What Not To Say to Someone Who Is Suffering

This post is part of an ongoing series on ministering to people in pain. Click here to see all the posts in this series.

Last week, I intro-ed this series on ministering to people in pain. This week, we’re talking about what not to do, specifically what not to say to someone who is suffering. 

When someone shares a painful circumstance with us, our response is an opportunity to minister comfort and love. We can incarnate the love of God to people in pain. This is usually our intention—to be helpful and comforting. Our intentions are good. But we often fall (far) short of them. Our words, in spite of our best intentions, can easily offer only cold comfort and further wounding. 

I know I’ve had moments walking away from a struggling friend thinking, “I shouldn’t have said that.” I’m sure you can relate. We must be aware of our words, aware that our gut-instinct response might not be the most helpful. 

I’ve compiled a list of common bad responses to people in pain. I’m sure we could all add a couple more from our own experiences (or missteps). I encourage you to read through them carefully and take note of the ones you’re prone to. Take some time to reflect on why you respond this way—is it your own fear? Your discomfort with pain? Then consider how you could respond differently the next time you’re in a similar situation.

Don’t…

  • Say “I completely understand.” - Even with the utmost empathy, there is no way we can completely understand. Each person experiences painful circumstances in different ways.
     
  • Tell stories about your same experience or that of someone you know. - Although well-intentioned, these stories can easily lead to increased fear and intensified pain. Reporting your own experience typically becomes an act of talking-about, not sharing-in someone’s pain.
     
  • Catastrophize their painful experience, asking for morbid repetitions of their circumstances and emotions, or tell them how what they’re experiencing is the worst thing ever. - Any questioning and prodding, with little vision for healing, growth, and redemption, leads to an increased sense of hopelessness, intensifying of pain, and increased fear. Exaggeration is not helpful.
     
  • Speak for God in explaining why He’s allowing this pain. (Ex: God must have needed your (dead) loved one more than you did.) - Attempting to provide answers to the “why?” question of pain typically falls short both emotionally and theologically—and you cannot know for certain why God allows things to happen. Attempts at explaining the pain also often bring a tone of criticism or blame.
     
  • Suggest an enhanced spirituality is the key to alleviating pain (Just pray more; Just have more faith; etc.). - Pain is a part of the human condition in a fallen world. Our spirituality does not provide a solution to every pain or struggle. We follow a crucified Lord, and our lives sometimes lead us through pain. We do not follow a gospel of “emotional prosperity”(Gay Hubbard) but a promise of strength in weakness and joy in the midst of pain. These statements (just pray more, etc.) also heap on blame, as if the experience of pain is the person’s fault by lack of piety.
     
  • Try to solve the “problem.” - Responding to another’s pain as a problem with a simple solution is never helpful. Pain is much more complex than this. There is a time and place for problem solving during some painful circumstances, but do not volunteer yourself to be the fixer. This includes things like thrusting books into people’s hands, telling them the exact diet/medical treatment plan they must pursue, forcing them to attend groups/events they might not be ready for, etc. Do not engage in problem-solving or “fixing” attempts unless you have been specifically asked for these services.
     
  • Start a statement with “At least…” - These statements almost universally undermine the person’s experience and implicitly suggests they shouldn’t be feeling the way they do. Catch yourself when you hear your response starting with these little words.
     
  • Attempt to be a mind reader. - Ask good questions to understand what they’re feeling and experiencing. Don’t assume you know.
     
  • Say “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” - I do not see this promised in Scripture. (This statement seems to be a misapplication of 1 Cor. 10:13, which is talking not about pain, but about God providing ways out in temptation.)God will sometimes give us more than we can handle—we will be weak and, humanly speaking, falling apart. But He has promised that His strength is perfect in our weakness. We’re weak. He’s strong. It’s more than we can handle—but it’s not more than He can handle. His strength gives us what we need to keep going. (see 2 Cor. 12:7-10)
     
  • Say “It must be God’s will. You just have to have faith.” - This is true in the sense that we can trust in the sovereignty and power of our loving Father. However, it’s of little comfort and typically sounds more like “Grin and bear it, oh you of little faith.” It also opens up theological questions of whether or not the painful results of sin and a broken world are in fact “God’s will” (for example, the death of a child, or the pain inflicted by someone else’s sin). Within His sovereign control, yes—in His will, maybe not.
     
  • Say “You need to just turn it over to the Lord.” - It is true that we can and should entrust our pains to the Lord. This does not mean the painful circumstances disappear. This statement typically communicates that if you’re still struggling or in pain, you haven’t actually turned your troubles over to the Lord.
     
  • Tell the person how to feel. - Any time you begin a phrase with “You should be…”, for example, after someone has passed away: “You should be grateful you had so much time with them,” or to an infertile couple, “You should be glad you have so much time together without a baby.” These types of statements suggest their pain is illogical or ill-grounded.
     
  • Offer empty assurances. - Do not make a promise you can’t keep or aren’t sure of. Just because you would like it to be true, doesn’t mean it will be true. (Ex: I’m sure God will heal you; I’m sure you’ll have a baby; I’m sure you’ll find a good job.)
     
  • Try to distract and entertain away the pain. - Some level of distraction can be a helpful respite in the midst of a painful season, but attempts to entertain away pain (as if it will disappear if we just don’t pay attention to it), are unrealistic and unhelpful. The presence of laughter does not mean the absence of pain. Laughter and distraction are valuable—but not when they become tools of denial.

At the end of such a list (with perhaps a few examples that sound a bit too familiar in your own voice), we can easily say “Well, then, what am I supposed to say?!” More on this next week…