September 9, 2021

What If We Don't Know What to Say to Someone Who's Suffering?

I open my email and there in my inbox is the dreaded email. Subject heading: “Please Advise” or “I need your help” or “I wonder what you would do?”These emails fill me with dread for lots of reasons. I’m not an expert, and I really don’t have all the answers despite my desire to help women working in pastoral situations. My heart goes out to them because I know how hard and isolating ministry can be for women in the UK (and beyond). I never fully know the details of the situation(s), no matter how descriptive an email is. Therefore, I have to show wisdom and discernment before and if I speak into any situation (particularly when I don’t have the whole story, don’t have a personal relationship with the person presenting the problem, and am uncertain of the cultural context in which it happening). Therefore, very often, my response is that I just don’t know.

What happens when we just don’t know what to say to those who are suffering? I was struck by this recently sitting in a systematic theology lecture discussing the subject. The whole “what would you do/say/ask” was being thrashed about in the classroom as we dissected a case study of a make-believe Kevin. Now, I’ve used case studies many times as I’ve taught our trainees, because I’ve always felt that a make-believe person gives a safe practice ground for working through some of life’s big issues. Yet, what really struck me in the lecture as all these ideas and theories where being bandied around was that there are just times when, despite all the practice, study, and years of ministry experience, we are sat face to face with someone we dearly care for who is in dire need and we just don’t know what to say. Words seem wholly appropriate. There are occasions when words just can’t express our love and compassion in the face of Mt. Everest sized problems. It’s true that the older I get, the less I realise that I know. Sometimes all I have for people is, “I love you dearly but I just don’t know what to say.” Is that really good enough? Or would it be better for me to bring to mind a half decent memory verse such as 1 Peter 5:7 “casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.” What about, Psalm 73:26 “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” Both are wonderful and true verses, but is silence sometimes the best option?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot this last few weeks as so many people I love and care for are suffering. It would be so easy to be crushed by their sorrow because of the weight of my burden for them and my inability to speak well and wisely into each situation. I simply don’t know. I don’t know why they are suffering. I don’t know why the Lord is allowing this to go on. I don’t know how best to speak into their situation or what wise words would bring comfort. I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know!

Thankfully, I don’t have to!

The suffering family and friends in our lives need mature, godly women to model WHO we are relying on in times of great adversity. We may sit in silence sometimes, but that does not mean that we cannot model in our own lives our complete trust and reliance on GOD in our darkest hours. We don’t know, but HE does!

We may not know but GOD knows and we can trust HIM. We can say we don’t know but we do know that HE is 100% trustworthy. We can point back to difficult times in our lives which prove his faithfulness and sustaining grace. We know he is faithful over the long haul even if he appears silent in our immediate difficulties. We know he is trustworthy. We know he is merciful. We know his love never fails. We know the work of Christ is completed and, therefore, whatever happens in this life, our inheritance is secure. Even though there are times when we just don’t know why, there is never a time when we do not know who.

Thankfully “I don’t know” isn’t all we have.

  • We can we rely on our faithful God
  • We can
    • Pray
    • Rely on his Holy Spirit
    • Learn to recognise his leading
  • We can remind ourselves of God’s faithfulness, mercy, trustworthiness, and compassion to us in the past (it will be the same today and tomorrow).
  • We can remember the gospel and the wonderful hope we have in Christ
  • We can ask God for wisdom and perseverance
  • We can ask God to help us serve and speak well

Jeremiah 33:3 “Call to me and I will answer you, and will tell you great and hidden things that you have not known.”

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