Is the world groaning with more suffering today? It seems so. I know people living in their car. A neighbor (family of five) is facing eviction after struggling for two years with loss of income, loss of health, and mounting medical bills. Personally, I’ve been on the cusp of homelessness more than once. What can you do for friends in such difficult situations? How can you understand their challenges?
I’d like to offer some practical insights—by looking at Job’s story and adding my thoughts from personal experience.
Job’s wife felt God had betrayed them despite their faithfulness to Him. Only those closest to you can cause a hurt that cuts so deep as betrayal. Job’s wife left because she wanted happiness and comfort more than a mega-dose of trusting God with an uncertain, seemingly bleak future. It’s easier to walk away than to face the unknown in faith. I know firsthand what that’s like. My spouse split when I was critically ill.
Job’s friends sat in silence with him for a week. That may be the highest example of empathizing with someone in the throes of grief. Job’s friends epitomized the “ministry of presence”—until they opened their mouths. Spouting judgments and bad advice, they poured salt into his wounds. No wonder Job raged against their secularized “wisdom.” He finally said they were incapable of healing any hurts (Job 13:4).
Job himself had ample reason to question God. That doesn’t mean he dissed God. Some people don’t discern the difference, which can contribute to them being judgmental. As Job’s friends waxed on, Job shifted from asking God for a mediator (Job 9:33) to claiming God as his advocate (Job 16:19)—a legal term for a reliable witness. Job’s friends wrongly put him on trial. Job knew he needed a legal beagle in his corner.
Job wasn’t perfect. No one can blame him for that. God never told Job why He allowed such suffering. Job lived too early in history to hear the encouraging words of Exodus 14:14 (“The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still”). Despite his remarkable faith, Job finally admitted he didn’t understand God. As an act of forgiveness, he prayed for his friends. Then God restored Job in astounding ways.
In our desire to improve a friend’s situation, we may (1) say nothing for fear we might offend—which leaves the person feeling abandoned, or (2) say something that falls of our mouths before it passes through our brain—which can hurt more than help. So what can we do?
(1) Minister from a place not to bestow knowledge, but to give unconditional love—because God loved us first.
(2) Practice the ministry of presence.
Be. Fully. Present. Like Job’s friends initially did, join your friend on their ash heap. Simply be available. Wait for the person you’re with to open a door for conversation. When standing in your friend’s sorrow, stay humble in that space.
(3) Recognize the difference between counsel and advice.
“Counsel” is used eighty-eight times in the Bible to talk about God (not mankind). Leave expert counsel to God, and carefully consider your advice. It may be flawed. Your Scripture quotes unsuitable. How many hurting souls have been battered further by someone’s “advice” that made them doubt God’s goodness?
(4) As you feel God leading you, ask the person, “What do you need?”
I guarantee their first answer will not be what they really need. Instead, they’ll say some surface thing to assuage you. Show you’re serious. Ask again, this way: “If I could ease the chaos in one corner of your life, what would it be? I’ll do whatever it takes to make that happen.”
(5) Withhold encouragement until you sift it through the other person’s perspective.
Encouragement can backfire when it eases your conscience more than it soothes one’s hurts.
Empathy is “walking alongside of” a person. Sympathy is feeling sorry for them. Never say you know how they feel. You can’t; you don’t know their whole story. Instead, empathize. You don’t eliminate sorrow; you share it.
The kindest thing a friend said to me during my worst crisis was, “I don’t know what all you’re going through. I just know it’s hard.” I can’t begin to tell you how much that means to the hurting person who hears it!
Chuck Swindoll says, “You have done it right when those in agony hate to see you go.” Pray to be that person today.
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