Tough Love Requires a Relationship

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

We came home late one night over the weekend, and as I was about to whip the car across the street, my headlights caught two figures in the middle of the driveway. It was our 92-year-old landlord and his wife taking out the trash. He was pushing a tiny firetruck-red wheelbarrow, piled with the recycling bins and trash bags. She held her hand to the top of the unsteady pile to keep everything from spilling over. We sat there as they slowly made their way, the wheelbarrow wobbling on the slight incline. 

Once we could pull into the drive past them, Scott jumped out of the car and asked, "Can I help you?" I watched him easily lift the bins from the wheelbarrow and set them on the ground. We saw an opportunity, so he helped.

We can use this as a metaphor for how we help people in pain. We see someone struggling. We acknowledge the struggle. We ask if there's a way we can help. But our tendency is to barge in. We see someone shuffling along, slowly making their way, and we jump in to "help," hefting bins around, telling them to get a better wheelbarrow, telling them they shouldn't be out like this anyway. The metaphor is breaking down now, but I think you see my point.

Our initial default with pain shouldn't be going into fix-it mode. It should be to shuffle along with them, matching our strides with theirs. We listen. We empathize. We are present.

I have spent the last several weeks trying to illustrate what this looks like because it is so critical - and because we tend to be bad at it. We like to do, to act. There is a time for this - we're going to start getting to it this week - but I want to be clear. We must always start from this place of "presence." We must always start from a place of relationship, a relationship of trust, vulnerability, and love. We must always start by listening well, ensuring we really hear their experience and understand what's going on. 

In counseling, we talk about the importance of the "therapeutic relationship" - the relationship built between the counselor and the client. Research is showing that this relationship, and the personal qualities of the counselor, are much more influential than the actual technique or model for treatment. 

While I'm not talking here about counseling, I think a similar principle applies. We think that coming up with the right response to someone or finding the right thing to say or challenging them in the right direction will be the key to their comfort. But the reality is that our relationship with them is what is truly powerful. 

There does come a time and place to speak or to act. Though there may be some situations in which our presence and listening well are all that is needed, this is not always the case. Consider this scenario:

I really hope that got a laugh. This woman just wanted to be heard. She needed her husband (or whoever he was) to listen to her and acknowledge she was struggling. However, if he just stopped there and didn't eventually try to help her with the nail, it would be a bit ridiculous, right? While this might seem a bit absurd, I think it makes the point well. We start with the listening and the being there. Then from this point, we can help. 

We may need to help with pain management skills and understanding how to continue to choose life and stay open to joy.  We may need to speak truth. We may need to support a change of circumstance, thinking, or behavior, “gracefully suggesting the possibility of life without the problem.” We may need to encourage and develop resilience, looking for strength and growth that redeem the pain. We may need to invite them to consider forgiveness.

These actions and suggestions can be integral parts of growth and healing in pain. They are important, and we need people in our lives who can graciously and appropriately encourage us to take steps in the right direction. We'll be talking about these things over the next couple weeks. 

When you come to the place to offer suggestions or be a "challenger," before you speak, consider these questions:

  • Do I have the trusting, loving, vulnerable relationship necessary to play this role with this person? Am I acting from an appropriate relationship?
  • Have I taken the time to listen well and ensured I truly understand what's going on?
  • Am I being sensitive to timing? Are they ready to be pushed in this way?
  • Will my suggestions encourage them to choose life, to hold open a space for joy, or to nurture hope?