We have all said dumb things we wished we could take back. Like, asking a woman her due date only to find out she is not even pregnant.
My biggest foot-in-mouth incident happened when a friend lost her daughter to an awful shooting. With tears streaming down my cheeks, I reread the Palm Beach Post article and then fired off an emotional email that ended with:
“Your daughter is in a better place. She’s singing with the angels in heaven.”
Months later I learned that many well-meaning individuals told her the same thing, which she confessed hurt her. Aching for one more hug and kiss, her heart felt like the better place for her child was in her arms. Her mind knew she would someday spend eternity with her daughter in heaven, but she needed the freedom to act human, to cry out to God like David, Job or Jesus. My thoughtless summation to wrap everything up in a tight Christian bow only caused more tears.
How should we respond?
Let them cry and give them time to mourn. Ask the Lord to put his words in your mouth. My friend was most comforted when people told her they loved her and her daughter, that they were hurting with her, but mostly, that God was weeping too (Romans 8:26).
The best teacher is experience. The second best is learning from someone else’s doltish moment. I hope the following examples save you from unknowingly speaking discouraging words during difficult times.
When my cancer returned, people sent cards with loving prayers. I wept while reading their encouraging words until I read:
“God won’t give you more than you can handle.”
That sentence still stings. I translated this as: “You’ll be just fine—buck up!”
I dropped the card like a child, thinking I was not a strong enough Christian because I could not handle my pain. Sadly, each time I saw this person, I plastered on my happy-smile. But the truth was, I felt like someone wrapped their fingers around my heart and squeezed the four chambers together. I have searched the scriptures but cannot find this sentence anywhere in God’s Word. The verse often misinterpreted is 1 Corinthians 10:13 where God says he will not “tempt” you beyond what you can bear. Paul contradicts that trite phrase in 2 Corinthians 1:8. “We were crushed and overwhelmed beyond our ability to endure, and we thought we would never live through it.”
On the contrary, I believe God uses our disheartening circumstances to deepen our dependency on him. If I had the strength to handle my pain, I may not seek the Father for help.
What do you say to someone enduring difficult circumstances?
Silently pray Psalm 141:3: “Set a guard over my mouth, o Lord, keep watch over the door to my lips.”
Then offer prayer, a listening ear or, if you have a bad case of foot-in-mouth like me, zip it up. Instead, mop their floor, bake them a chicken pot pie or offer to babysit. Leave the counseling to the counselors, pastor or radio host who God has specifically gifted. The rest of us are called to be servants, encouragers, and gift-givers.
One of the most precious experiences I encountered after my diagnosis was when a friend showed up at my door with a gently-used juicer. She knew I drastically changed my diet to include more organic fruits and vegetables, so she offered her father’s juicer for as long as I needed. I almost cried. I had prayed for a nice juicer, but the one I was eyeing cost well over two-grand. And right before my eyes God reached out and handed me an older version of that model. Her act of kindness blessed me more than my counter full of cards—and cost her nothing.
Her own father battled lung cancer, so she knew how to comfort me from his experience. She did not stop with the juicer, but gave me cards, a journal, organic teas and she visited me when I ended up in the hospital. She never said much or tried to explain why I was going through my situation. She was just there, smiling, listening, caring and loving me the best she knew how.
“Is there some sin in your life? Maybe that’s why God is putting you through this and your cancer returned?”
I blinked when a man asked me this after church. My non-spiritual side wished that I had Jesus’ all-knowing power, because I would have bent down and written this person’s sin along the breezeway pavement with permanent marker for all the world to read.
Okay, I could never do that.
Sadly, I have not forgotten his words. However, I did cut this guy some slack when I read John 9:2. In it, the disciples asked Jesus a similar question, “Why was this man born blind? Was it because of his own sins or his parents’ sins?” I love Jesus’ answer: “It was not because of his sins or his parents’ sins… This happened so the power of God could be seen in him.”
As believers, our hardships are never in vain. God really does use everything we go through, if we let Him.
Lastly, the comment I heard more than any other was:
“There is a reason you’re going through this trial.”
God uses trials to draw us closer to him, there is no mistaking that. I am just not sure these words bring comfort to anyone who has been diagnosed with heart disease, lost their life savings or been served with divorce papers.
As believers, we need to rethink the coined statements circulating in Christian circles. What would be more beneficial is whispering something simple like, “God, please be with Sue as she is going through this difficult time.”
When my friend’s child died, I wanted to heal her sorrow and say the right thing. That is what my heart desired. We can be the vessel, but his words are the only ones that can bring healing and deliverance from pain (Psalms 34:17).
Think before you speak
Before offering comfort, ask yourself: “Is what I am about to say helpful or potentially hurtful? Am I speaking the truth in love?” Our words have the power of life and death (Proverbs 18:21). Be the life-giver. If all else fails and you are at a loss for what to say, a silent hug works wonders. I should know. Those were the best words never spoken.
This article was published in The Good News (April 2013).