When we are going through difficult times in our lives, often all we want is simply a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on. Yet over and over again, well-meaning Christians come out with some of the most ridiculously unhelpful responses to trauma ever. Below are five things you should NEVER say to someone who is grieving or who is going through a rough patch, followed by some more appropriate things to say and do:
#1: God Will Not Give You More Than You Can Bear – This is often the go-too phrase Christians cite when they don’t know what else to say or when they are secretly resenting the fact that you are unloading your burdens on them. The fact is: depression is more than you can bear. The loss of a loved one is more than you can bear. Losing your job and being in a financial crisis is more than you can bear. What the Bible ACTUALLY says about the topic is that God will not tempt us beyond what we can bear, but that when we face temptations, He provides a way out for us (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Corinthians+10%3A13&version=ESV). God is faithful and He is in control. He knows that we are weak and helpless and He does not delight in our hardship (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Lam.+3%3A31-33&version=ESV). Nevertheless, it is easy to lose sight of this when we are caught up in the tribulations of life. Sometimes life definitely can seem like more than we can bear. Citing this verse is nothing more than a pat-answer and it doesn’t breathe life into anyone’s circumstances.
#2: God Brought These Trials On You For a Reason – Oftentimes in a moment of wanting to sound positive, Christians may encourage us by stating that the difficulties in our lives will bring about some greater good. This may be true. I have heard of numerous examples of God using people who have been through trials in order to further benefit His Kingdom. I have met people who were on the brink of suicide and severely suffering from mental illness who are now using those experiences in order to help others who find themselves in a similar predicament. I have frequently been moved by deep stories of compassion and forgiveness even in the wake of seeming destruction. I have also been able to impact the lives of others through some of my own struggles, and when this happens I greatly rejoice that God considered me worthy to suffer for His sake (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Acts+5%3A41&version=ESV). I have often seen how when we place our situations into God’s hands and allow Him to work with them, He will. Anton Boisen, the father of modern day chaplaincy, once said “we should be willing to go through hell if it means helping one other person.” Boisen, himself underwent some very trying times and drew close to Christ through them. Nevertheless, saying such a statement does not help the person in the midst of their hardship. It is true that oftentimes when we persevere even in the midst of trials, God will bless us richly for it (look at the case of Job). However, in the moment, it can often seeming meaningless and disheartening. Sometimes the person you are ministering to is just not in the place where they can accept a saying such as this quite yet. Instead we need to work hard to show pastoral sensitivity, care, and support.
#3: Just Have More Faith – I remember once when I was going through a difficult time in my life I was told by many well-meaning people “you should have more faith.” This caused me to be depressed. I thought I was doing something terribly wrong if I was a Christian and studying to be a pastor and yet was unable to trust God in the midst of my circumstances. Thankfully, I met with a wonderful Christian lady who was mentoring me at that time and talked to her about this predicament. She then spoke such truth into my life in a way that I will never forget. She said, “I don’t think it’s fair for people to say things like that to you. Faith is a gift. It is like someone blaming you for having brown eyes instead of blue ones.” Now, don’t get me wrong, we should constantly be working to grow in our faith; however, some people are just naturally more gifted in this area than others. I have known some people who have been through the worst things imaginable and yet in the midst of it have clung to Jesus and trusted Him wholeheartedly. I have also known people who went through trauma and struggled to keep a grip on their faith. Today they would tell you that the trauma they endured helped refine and mould them and they are among some of the strongest prayer warriors and pastoral hearts I have ever encountered. However, I can assure you that when they were actually going through hardship, they were not always so convinced that God will looking out for them – in fact, they may have felt the complete opposite.
Does this mean that the first group of people (those who believe Christ regardless of what tries to shake their foundation) are just more spiritual and Godly? I would say no. I believe they are two very different responses that in essence both show a profound trust and faith in God.
In the first case, it can be a huge blessing to meet someone who has an unshakeable faith. I know of one family in particular who have lived a lot. It seemed like at every turn they were experiencing trials – financial, health, spiritual warfare. Yet, they remained unmoveable. They firmly believed everything that had swept into their path could be used by God. And it is this belief that has been such a blessing to me. This family is a supremely powerful example of the Christian faith and how to walk with God even when God seems absent.
On the other hand, I know someone who went through the most horrendous experience ever. She went through a traumatic loss of her first child and lived with the shame and guilt of how that child was conceived and the subsequent loss for many months which turned into years. This person often doubted God. She sometimes felt very angry and wondered why God allowed such a thing to occur. She sometimes questioned whether or not she was a good Christian when she experienced such intense emotions. BUT it was through her doubt that she learned to cling close to the Cross and now she has is ministering to other women. I believe that doubt can often be a sign of our faith. It is an assurance that Christ will accept us even when we question why something happened. This is a true relationship. This makes our trust all the more real because we know that it is not simply something to be taken for granted. Doubt can also be a very powerful bridge to the Cross and to sharing the Salvation message with others. After all, the majority of people don’t have as strong of a faith as the family I mentioned in the first case study. How is a non-believer or a young Christian supposed to connect with someone who has never experienced the difficulty of believing in the sun when all they see is rain clouds forming?
