No one wants to be like Job’s friends. We have hurting people in our lives, and we want to help them, but how do we manage to not make fools of ourselves? And how can we actually help hurting people without discouraging them even more?
Just like Job’s friends, we may think we have the right approach and goal in caring for our friend who lost his job, or for our sick elderly mother, or for our friends struggling through miscarriage. I’ve experienced many well-meaning individuals with good intentions who, at the end of the day, only exacerbated my hurt (I have a nerve disorder in my arms). And these experiences don’t make me immune to doing or saying the wrong thing—sometimes I’ve thought I was doing good when I was actually causing more pain. We need God’s help to care for our distressed friends.
Here are three mistakes we tend to make when we’re genuinely trying to help the hurting, and some suggestions for how to redirect our efforts:
Mistake 1: Be the Fix-It Person
First, we try to be the Fix-It Person. But the truth is no one wants another treatment, ointment, acupuncture reference, or diet that’s 100 percent guaranteed to heal them. When you guarantee healing, you may be highlighting the fact that you actually have no idea what kind of issues they’re dealing with. It’s possible that God could miraculously heal me through a smelling salt or a tea, but that’s not the normal prescription for mangled nerves that don’t work.
The truth is, struggling people have probably already seen numerous doctors, done hours of research, and undergone different treatments. Our desire to help is good and necessary, but sometimes one of the best things you can do is simply be there for them. Listen. Sit and comfort them with a ministry of presence.
Instead of handing down your guaranteed solutions, ask specific questions to learn more about what they’re going through. Sometimes the best thing you can do is ask, “I’m sorry, can you help me better understand what you’re going through?” And then listen.
Mistake 2: Explain Their Suffering
A second way we often think we’re helping is to explain why a hurting person is suffering. Because we live in a world broken by sin, we live with the uncomfortable reality that things aren’t the way they ought to be. Living in this tension is hard, and sometimes we try to cope by explaining the mind of God to others. Watching someone suffer—as they bury their child, pick up the rubble from a house fire, or weep over a unfaithful spouse—is always uncomfortable. But we needn’t feel our hurting friends are waiting for us to explain God’s intentions in order to finally ease their pain.
It’s amazing how wonderful Job’s friends were to him the first seven days. They put on sackcloth and ashes and wept with him after he lost his family, his livelihood, and his health. But then all of the sudden they started trying to fix it, telling him that his suffering was his fault and making other false accusations. But they really had no idea why their friend was suffering.
It’s been said Job’s friends were great until they opened their mouths. I think that’s true. We should take time to understand how our hurting friend is doing spiritually. We could simply say, “I’m so sorry,” and then listen to hear what’s going on in his heart.
You might help the person explore his spiritual health—and not start with the assumption his sin has brought about certain consequences. Brokenness in this world isn’t always (or even often) a direct result of an individual’s sin. We live in fallen world. There will be pain and death regardless of how we live.
Mistake 3: Promise Deliverance
A third way we think we’re helping is by promising deliverance.
Over the past decade or so, various well-meaning people have kindly told me God was going to heal me. They’ve tried to encourage me that since I’m a man of faith and I love God, I’ll be healed. Some have even said that because I’m a pastor doing the Lord’s work, I’ll be healed.
Now, they’re right and they’re wrong. God will one day heal me, but it might not happen in this life. I may never get to pick up one of my kids. However, when Jesus’s kingdom comes in full, I’ll not shed another tear over my pain or struggle with doubt. In this life I may not be able to button my shirt and put on my shoes, but in the age to come I’ll be perfectly dressed in Christ’s righteousness.
When we 100 percent guarantee God will deliver our friends from their suffering in this life, we make God out to be a cosmic vending machine. None of us wants to unwittingly encourage their friend to worship a cosmic vending machine. We want to point our friends to the sovereign King who is near to the brokenhearted and who will one day make all things new.
Channel His Comfort
Hearing these things might make you nervous to try and help the hurting. In your pursuit of the hurting, remember the One who cares for them as well. Jesus is the one who has gone through everything both you and your hurting friend have experienced. He faced death and rejection and the wrath of God as he sacrificed himself for the sins of his people. He’s faced pain and rejection, and he provides comfort for those who do.
As Paul wrote to one local church:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. (2 Cor. 1:3–4)
When you don’t know what to do, trust Christ and serve your friends out of the comfort he has given you.