Don’t Speak Too Soon: Helping The Hurting Without Minimizing Pain
JUNE 1, 2023
I’ve learned the hard way. In my marriage I was far too quick to offer solutions to painful situations and occasionally still am.
For the first 5 years, I thought this was the best way to care for my wife and quickly applied it to pastoral care as well. What I’ve come to realize over the last 5 is that this “quick to encourage, quick to recite scripture, quick “fix” approach has often been more harmful than helpful and has spoken more loudly to my own discomfort, insecurities, impatience and apathy.
Do hurting people need help?
Absolutely and one of the promises God makes to us is that throughout life there will be pain; it’s just as inevitable as the need for air to breathe. There’s no doubt that we are more helpless than we often realize and more in need of burden bearers in our life than we’d like to admit. The real question isn’t, “do hurting people need help?”, that’s a given, the question we need to think more about; especially in a quick fix, quick gratification, high speed society is, “what does healthy/healing care for the hurting really look like?”
Spoiler alert! It looks different in every situation because we’re not robots. Every single one of us is wired differently when it comes to our emotions, our thought process, our absorption or trauma, and how those intermingle. Here’s what I can tell you for sure: when it comes to a truly painful experience, circumstance, or dilemma, speaking too soon can (and often is) much more harmful than helpful, even if what you’re saying is true. This is where I hit a roadblock early on in marriage and pastoring; I couldn’t connect the dots between truth and timing. I thought that as long as I was saying something true, the timing didn’t really matter. I was wrong. When you’re sitting with a wife saying goodbye to her husband of 50 years in a hospital room, the timing of your words matter. When you’re in the living room of a couple who just found out one of them has cancer, timing matter. When a young man comes to you completely broken because he found out his wife had an affair, timing matters. A quick word will not only fall on deaf but pour salt in the wound as you unintentionally minimize the person’s pain.
“A ministry of presence” was a newer term for me 5 years ago and as a prideful young pastor, didn’t seem “efficient” enough when caring for the church. The idea that sometimes just being there says more than your words ever could. That sometimes just sitting, listening, crying with someone is the most powerful first response. Sometimes what the person next to you really needs is to fall apart in your presence and know that you aren’t quickly trying to fix them and move on. What they need is to experience Jesus’ care and compassion through you, not simply hear His words.
I think one of, it not the, greatest examples of this kind of “slow to speak, quick to sit, listen, and be” care comes from the story of Job and how we see his friends respond to his loss of family, health, and wealth. I love how Eugene Peterson sums this up in the Message:
When they first caught sight of him, they couldn’t believe what they saw–they hardly recognized him! They cried out in lament, ripped their robes, and dumped dirt on their heads as a sign of their grief. Then they sat with him on the ground. Seven days and nights they sat there without saying a word. They could see how rotten he felt, how deeply he was suffering. -Job 2:12-13 (MSG)
Sometime, just being present, listening, and acknowledging a person’s pain can be more challenging than offering words of encouragement. It can make us feel uncomfortable, but is it possible that the lack of comfort we feel in those moments points to our inability to simply sit with and acknowledge our own pain? Could it point to our lack of patience and even lack of concern for others because we’re so focused on our own “stuff”? For me, this was a big realization and opportunity to become a better care-giver and burden bearer. Is there a time and need to speak truth; especially encouraging truth? Absolutely. We need to hear that God has a good plan, that He hasn’t turned His back on us, that through Jesus our future is purchased and we’re moving toward a day with no more pain and no more tears, only joy, where all of the wrongs are made right. But before those words come spilling out of our mouths, well intentioned and all, take a minute to consider the possibility that what the person next to you might need in the moment, where the pain is still wet like a new coat of paint isn’t a word of encouragement (yet) but a present friend willing to sit with them and acknowledge their pain. Speak truth and encouragement, yes. But don’t speak too soon.
Read more from Drew Hensley here