Faith can be built up and become a strong fortress in one’s life, but it often comes about after many years of spending time with Christ. It comes about after we have struggled through many different experiences and realized that Christ is victorious time and time again. It often comes about after we have lived through considerable doubt and realized that trust is the better option. So don’t dismiss doubt, fear, and pain – they are all part of the process that transforms us into the loving, sensitive people God so desires us to be.
#4: You Just Need to Forgive and Move On – One of my dear friends (who has given me permission to briefly share this story) went through a profoundly difficult season in her life. She was taken advantage of by an older gentleman who was a church elder and who used her inexperience to violate and manipulate her in the worst of ways. She tried to seek justice through the legal system, but like so many others, was not able to get very far. She didn’t have enough proof, only a handful of good friends who believed what she said. This friend was righteously angry. She went to talk to a pastor right away about what happened, but the pastor simply told her she needed to forgive because that was the best thing for her to do and would be the best way of getting revenge on the man – if he felt like she simply didn’t care anymore. When my friend shared this episode with me she was in tears, and I also was outraged. I thought to myself, “What an irresponsible pastor to tell her to do something like this!”
Now don’t get me wrong, forgiveness is vital to any healing journey. God calls us to forgive rather than to let bitterness and hatred well up inside our hearts. However, forgiveness cannot be rushed. Forgiveness takes time and it often involves many layers. My roommate once said (not about this specific scenario) that sometimes we forgive as best as we know how and then we have to give it to God because we simply don’t know how to forgive anymore.
Oftentimes, the problem is that Christians are forced to forgive before they are amply prepared and ready to do so. In fact, most counsellors would tell you that before you can forgive, you need to be able to feel your emotions. You need to acknowledge that hurt was done to you and that it caused great harm. Oftentimes, we need to experience a certain amount of righteous anger before we can peel back that layer and move forward in our lives. Anger helps us come to the place of recognizing that what we lived through and experienced was NOT okay and this prepares us for other future scenarios when we find ourselves in similar predicaments. What this pastor should have told my friend is, “I hear you. What this church elder did was definitely not okay. I can hear that you are angry. Let’s stay with than anger for a bit. Let’s explore it. Let’s talk about why you feel angry. Let’s talk about how you were violated.” Then after weeks and months of her opening up to the pastor and hopefully to a good counsellor, it is time to begin the arduous process of forgiveness. But by no means should forgiveness have been brought up within less than 24 hours of her traumatic experience.
By the way, my friend has since moved on from this experience. Of course the past still haunts her at times, but today she realizes the myriad ways God has used her story to minister to others. She prays for her offender’s salvation on a daily basis and she has offered as much grace and compassion as she can. Thankfully she has never had to see him again, but she tries to practice forgiveness and inner peace frequently. She is an example of a courageous and passionate follower of Christ to me.
#5: Curse God and Die! – Okay, I admit that I have never actually heard someone say this. At least not in these words. However, my church is doing a study on the book of Job and we came across Job’s wife saying these lines. My pastor pointed out the role of a Godly spouse should be to encourage and uplift you during trials. Of all people, Job’s wife should have been there to grieve alongside him and support him, but instead she wants to take the easy way out: why not just end your life?
While we may not tell someone to act on these instructions, we do something similar when we question God’s goodness in the midst of tragedy. Once I met with a Spiritual Director and he asked me to share a time when I felt God was distant. I shared about the death of my grandmother. We were very close and I had a high regard for her as a strong and faithful servant of God. He right away barged in with questions such as: how could God have allowed this to happen? And he suggested to me that I was really questioning God over this. The fact is, I was not. Of course her death saddened me, but I also accepted it because she had previously been suffering. I knew she had a profound trust in the Lord and this filled me with the assurance that one day we would be reunited. I also found ways to make her memory live on. She gave me a special ring before her death, and I have worn this ring every day for the past 6 years. The truth is that it was actually in the midst of this challenging event that I grew close to God. Some of my closest times with God were in the midst of me feeling like He was distant. I remember calling out to Him because I felt like He wasn’t there when I was mourning, only to be enveloped so readily by His love and care. There is a cliché saying, but I think it’s true: “sometimes the only time you look up is when you are lying down.” Sometimes the best times to look to God for answers are when we realize that we truly are not self-sufficient and that we cannot live this life on our own.
Okay, so now I’ve hit you with the negatives. I’ve shown you the answers to steer clear of, but it wouldn’t seem right to leave you just with that. Instead, let me suggest some better alternatives. Here are three ways to minister to a hurting person without having to put your foot in your mouth:
#1: Silence: Sometimes we simply do not know what to say, but we try to fill the air with meaningless talk because silence makes us feel uncomfortable (this is especially true of extroverts like myself). Yet, oftentimes, nothing needs to be said. In fact, silence can be the greatest form of support. In ancient Jewish culture, there is a tradition called “Sitting Shiva.” This is the same practice we see in the book of Job. Basically what happens is that after the death of a loved one or another form of crisis, a Jewish person’s closest friends and relatives will gather around them. During this time, words do not need to be exchanged. If the person who is mourning feels like talking, they will listen and engage with them. If they prefer silence, then there is silence. There is no pressure to verbalize pain or raw emotion. Sometimes all you need is someone who will let you cry on their shoulder.
