When Christian Comfort Hurts More Than It Helps

Several months after my husband died, a friend helped me sort through his belongings. She plowed through his jackets and winter coats at lightning speed while I picked up the last shirt he wore and brought it to my face. It still smelled like him. How could he be gone? Despite my medical knowledge of what happened, why, and when, it still felt like he’d simply vanished. I wiped my tears with his shirt, unaware my friend had seen me. I gave an embarrassed smile.

She dropped the last of the jackets into a box, folded her arms across her chest and looked at me. “What’s God been teaching you through all this?”

I shook my head. What was the right answer? Was she looking for something specific? Some glaring flaw I couldn’t see until now? Would any object lesson soothe my ache? The Lord promises to draw near to the brokenhearted and rescue those crushed in spirit (Ps. 34:18). I needed compassion, not a spiritual assessment.

How Did It Become Popular?

I’m not sure how “What’s God been teaching you?” grew to be the thing to ask a sufferer. Perhaps it was in response to The Problem of Pain, where C. S. Lewis wrote:

Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.

But is God shouting some spiritual insight, or is he a gentle Father calling us to himself? In his new book, Struck [read TGC’s review], Russ Ramsey writes:

Because the Lord often withholds explanation for our pain, we must not look at suffering as though it is some divine gimmick designed to teach us some important life lesson. That would make too little of the reality. God’s people do not walk through suffering toward the moral of the story. Rather, we walk toward the eternal presence of the Maker and Lover of our souls.

Often in the crucible of pain come no answers save God’s sufficient power made perfect in our weakness (2 Cor. 12:9). Perhaps it’s not the question itself that’s ill-advised, but the timing. These concepts are hard to articulate after loss.

What’s God been teaching you? The same question had slipped out of my own mouth when I sought to point an afflicted friend to Christ. But being on the receiving end of the question, particularly at a time when rational thought took profound effort, I had another perspective. It sounded like inquisition.

How Do We Respond?

What does the gospel look like in these moments? How should we respond when a friend says the wrong thing at a painful time?

We can choose to absorb the injury and say nothing, or tell our friend her words were hurtful. Before taking either option, consider how the friend’s presence communicated love, even if her words did not. Whether we choose to speak or not, Ephesians encourages our interactions to be humble, gentle, patient, bearing with one another in love (Eph. 4:2).

A gospel-informed response to this question might consider these five things:

1. Assume the best.

Caring for someone in pain can be like trying to hug a porcupine. Grieving people are prickly, even on a good day. The kindest words can be taken for ill. Despite this, my friend had chosen to draw near to me when many turned away. In that most tender moment, she could’ve played it safe and talked about the weather. Instead, she took a risk and sought to move my eyes heavenward. True, she stumbled in the process, but the desire of her heart was for my good.

2. Openly admit your frailty.

Without an answer to my friend’s question, I let my guard down and shed more tears. It’s okay to flunk the spiritual measurement test someone might unintentionally administer. We can be vulnerable with imperfect people because our righteousness is Christ’s finished work, not our current emotional stamina in the face of overwhelming circumstances.

3. Don’t neglect prayer.

Whether you opt to speak or not, invite your friend to pray with you. Before I could speak, my friend moved closer and wrapped her arms around me and began to pray, “Forgive me for seeking to comfort another in my own strength. I’ve been no better than a friend of Job. We need you, Lord. Oh, how we need you.”

I squeezed my friend’s hand and smiled. “Lord, help my heart not become a minefield where my friend has to tread so carefully, lest the least thing be taken for ill. Amen.” In the Lord’s presence, the tension between us eased. I’m sure my friend prayed before she came. Perhaps she asked others to pray as well. But praying with me ushered us both into God’s presence when no other salve would do.

4. Love—when you choose to speak.

If there is a pattern of hurtful interactions, it may be time to speak truth in love (Eph. 4:15). In my case, tears had spoken for me. My friend knew she hadn’t been helpful. But more than one person asked me this question. In other situations, I had to use words.

5. Love—when you choose not to speak.

Love covers a multitude of sins, and you may opt to absorb the injury (1 Pet. 4:8). Perhaps it’s unusual for your friend to say something hurtful. You might have misunderstood her meaning. Or, maybe you lack the energy to have a difficult conversation in a loving manner. Ask the Lord to speak with your friend in his timing and his way and to keep you from dwelling on the encounter.

Two Sinners, One Savior

Without Christ, we can neither give nor receive true comfort. Without Christ, comforters can be friends of Job, adding layers of hurt to an already anguished soul. And without Christ, sufferers can ascribe the cruelest meaning on another’s good intentions.

Both persons need a Savior. It shouldn’t be a rare event to approach him at the same time and place. “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16).


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