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My friend Eddie performed his first funeral about three decades ago. He was a young preacher boy who was nervous about the task before him. Funerals and weddings are some of the tensest and most self-aware public moments in our lives. As Eddie led the family and friends in prayer, he said, “Father, it is so good for us to be here today.”
That was a big oops. It was the wrong prayer for the occasion. Eddie had pulled out his trusty “so good to be at our church meeting” prayer rather than his funeral prayer. Have you ever done that? When the time called for prayer #32, but you whipped out prayer #47? There was nothing more for Eddie to do but to keep on praying—heads down and eyes shut, hoping he could stealthily switch prayer tracks in such a way that blessed everyone rather than leaving them shocked.
My friend’s prayer story became humorous as time went by, but there are other moments when the things we say, especially during suffering, can create unhelpful memories that sting for a while. Perhaps nothing is more misguided during the time of our grief than when we are too quick on the draw with the “all things work together for good” line.
It is not that Romans 8:28 is an inappropriate thing to say, but its timing can make all the difference. I remember when one of my friends pulled out his “8:28 bullet” during the darkest season of my suffering. Though I did not say this to him, what I wanted to come back with was,
Has it ever occurred to you that I do not want “all things to work out for good?” I want my family back—my wife and my two children. I am aware that what I want and what the Lord is giving me right now are not the same things, but now, I cannot get on with the Lord’s plans. I want my agenda right now (Isaiah 55:8-9).
My theology was wrong, as well as my attitude, but I was also hurting. Sometimes it may be best to give your struggling friends a broader berth to work out their salvation imperfectly (Philippians 2:12). What other option do we have except to develop our relationship with the Lord imperfectly when things fall apart? Though the goal is to be like Jesus, may we be honest? Being like Jesus can be too high of a bar when we wallow in the depths of suffering.
When it comes to doing things wrong, probably the most criticized people in the Bible for giving inadequate counsel are Job’s friends. It bothers me with the criticism they receive because I am not sure any of us (especially me) could do much better. I feel for Job’s friends about the same way I feel for Adam.
Who wants to be known as the guy who messed up the world? Imagine if it were the “fall of Rick” in the garden. We all are in this mess because of my slip-up. We would no longer be Adamic but Ricket. Yikes! I wonder what it will be like as we walk by Adam in heaven. What about Job’s friends? Branding people for their mistakes is easy to do. What if we leveled the playing field?
All of us have given poor advice. And if we continue to care for people, we will provide inadequate guidance in the future—especially when we have to come alongside our suffering friends. I do not have an exhaustive list for you, but I believe seven things will serve you as you interact with your friends who are going through situational challenges.
Perhaps your friend sinned, and because of his sin, he is reaping personal suffering. It happens. And if that is the case, there is a time to bring up the “sin when suffering,” but it should not be the first thing that comes out of our mouths.
Perhaps there was no sin committed, as in Job’s case. If so, doing what Job’s three friends did to him is wildly inappropriate. The most important “S” word to think about during suffering is suffering. Hug the sufferer, and let him know that you are there for him. Being there is where Job’s friends got it right. They did not say anything, and they sat with their friend in silence.
And they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great (Job 2:13).
They were wise then. Just being there can make all the difference. There is something sacred and holy about “being” with another image-bearer. “God with us” (Matthew 1:23; Genesis 39:2) is a significant aspect of the gospel, and when we imitate that to others, it is a beautiful thing. My friend Randy was Jesus for me. As the bad news was rolling in, the painful reality of what was happening was rolling over me.
Late one night, Randy knocked on my door. He said he was not sure why he came, other than the Lord placed me on his heart. He hardly said anything else to me. I was hysterical; Randy was quiet. Though it was 1988, I am still comforted by his presence that night.
Too often, in our effort to relate to others, we begin telling them our stories. While there can be a place for connecting to another person with your life’s narrative, it is more important to dive into his or her story, listening to the other person’s suffering, whatever it may be. Sometimes you will hear this when people say, “I know how you feel,” and they launch into their experiences.
