Helping the Hurting
I. A willingness to help
A. Genuine Friends
B. Genuine Lonliness
How can you help—or hinder—those grappling with illness, loss, or injustice? Personal embarrassment prods us to avoid the sufferer. We wouldn’t know what to say. Suffering alone compounds the suffering (Ps. 142:4).
II. The goal of being compassionate
A. Good Motives
Motivated by love and their commitment, these men came to console and to comfort Job. The word to console (Heb. nûḏ) means literally “to shake the head or to rock the body back and forth” as a sign of shared grief. To comfort (Heb. niḥam) is to attempt to ease the deepest pain caused by a tragedy or death (e.g., 2 Sam. 12:24; Isa. 66:13). With the noblest intentions, these three earnestly desired to help Job bear his sorrow.
B. Good Intentions
The Hebrew expression is curious; literally, “they threw dust on their heads heavenward.” This gesture expressed the depth of their sorrow at such horrifying affliction.
III. A determination to enter into his grief
A. A good initial response
B. A radically different response
IV. Practical Ways to Help
We focus all our attention on Job, but Job’s wife lost everything, too. Be attentive to background sufferers. Affliction rarely affects isolated individuals. No sufferer is an island. Surrounding almost any primary sufferer are secondary sufferers—spouses, children, siblings, caretakers. Secondary suffering may be a different kind of suffering, but it can be every bit as acute.
When a couple lost their first child five hours after her premature birth, I regularly contacted the father to see how he was doing and to listen to anything he might have to say. He told me once that I was the only one who made an effort to talk with him about their loss. As the primary sufferer in this case, the mother was the natural focus of attention and consolation. He understood that his wife needed special support; but nobody really thought of the father in the same terms.
“Weep with them that weep” (Rom. 12:15) is not fuzzy, feel-good advice or hyperbole. It is a command to sympathize, to “feel with” those who suffer (1 Cor. 12:15–26). Your calling is not to attach some explanation to their circumstances. You need not—and probably don’t—have the answer to their affliction. There is a time for counsel, usually when the sufferer solicits it, and there is a time to lay your hand upon your mouth and just weep with them (Eccles. 3:7). The open ear of a sympathetic Christian brother or sister willing to listen without rushing to explain or advise or criticize can be more helpful in working through a difficult experience than you will ever know, until you are the sufferer. Our instinctive response to a suffering saint should be sympathy, not suspicion or censure or advice. Be willing just to sit with them. Even Job’s friends could do that.
“Bear ye one another’s burdens” (Gal. 6:2). When Paul says that everyone is to bear his own “burden” (Gal. 6:5), he uses the word for a backpack, something suitable and appropriate to an individual, the customary duties of our daily life and calling for which we are individually responsible. The “burden” we are to help others bear (Gal. 6:2) is the word for cargo, a great load too heavy for one person. Offer the sufferer a hand. Run errands; keep the children; help with chores; provide meals. Drop a note or card. Call periodically. Simply being present and available reminds them that they are not alone and that their difficulty is not being ignored or forgotten.
Sometimes aloneness is necessary, preferable, or helpful (Jer. 15:15–18; Lam. 3:25–28). Balance availability with respect for privacy. Visits and calls are encouraging, but at times your presence may be intrusive. Ask ahead to avoid imposing your presence at a time when privacy, not company, is needed. Sometimes the most helpful thing you can be is absent. Do not take that personally and do not be offended. Ministering to others in times of affliction is about their needs, not about your feelings.
“Remember … them which suffer adversity, as being yourselves … in the body” (Heb. 13:3). It is not a pious cliché to say that prayer is the most effectual ministry you can have to fellow believers in the furnace of affliction. Pray in their shoes. Pray for them as you would want to be prayed for if you were in their circumstances. Find a biblical request that matches their needs and pray it for them thoughtfully. Tell them that you are praying for them, and even what you are praying for them. God often instructs us through the trials of others and adjusts our own spirits as we pray for them.
“Support the weak, be patient toward all men” (1 Thess. 5:14). Working through a trial of any magnitude takes time. Scripture exhorts the sufferer to “let patience have her perfect work” (James 1:4), so it is not too much to ask those around the sufferer to do the same. Suffering is not an inconvenient obstacle to “normal” life. Affliction is “normal” life. For the duration of the trial, this is God’s will for their life and ministry. Serving God is not about accomplishing tasks but waiting on Him in all His appointments. No one has expressed this truth more famously than John Milton, the Puritan poet who lost his eyesight by the age of forty-five. “God doth not need / Either man’s work or His own gifts; who best / bear His mild yoke, they serve him best.” Others may travel far and labor long at God’s bidding, but “They also serve who only stand and wait.”
By this I do not mean you should quote lots of Scripture. Though there is a large place for the Scriptures in consoling the afflicted, resist the temptation to be a surrogate Holy Spirit. Some passages are better left to Him to minister. Do not quote Romans 8:28 to a suffering saint. It is a wonderful verse, but the afflicted have thought of that verse long before you have. Some truths can be effectively ministered to the believer by God alone. Sufferers draw Spirit-ministered comfort from Romans 8:28, but it is not a verse to be doled out like spiritual aspirin, as though it instantly answers all questions, quiets all concerns, and heals all the hurts.
What I mean is, be scriptural in your approach to the sufferer and his or her suffering. Allow the full range of the Bible’s teaching on suffering to inform your ministry to the sufferer. Think through the stories of those who suffer in the pages of Scripture—Joseph, Job, David, Jeremiah, Jesus, Paul. All suffering goes through God and He rarely forwards suffering to accomplish a single object. God typically orchestrates a symphony of purposes through any single experience of affliction.