How do I help friends going through a hard time?

By Jason Stein
In Got Questions
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The esteemed American philosopher and poet, Mike Tyson, once said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.” I might have edited that quote to be more PG-friendly, but Mike’s words are true. This COVID-19 season has caused all of us to feel a greater sense of disorientation, confusion, and anxiety–in other words, a feeling of being punched in the face.

Scott McClellan, my friend and fellow pastor, summed it up perfectly when he wrote, “Our plans are—and have always been—subject to change without notice.” Our plans and our lives have changed these last several months. And for some, COVID-19 has left them hurting, searching, and questioning. Maybe that is not you currently, but I bet you know someone who is hurting in this season. As a result, many of us are asking, “How can I help a friend who is going through a hard time right now?”

While I am by no means an expert on walking through suffering, I have pastored people through it and personally experienced it. 2018 was a painful year for our family, as my wife and I walked through numerous health challenges with our infant son. Many people were gracious, generous, and loving toward us during that difficult season. Two years later, I can’t precisely recall all the kind words, gestures, and acts of support, but I do remember who showed up for us during that season.

That’s the truth we need to remember during this moment: Being socially distant does not mean we can be lovingly absent. Neighborly love is a call to action. The greatest gift you can give to a friend going through a hard season—whether that be job loss, fear of uncertainty, anxiety, a health issue, or the tragic death of a family member—is the gift of your presence and your words.

Paul, an early follower of Jesus and church planter, knew this to be true. He wrote, "Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4, NIV).

From this passage we learn two important truths. First, God’s compassion is limitless, and his comfort is never-failing. Second, we are to comfort others with the comfort we’ve received from God.

The comfort we give to others looks like our presence and our words, shaped by the power and hope of the gospel.

The gift of your presence matters to your hurting friend, regardless if your presence is via a Zoom call, an encouraging text, a card in the mail, or the antiquated phone call. Your presence matters. And your words can make a big impact. Your words can either be encouraging, hopeful, honest, and direct people to God and to his faithful character. Or, your words can cause unintended hurt.

A Few Things to Never Say:

“I promise, it will get better. It will all be okay.”

Oof. I’ve said this to others, and others have said it to me. While the intention is to be reassuring, we are making a promise and a prediction that we can’t control. The situation may not actually resolve “okay.”

“My second cousin’s neighbor’s best friend went through something similar.”

While that person may have gone through something similar, each circumstance is unique to the individual, his or her personality type, the people involved, etc. Instead of trying to minimize suffering by comparing it to someone you know, just listen. If you feel like your friend who went through something similar could be helpful, ask if the one hurting would like to be connected, but don’t go ahead and assume that he or she wants to be connected.

“If you just do X and Y then…”

When most people share about their hurts or struggles, they are not primarily looking for advice. They want to be heard, seen, and loved as they are, right in that specific moment. As Tim Keller writes, “To be loved but not known is superficial. To be known and not loved is our great fear—but to be known and loved, that transforms you.” Advice has a time and place—and is extremely helpful—but help your friend feel heard, seen, and loved first before offering helpful advice. Maybe better yet, simply commit to only offering advice when asked.

“Think how strong God must think you are to be able to handle all of this.”

This makes God sound sadistic and unloving, both of which are untrue. People experience hard times for a variety of reasons, and none of us are able in our own strength to solve all of life’s problems. We need the help of others in community, and more importantly, we need God. God supplies the strength needed each day. He doesn’t give us next week’s strength today, but instead gives us his strength each day as we trust and depend upon him. Let’s point people to our strong God and to his comforting presence with our words.

But Do Say:

“That sounds hard. I’m really sorry.”

The reality is we are a sin-scarred people living in a sin-scarred world. Bad things happen to good people and no one, especially not Christians, are exempt from suffering. Acknowledge the reality and the pain. However, suffering is not the way things are supposed to be. And indeed one day, there will be no more suffering and all wrongs will be made right. All that is marred will be made beautiful again. Take hope in how John in the book of Revelation sums up the day of renewal and God’s promised action:

“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:3-4).

"Can I bring you a meal? I’ll text/email you details so you can respond when you are able.”

When people are struggling, they may not be able to articulate their needs or even know what they need. Instead of asking what they need, offer 2-3 specific things you could help them with (childcare, a meal, a daily text of encouragement, lawn mowed, etc.) and let them choose.

“Can I pray for you right now?”

Don’t underestimate the power of prayer. It may feel that “just praying” for someone isn’t really helping or enough, when in fact, it is probably the most powerful thing you can do for your friends. No one understands their unique situation and what is needed more than God. He is the God of comfort and compassion. He is their sufficiency, provision, protector, and provider. And by praying for them in the moment, you are also reminding them of what is true, good, and beautiful. You are pointing them back to the truth of who God is and to his character.

Or maybe, don’t say anything at all.

Listen to the Holy Spirit, as he is guiding and leading you to care for your friends. In some instances, the best thing you can say is to say nothing at all. Don’t try to fix, advise, or rescue them. Just listen. The reality is that you can’t fix their problem. But you can remind them that they aren’t going through this alone. You are with them, and God is for them.

May the comfort we give to others be our presence and our words, shaped by the power and hope of the gospel.

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