By Jen Roland, Crosswalk.com
No one should have to receive a difficult diagnosis over Zoom. However, due to COVID, my neurologist was required to share the results of my skin biopsy through a computer screen.
I discovered the burning in my extremities that I’d experienced for more than two years had a name—peripheral neuropathy—and that it was a chronic, progressive condition. Later that week, as the reality of this news sunk in, I suddenly became filled with anxiety and broke into tears. My husband, completely caught off guard, came over and just held me. He said nothing, but his presence meant more than any words could have in that moment.
If you have a friend or loved one in pain, here are four ways you can support them and gently guide them toward healing:
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1. Offer the Ministry of Presence
The ministry of presence is one of the greatest gifts we can provide to our loved ones who are hurting. In the Book of Job, upon learning about his suffering, three close friends—Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar—came to “sympathize with him and comfort him” (Job 2:11 NIV). For seven days, they wept and grieved with Job without saying a word. Job 2:13 tells us they sat in silence “because they saw how great his suffering was.” Pastor Rick Warren reiterated the importance of showing up and ministering through quiet presence when he said, “The deeper the pain, the fewer words you use.”
This past September, my friend Monica’s husband unexpectedly passed away from a brain tumor. In accordance with Jewish custom, Monica and her daughter “sat Shiva” for seven days—a practice of mourning by the family of the deceased that dates back to before the Flood. During that time, close friends and family brought food and reminisced about her husband’s life. Our focus was on listening to Monica, allowing her to initiate the conversation and choose which memories she wanted to share. Periodically, her eyes would well up with tears and we wept with her, giving her space to talk about her grief if she wanted while knowing silence was also okay (Romans 12:15).
We may sometimes feel tempted to fill the silence, but must be slow to give our explanations or advice. When Job’s friends opened their mouths to share why they thought he was suffering, what they thought he deserved, and what they believed he should do, Job called them “miserable comforters” (Job 16:2). Rather than help Job, they unintentionally made his pain worse.
I can recall a well-meaning friend from church asking me how I was feeling one morning. Upon sharing that my legs were burning, she offered her own explanation for my pain: I must not be walking closely with God. I remember feeling confused, condemned, and misunderstood. What I needed in that moment wasn’t for someone to try to explain my pain or fix my problems—I needed a friend who was willing to empathetically listen.
2. Listen Empathetically
Grieving what we’ve lost and allowing our pain to be seen are necessary to move toward healing. As a family member or friend of someone who is hurting, you can provide a safe place for them to share their feelings without judgment, criticism, or condemnation.
Many people in pain feel alone. They worry if they share their grief they’ll push others away or become a burden. You can help calm their anxiety by asking them to share their story and listening empathetically. Empathetic listening includes responding in a way that conveys acceptance, compassion, and understanding rather than pity. Through restating and paraphrasing, you can let the other person know you see them, hear them, and recognize how difficult their situation must be. You can help normalize what they’re experiencing by assuring them you would feel similarly if going through the same loss. While none of us will ever understand exactly what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes, actually trying to imagine it and saying, “I know this is hard on you, and I’m sorry you’re going through it,” helps them feel less alone. Asking questions such as, “What was that like for you?” and encouraging them to tell you more can also assist in helping them process their pain.
Empathetic listening includes creating space for your loved ones to articulate their losses and acknowledge any anger, denial, frustration, disappointment, or fear they’re feeling without trying to talk them out of it. When my father-in-law, Mike, passed away in October—also from a brain tumor—my mother-in-law recounted all the things she wished she’d done differently. She experienced moments of despair when, seemingly out of the blue, she’d say, “I just want Mike back.” Reassuring her that her feelings were valid and sharing that I missed Mike too provided an opportunity for us to mourn together and for me to be there to support her.
Over the years, as a women’s ministry leader and board-certified mental health coach, I’ve encountered numerous individuals who suffered in silence because they didn’t want to push others away. We can refute this belief by comforting our friends in pain upfront with the words, “You’re never a burden,” and “I’ll always be here for you.” We can let them feel their pain without shifting to finding the silver lining or covering it with Christian clichés. When others are given the freedom to share what they’re feeling and how the pain is impacting them, they’ll begin to move through their grief toward growth and healing.
