Knowing what to say and what not to say is critical when comforting the hurting. The right words can be like a healing balm. “Gracious words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones” (Proverbs 16:24, NIV.) The wrong words can be salt, rubbed into the wound and causing more pain. Here’s some advice to help you find the right words.
The the Bible’s Old Testament Book of Job is named after its main character, Job. After losing everything and nearly everyone in his life, he is afflicted with a horrible, unfathomable physical disease and suffering.
Three of Job’s friends come to comfort him. Unfortunately, their long speeches are filled with harsh words, heartless and brainless rationalizations of his suffering, including blaming him for his own crisis. All of this only add to his misery. When Job can no longer bear their words, he cries out,
“You are miserable comforters, all of you! Will your long speeches never end?” (Job 16:2-3, NIV)
Two Things Not To Say to the Suffering
We can learn from the book of Job a lot about what not to say to someone suffering. Two things in particular stand out.
1. "You must have done something wrong to cause God to bring this suffering upon you."
Job’s friends told him this continually. He must have committed some awful sin for God to afflict him. They alleged Job was being punished for some unconfessed sin. Sadly, many people today believe God rewards the good and punishes the bad, which isn’t how God or life works.
The LORD is compassionate and merciful, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. (Psalm 100:5, NLT).
Truth be told, Job was an exceedingly good person, far better than most. The book opens by telling us Job was “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (Job 1:1). Even if Job had been awful, God is love. Why God allowed his suffering we don’t know, but we do know that God ultimately restored Job fully. In fact, God payed him back double for his trouble!
2. “You must not have done enough good for your life to be this bad.”
The cruel and false logic of Job’s friends only added to his agony. Job knew all the good he had done in his life and could hardly imagine doing more. Even if he hadn’t, their claims betrayed the heart of God.
Jesus tells us, “[God] causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45, NIV). Jesus backs up his claim with his sacrificial death for all people, sinners and saints, regardless of what they have or have not done.
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast (Ephesians 2:8-9, NIV).
I'm reminded of Kate Bowler’s excellent Cancer Memoir, Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I've Loved . In it, she explores many things not to say to and to say to cancer patients and others suffering. It's great.
One thing she exhorts us not to say, as the title suggests, is “Everything happens for a reason.” As Bowler explains many things have no identified reason. Cancer happened because we live in a broken world. Period. There’s no rational explanation for your having cancer. God is good. Cancer is not. God’s desire for you is not disease. Anyone suggesting to know the reason for your cancer, or whatever afflicts you, is an extremely miserable comforter.
Job’s friends could have been helpful more if they had just showed up and shut up! If they had practiced the Jewish tradition of “Sitting Shiva,” which called them to be present with their bereaved and suffering friend, not to lecture but to listen, to affirm his pain, and allow him to grieve his loss.
Praying for someone is one of the best ways to comfort the hurting.
Somehow in the book of Job, amidst his miserable comforters, we catch a glimpse of a wonderful comforter. We don’t know who it is or anything about him or her. But about this person Job says,
My intercessor is my friend as my eyes pour out tears to God; on behalf of a human being, he pleads with God as one pleads for a friend (Job 16:20-21).
To intercede is to pray. We can intercede for those afflicted. We can pray for them aloud or silently, in their presence or from afar, with few or many words. Prayer can be a way to offer words that soothe, calm, strengthen, and elicit faith. Intercession can assure the suffering that God is present, loves them, cares for them, and can be trusted.
This unidentified person praying for Job may have been Jesus. At the very least, he/she foreshadowed Jesus Christ. He is our ultimate interceder, always with us, comforting us and pleading with the Father on our behalf.
Many Things You Can Say (and Do) To Comfort Others
After my diagnosis with stage 4 lung cancer in 2017, I was blessed with many wonderful comforters. In fact, I can’t recall any miserable comforters. Thank you, Lord! Here are just a few of the words and actions that comforted me.
· Can I bring you a meal? As soon as they heard, my church asked to set up a meal train. We gratefully accepted. For months, people took turns bringing us food. Their “comfort food” ministered to our bodies, and our minds, and spirits.
· I am praying for you. Countless people told me they were praying for me. A few wrote a prayer in their card and mailed it to me.
· This Bible verse encouraged me. I hope it will you encourage you, too.
One friend shared with me a deck of “Fear Chaser” cards. On each index card she had hand-written a Bible verse to increase my faith and keep my fears in check.
· Cards/Emails/Texts. Just wanted to say I’m sorry. You're in my thoughts and prayers. I’m here for you. Let me know if you need anything. All of these messages ministered to me.
· Presence. Sometimes you don't need to say anything. At my first surgical procedure, a dozen or more people – family and friends – came just to sit with me. I didn't get to talk with anyone for more than a few minutes before heading into the operation room. Nonetheless having everyone there with me helped immensely.
One of the things Kate Bowler writes that we should say is, “Can I give you a hug?” Often, those with cancer or in similar crises, feel isolated, discarded, and perhaps unlovable. A little physical touch, transmitting kindness and understanding kinetically, can go a long way to helping the hurting feel connected and comforted.
You can find a complete list of Bowler’s dos and don’ts at https://grace.community/what-not-to-say-to-someone-who-is-grieving/.
Finally, here’s a song inspired by this message. Enjoy!