The truth is, the comforter does not know how you feel—not precisely. Personal suffering is unique to each person, and the Lord relates to each of His children uniquely. It is not possible to accurately know how they feel because there are too many variables. The more important thing to do is find out how they think. As appropriate, and when the time is right, begin to draw the hurting person out.
Try to understand how the Lord may be relating to them. Listen to their suffering. There is a lot to learn. Guard your heart against mapping your experience over his or her experience. If you do not guard your tongue, you may begin to give tips that worked for you while missing the things the Lord wants the other person to hear and do.
Nobody suffers perfectly. While Randy was in my home, I walked around my house, slamming my fist against the walls. When I found out my wife had committed adultery, nobody could console me. My heart was bursting as the most profound human trust in my life was shattered. Randy discerned this, and he gave me space and time to be imperfect.
Giving imperfect people room to wobble can be wise. Expecting them to respond with Christlikeness is expecting too much and can burden them to be what they can never be at that moment. I am not making a case for allowing a person to sin, but it may be possible for you to overlook what they are doing, especially if it is an episode rather than a pattern.
That horrible night was a unique one for me. It has been many years since that, and I have yet to walk through my house again, beating my fist into the walls. Be discerning with your friends.
Hopefully, you will have the opportunity to begin realigning their theology. If you know them well and are not planning on popping in and popping off, give them sound Bible wisdom like Romans 8:28. The Lord is sovereign, and He is working good in their lives. More than likely, your friend will know this, though he may not have this at the top of his mind at the moment.
Rather than trying to come up with some new truth, it would be wiser to remind him of the old truth of the gospel. One of the most effective ways to connect with an individual is by speaking to his understanding and experience—to what he already knows. The Lord does not need to nuance in a new and different way. Be plain, clear, and simple.
Talk to them plainly about the greatness of our God and the counter-intuitiveness of His ways. God’s Word brings hope to the hurting soul. It is rare for a counselee to say, “Wow, I have never heard that before.” More than likely, they will say, “There is nothing you have told me that I did not already know.” I would hope that would be the case.
It would be much harder if I told them things about God that they did not know. If so, I would have to build a theological foundation for them. Creating a doctrinal construct while caring for a person’s soul is arduous and much more challenging than reminding a Christian of truths with which they already had a familiarity.
Though prayer is assumed, you should not overlook or underrate it. It is not a tack-on at the end of a meeting as though it was a routine Christian expectation. Prayer is the most powerful way you can engage the Sovereign Lord, the One who is behind all of the sufferings we experience. Prayer does many things. For example, it is an acknowledgment that the Lord is God and we are not. Knowing about God is necessary because the sufferer may be broken but not humbled. There is a difference.
The broken person can sit in the dust of his catastrophe while still relying on himself. The humble person can sit in the same place but humbly acknowledge his need for the Almighty. With that kind of humility comes empowering favor from the Lord (James 4:6). The man who can pray with open hands and no hidden expectations sets himself up for God to impose Himself into the suffering. This kind of prayer-filled attitude softens the heart, which gives shape to the Father’s will to grow inside of us rather than our own agendas (Luke 22:42).
The only way Jesus could index forward to His Father’s will was through the portal of prayer. Prayer also creates a trinitarian koinonia between the Lord, the sufferer, and you. When you three are in communion together, it is one of the most intimate things you can do. In addition, it is the only way you and the sufferer can access God’s strength for the moment.
What I have communicated here are a few ways that might help those you are serving. The Spirit can move you differently, and discerning the Spirit is one of the keys you will need when you step into a unique suffering opportunity. The other key is that you must do something.
The heart of the gospel is going, doing, moving, acting, loving, giving, serving, and helping. To do nothing when a person is hurting is “another gospel,” not the one the Savior modeled for us. We must go to those who are hurting, seeking to enter into their pain.
My friend Eddie might not have had the perfect prayer opening, but he was willing to go, to care, and to give what he had for a hurting family. Who has the Lord put on your heart, and what is something you should do for them today or this week?
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