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3. Engage in Earnest and Fervent Prayer
I first met my friend Stephanie at a MOPS (Mothers of Preschoolers) meeting twelve years ago. While I grew up in the church, never had I heard someone pray with such passion and fervor. It immediately drew me to her and woke me up to where I stood in my walk with Christ. Stephanie’s prayers inspired me to read the Bible, wholeheartedly seek God, and eventually find a church that helped me cultivate a deeper, personal relationship with Jesus.
When I was in the thick of motherhood and needed someone to talk to, Stephanie was there to listen. When I was going through challenges in my marriage and needed godly advice, Stephanie was there to give it. And, whenever I needed prayer, Stephanie would speak words of wisdom and hope that encouraged me to persevere and ground myself in God’s promises.
The Bible speaks of earnest prayer in James 5:16: “Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results” (NLT). We see an example of this kind of prayer in Acts 12. After putting James, the brother of John, to death, King Herod saw that it pleased the Jewish leaders who opposed Christians, so he arrested and put Peter in prison to solidify his position as King. Verse 5 tells us, “Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him.” These prayers resulted in Peter’s miraculous escape when, that night, an angel of the Lord appeared, Peter’s chains were broken, and the iron gate leading into the city flew open (Acts 12:7-10).
Rather than simply telling a friend you’ll pray for them, I suggest sending a card, text, or email. Even better, pray for them out loud. The written prayers I receive are saved and read a thousand times over, and the gift of hearing someone pray aloud for our needs remains unmatched. Your prayers have the potential to propel those who are hurting toward a deeper faith and closer relationships with others.
4. Point Them to Jesus and His Promises
In the midst of pain, we can point our loved ones to God and His promises as a source of hope, but we must do so cautiously. Telling our friends they should “rejoice in their sufferings” (2 Corinthians 12:10) or “trust God is working all things for good” (Romans 8:28) can leave them feeling more injured. Instead, you might try sending a card or praying, “May God’s grace sustain you, His strength restore you, and His presence be felt during this difficult time.” We want to focus on fundamental truths of our faith that bring consolation, such as God is with you (Isaiah 41:10), God is for you (Romans 8:31), God loves you (John 3:16), and God is in control (Proverbs 19:21).
Two verses that bring me comfort as I battle constant, burning pain are: 1 Peter 5:10, "And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast,” and Romans 8:18, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”
These passages remind me that this world is not my home—heaven is. They reassure me that my present sufferings are temporary and that, at some point, God will make all things new (Isaiah 43:19). We live in the tension of waiting for the glory that is to come while patiently enduring pain here on earth. However, we do not have to wait until we get to heaven to experience joy.
The hope we have in Jesus goes beyond the gift of eternal life—Jesus promises us abundant life now (John 10:10). When we accept Him as our Savior, we become indwelled by the Holy Spirit, who transforms us by a renewing of our mind as we read and meditate on God’s Word (Romans 12:2). Attached to the Vine, our Lord Jesus, we become able to bear spiritual fruit—joy, peace, faithfulness, and love–even when our circumstances don’t change (John 15:4).
Pain is universal, whether from the loss of a loved one, chronic illness, strained relationships, or shattered dreams. Amid pain, we can support others by providing the ministry of presence, listening empathetically, earnestly and fervently praying, and pointing them back to God’s promises. For those who want to go above and beyond, offer what you can do rather than ask for what they need. People who are grieving don’t always know what they need or are reluctant to accept help, but efforts to lighten their load are always appreciated.
During the three-month period when I was on bed rest and in pain, friends offered to drive my kids to their activities, drop off meals, and run errands. These small acts of kindness displayed the love of Jesus and reminded me that our relationships with God and others are what matter most in this world.
In time, our loved ones will learn how to move forward with their grief and adjust to a new normal. With our support, they can begin to see their pain as a growth opportunity and find healing.
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