Carola is a Christian writer and author of several books. She writes about Christian living, relationships, and other related topics.
As Christians, we are taught to love other people and help them if we can. But what do we do when confronted with the hurt and emotional pain of others?
When I was diagnosed with cancer in 2011, I stopped dying my hair a light golden brown. Grey patches and ugly grey roots were starting to show. I didn't bother to color my hair because I knew that I would be losing it shortly. I wanted my hair to be short, so there would be fewer strands on my pillow each morning as chemo walloped my body. So I went to the hair salon knowing that this would be the last haircut for a while.
My regular hairdresser had moved away, so the salon assigned me to someone new. A lovely thirty-something woman came to look after me. She seemed like the bubbling outgoing kind. “Don’t you want a color as well as a haircut? You have a lot of grey and your roots….” she started.
“I am not going to color it because I going to be going through chemo,” I said, cutting her short. Whoa, the hairdresser quickly became quiet.
The hairdresser struggled to find words to talk to me. She cut my hair in silence for a few minutes and then started spouting every Christian platitude in the book.
I longed to tell her I was a Christian who understood that God loved me, wanted the best for me, and could heal me, but I couldn’t. I was too close to tears to speak. I did not want to start crying in the chair. I was embarrassed and wanted to run out of there.
I managed to say, “Please stop.” The hairdresser was quiet again and wished me luck at the end of the appointment. I could feel her longing to help me, but her well-meaning attempt at help just made me want to run in the other direction.
Factors That Are - and Are Not Helpful
Like my hairdresser, we Christians feel a special empathy towards people in pain, especially when we have gone through the same fiery trials ourselves. We long to comfort people when they are going through losing a loved one, agonizing over a marriage breakup, or struggling with a life-threatening illness.
In the book, How Can I Help Them Without Hurting Me? author Benita Ruth Lawrence observed that her family's emotions had been shattered by her depression and attempts to end her life. So how can we help others without harming ourselves?
There are some things we can do, however, that are helpful to others and safe for us.
Ask how we can help and mean it
People often say, “If you need anything, just give me a call.” Unfortunately, they are just saying that because it seems to be the appropriate response. Deep down, however, they do not mean it. Instead, we should offer help that they really need.
Acts of service, like driving me to doctor’s appointments or checking up on me are also a big help. A few friends sat with me while I was having chemo. I really appreciated this service because few things are more boring than sitting with an IV in one hand for an hour or more. One of my friends had a phobia about needles and had to be warned when I got poked, but she was brave enough to sit with me. Her love for me overcame her initial fear.
At other times, having a friend available to talk on the phone or over coffee was just what I needed. Jesus said that the true measure of a man's life is to lay down his life for his friends (1 John 3:16). Love is a willingness to give up our lives for others. A broader meaning can be that we sacrifice our time and resources as well.
Recognize when we should listen
When people are hurting, they may feel like they are the only ones in the world who are experiencing pain. The situation may be totally new and frightening for them. Few words, however well intended, can help them. As Christians, we long to have the right words to say to her that provide hope and comfort, but eloquence often eludes us. Sometimes we should be silent and provide a listening ear (Ecclesiastes 3:7).
Say the right words at the right time
On rare occasions, our tongues can say something beneficial that is like choice silver (Prov. 10:20) or a rare jewel (Prov. 20:15). Most of the time, however, our words are not what people need. People are often just looking for someone who is willing to listen and to understand their situation.
Comfort and encourage the hurting
When I walked into church services after my cancer diagnosis, different people will gently approach me, saying things like, “I was sorry to hear about your situation” or “I am praying for you.” This approach has been just what I needed in some situations. It showed me that people cared without requiring me to talk about my illness or accept unwanted advice. It gave me the opportunity to discuss the challenges of having cancer if I wanted to. Most of the time, just knowing people cared was enough to comfort me.
Be sensitive to their emotional state
Sometimes quoting Bible verses to hurting people can be helpful. However, hurting may not be in a fit state to accept it. When I am in pain I am overly sensitive to what people say. I may be so emotionally drained that the last thing I feel like doing is praying and doing Bible study. We should be patient and offer comfort without judgment. True friends will stick by hurting people no matter what spiritual state they are in (Proverbs 17:17).
In my situation, most of the help I needed could only come from people who are very close to me, have earned my trust, and fully understand my emotional makeup. Sometimes, a friend can say something diplomatic or wise that also opens my eyes to issues that I must address.
Remind them that their hurting is temporary
Emotional pain is usually a temporary state. Those who mourn are blessed, and they will be comforted (Matthew 5:4) God gives us the ability to help others. He comforts us when we are troubled so that we can comfort others when needed (2 Corinthians 1:4).
Be careful when the hurt is self-inflicted
Sometimes, people bring pain on themselves because of their own emotional baggage. We have to be careful not to indulge people with our time and our sympathy if they stay stuck in old hurts and hang-ups. They should be on a journey to emotional healing. I have been helped by friends who gently remind me not to feel sorry for myself or try to fix a situation on my own strength. What they say may hurt my feelings at the time, but benefits me in the long run (Proverbs 27:6).
Take care of ourselves
In the book, Being There: How to Love Those Who Are Hurting, author Dave Furman we need to first examine our own heart. We cannot help hurting people if we are struggling and feel like we cannot go on.
We may need to set boundaries such as limiting the number of phone calls or saying no to some demands. Otherwise, we may be enabling bad behavior. Some people are psychic vampires who will suck the life out of us. We cannot assist others if we are emotionally drained and physically exhausted.
When people are hurting, they are vulnerable to Satan's wiles. He walks around like a lion ready to devour them. Negative attitudes and false beliefs may drag them down. If hurting people trust us and are close to us, we may feel compelled to confront these evil influences with Biblical principles. In most cases, we can pray as stated in the Lord's Prayer that God will "deliver us (and him) from evil."
Our assistance to hurting people should be guided by love and by God through prayer. God reveals to us the best way to help hurting people. As for me, I am blessed by wonderful friends who supported me on my journey through my cancer. My prognosis is good, and I am no longer hurting, thanks in part to friends who were willing to go out of their way to help me.
The Holy Bible, New International Version
© 2013 Carola Finch