaven and on earth to Him in an eternity of sinless perfection, in a place without pain or suffering. Invite them to repent from their sins and trust Christ for salvation. Give them the hope of the gospel.

“God, please help us to help those in suffering. Give us the strength, wisdom, and patience to love them well, direct them to Christ, and provide for their needs. Use us as Your hands and feet.”

Can you think of anything else we should or shouldn’t say? Has anyone said something to you that has been either helpful or hurtful amid suffering?

Several of my thoughts and applications have been informed by Ed Welch’s “Side by Side.” Check out this great little book for more information on loving others well.

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