#2: Don’t Dismiss Their Pain/Stand in Agreement: Over the past few months, I have struck up a brilliant prayer partnership with a dear friend I attended seminary with. One of the most remarkable things she always says to me in her emails is simply this: “I would never dismiss your pain. Not ever.” I could be yammering on about the most seemingly inconsequential things. I could be writing to her to say that I feel down because it has rained non-stop for 3 weeks (remember this is Scotland). I often have a tendency to downplay my own experiences and talk about how I know I am overreacting (even though if another person wrote to me with the same requests I would never say it to them). Yet, time and again she is saying that she recognizes the challenge and does not wish to undermine it.
When someone is going through a difficult season, we can do them a great service by standing with them in solidarity. In the Bible we read that we should “laugh with those who laugh and mourn with those who mourn” (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Romans+12%3A15&version=ESV). We get good at saying this in theory, but we don’t truly live it out. In reality, we are meant to try to feel the same way as the other person feels. Of course, this isn’t always possible to the same degree, but it is still feasible at some level. Instead, we find ourselves being inwardly rather than outwardly focussed. When someone gets that job promotion we wished we could have had we find ourselves being bitter and resenting them. We ask ourselves why they are getting special favours and not us. What we should actually be doing is throwing a celebration party for them. When someone is going through pain and suffering, we sometimes have smug indifference. We thank God that it wasn’t us and we think we are immune to such trials. We may even make comments that reflect our own defensiveness and wish that we never undergo such trauma. What we are actually called to do in that situation is to weep with them. To literally shed some tears. To acknowledge that we also feel a righteous anger and that we also revolt against the injustice that has been shown.
#3: Love: Lastly, love is one of the best responses to helping someone who is facing difficulty. There are many ways to show love, but in the interest of time, I would only like to highlight two. Both have been extremely beneficial in my own life.
The first is tough love. Tough love is when someone has a close enough bond to you that they are willing to tell you when enough is enough. Now, you have to be careful here. You have to exercise tact and caution. You have to ensure that the person knows that you are only saying such things because you truly do care and that you want to be there for them, but the argument or difficulty has run its course. NOTE: this is not about telling your friend to simply “get over it.” Although tough love is sadly misunderstood to be this. People heal at different rates. It isn’t about telling your friend that they are taking too long or that they should be further ahead than they are. Instead, tough love is the realization that sometimes because you love and care about your friend, you have to take a step that will protect your friendship with them.
I remember once I was going through a difficult time in my faith walk. I had one particular friend who really stood by me during that time. Honestly, she was figuratively speaking, an angel. She would let me text and call her and she was always encouraging me and lending a listening ear. But then sometimes it all just got out of hand. I was going back and forth. I was trying to lead a convenient faith. Sometimes I would text to say I had made some great gain in my spiritual walk, then a few days later say something along the lines of doubting everything I once believed in. My friend ended up saying to me, “you can’t keep going back and forth.” She recognized that we all go through trials in our faith and that what I was experiencing was quite normal. She said she was happy to continue the conversation with me, but that if I was going to be a Christian, I needed to cease being lukewarm. I needed to start owning up to my faith – and that included both the good and the bad times. Wow! When she spoke to me in this clear and upfront way, it really made me pause and reconsider. After that, I decided she was totally right and I made an effort to really change my mindset. Today, because of her tough love, I have a much stronger faith and trust in God. That conversation changed my prayer life and my outlook on faith. That was an example of when I really needed tough love.
The second type of love is encouraging love. Oftentimes, it takes a very long time for someone to heal – in fact, it could take a lifetime because we never truly get over all the hurts and pains that are done to us. It is true that “time heals,” but it only heals so much. And if we fail to address the root cause of our pain, then it really doesn’t matter how much time we have – all we need is for another similar experience to rip open the old wound and we will start bleeding all over again. It can be very discouraging for the person who is trying to heal to go through this. They may feel like they should truly be much further along than they are. But this is where your encouraging words can really come in. The same friend who showed me tough love, was also really great about this. She was constantly telling me that she was proud of how far I had come. If I made gains, even small ones, she was there to congratulate me along the path. If it weren’t for her, I’d probably still be going through some faith crisis all the while thinking that I would never get out of it. Today, I have moved past that phase and realize that I was quite resilient and tactful and I can take a moment or two to be proud of the God who brought me out of that whole mess.
Trials and difficulties are all a part of life. There’s no denying that. We will face challenge upon challenge while we are still in this world. But Jesus also said “take heart, for I have overcome the world.” (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+16%3A33&version=ESV). Next time your friend or loved one is going through a difficult time, take a moment to step into their world. Take a moment to listen and encourage them. Most importantly, take a moment to remind them of the One who has truly overcome the world.