“Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise.
Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.
And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.
Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.
Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth.
Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.
My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.”
James 5:13-20 ESV
ARE YOU THE KIND OF PERSON NO ONE CONFIDES IN MORE THAN ONCE? All of us have inadvertently made for miserable comforters at some point, in spite of our good intentions. Let’s face it, we are sometimes ill-prepared to hear and respond to some of the things someone may share with us. Perhaps someone you love is struggling and you wonder how you can be a better friend to support them. At times, we feel powerless to say or do anything that would make a difference.
There was a time when I would respond to the weak by projecting an image of having it all together and then giving unsolicited advice on how they could get it together—like me! I thought that’s what they needed. I thought that if I showed any weakness of my own it would undermine my credibility and the opportunity to help them. As a result, they likely felt “less than,” alone in their struggle, and misunderstood—probably a lot like Job. You might not be surprised to learn that nobody confided in me more than once in those days.
Often, we may think struggling people just need God in their lives, and if we knew what that meant, we’d be right. But we routinely advise they go to church, pray, and read the Bible— especially the verses that condemn their bad behavior! And while these things will help if not forced upon them, they will not always provide the deep individual attention one may need. In many cases, they may already be believers involved in a church community. Often, people already know if their behavior is problematic. Their self-judgment only compounds their plight. In many cases, their struggle may be by no fault of their own. They may be innocent victims of abuse or tragedy as was Job (Job 1:1).
What hurting people need most from those around them is to personally experience the love of Christ. This more than anything will prepare their hearts to receive spiritual direction. They may need professional counseling or a specialized support group, but chances are that’s not something you or your church are equipped to offer. The good news is that you don’t have to. Show them compassion. Recognize that behind every hurting face is a person with a story you may never fully understand. You don’t have to be their counselor or even their spiritual advisor; it is enough to be their friend.
Here are 7 ways to be a better friend than Job’s:
- Listen: Proverbs 10:19 says, “whoever restrains his lips is prudent.” Let them share without interruption or judgment. Avoid showing signs of shock or disgust. We are all sinners. Job’s friends were doing pretty well right up until they started talking (Job 2:9, 11-13; 4:2, 8; 8:1-7). Listening says, “I care about you.”
- Validate: Romans 12:15 says, “Weep with those who weep.” Whether they are out of line or not, their feelings are real to them. Validate their feelings without necessarily agreeing with their choices or behavior. Avoid saying “I understand” unless you’ve actually been through a similar experience and are prepared to share it. Your pet dying is not in the same universe as losing a child. Validation says, “I see your pain.”
- Accept: 1 Peter 4:8 says, “love covers a multitude of sins.” Again, acceptance doesn’t mean you agree with the person’s choices or behavior. It simply means you accept them as a friend or family member. The greatest fear for many in being vulnerable to another person is rejection. While we must all practice safe boundaries in relationships to protect ourselves, love is unconditional. Be careful to treat the individual with the same respect and dignity you would anyone else. Rejection comes in many subtle forms of discriminatory treatment. There are no second class humans. To be clear, we are not called to unconditionally accept a person who is in sin and unwilling to take tangible steps toward change. Even in such circumstances, we love. Bear in mind that in many cases of serious struggle such as addiction, repentance may be a long process of slow change. In those times we should look for the attitude and work of repentance rather than merely measuring the short term results. Acceptance says, “I will always love you.”
- Encourage: 1 Thessalonians 5:14 says, “encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.” Hurting people are already down. They usually don’t need someone to kick them to top it off! But they crave a kind word. Become their greatest cheerleader with words of hope and affirmation. Encouragement says, “I believe in you.”
- Pray: James 5:16 says, “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” Notice confession is about healing, not humiliation. Many have prayed alone seemingly to no avail. Praying together says, “God’s got this.”
- Honor: In Romans 1:28-32, Paul condemned gossip in the strongest terms right alongside the “big” sins like murder. Respect their privacy by keeping their story in absolute confidence. Not even your spouse needs to hear what is shared. It is their story to tell. Gossip destroys intimacy. Honor says, “You are safe with me.”
- Share: In 1 Timothy 1:15, Paul said, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.” There’s nothing worse than being the only one to confess your specific faults or struggles. If you want to help others who are struggling, make yourself vulnerable and share too. Even if you are presently on a mountaintop, empathize by sharing your low points. If an Apostle could humble himself to relate to sinners, any of us can. Sharing says, “You are not alone.”
Recognize in this process that you are not Christ! You can’t read minds, and you don’t have all the answers. So what’s missing from the above is offering unsolicited advice and attempting to fix. I know this is hard for some of us. It’s hard for me (really–nobody asked me to write this blog post!). But in my experience, there is nothing more harmful than bad or unwanted advice. Remember, Jesus offered himself freely but never forced himself on anyone. Rushing in with a solution, even the right solution, invalidates the pain of the person by saying “This is an easy fix!” Challenge yourself to be a better friend and comforter by leaving out the free advice, especially if you’ve never been through their same struggle and don’t know what you’re talking about.
You are released from the responsibility of fixing those around you! Doesn’t it feel great to have that weight off your shoulders? Instead, take it to the Lord in prayer and trust that he will bring the right guides into their life to show them the way. All they may need from you is your friendship. The great news is that with a little practice of these boundaries, any of us can be a source of healing comfort to those who are hurting.
How sweet, how heav’nly is the sight
When those that love the Lord
In one another’s peace delight
And so fulfill the word.
When each can feel his brother’s sigh
And with him bear a part!
When sorrow flows from eye to eye,
And joy from heart to heart!
JOSEPH SWAIN (1792)