At one time or another we’ve all received upsetting news about something someone is going through. Being in ministry, saddening (sometimes shocking) news of suffering and trials has landed on us more frequently than I can even recall. But it doesn’t matter how many times it happens, the walking alongside someone who is suffering never gets easier.
We wish we could do something to help, but we don’t know what. We fear our words will fall flat, or we’ll flat out say the wrong thing. And we know there is nothing we say or do that will take the pain away. Sometimes we also think it’s not our place because we aren’t close enough to the person (and maybe so). But too often these fears paralyze us allowing too much time pass, which in turn makes it even harder or more awkward to say or do anything.
Likely, we’ve been on the flip side of this scenario too; we’ve been the one experiencing a trial. When this has been the case you may recall things people have said, that although well-meaning, hurt more than they helped. Maybe you even felt like you had to be the strong one so you’ve covered up your true emotions knowing silence and grief make people uncomfortable. And also knowing the longer suffering ensues the harder for others to keep standing by.
So from both sides, it’s hard and yet Galatians 6:2 commands us to “bear one another’s burdens.” This means we must enter into another’s pain to lessen their load in order to keep them from being crushed. Not an easy task, but I love pastor John Piper’s perspective when he said this in a long-ago sermon:
Some of you wonder what you are supposed to do with your life. Here is a vocation that will bring you more satisfaction than if you became a millionaire ten times over: Develop the extraordinary skill for detecting the burdens of others and devote yourself daily to making them lighter.”
Isn’t that great?!
The problem is experiencing that satisfaction requires first dying to self. Setting self aside for the good of another; loving them the way we want to be loved. Thinking of them as we do ourselves, and considering how much we think about self, that’s alot! But this is what loving our neighbor as ourself actually means. Therefore, if we are thinking about and loving our neighbor well we must not avoid the obvious (someone’s trial), or worse avoid the person (the sufferer)!
But what do we say when we don’t know what to say?
Answer: Exactly that -“I don’t know what to say!”
It seems too simple; like it’s not enough. And yet, it is. It acknowledges to the person you see their pain. Trying to say more may come off as a platitude that lessens how they feel. Or, it could communicate that they need to hurry the hurt as if being in a place of sadness is not okay.
Instead I will tell you that when a friend of mine said to me, “I don’t know what to say,” my immediate thought was, “Thank you for not trying to fix me or the situation, or lessen how I feel.”
When two more friends texted the same phrase I realized, that’s it! Nothing else would have communicated to me more their care. I knew by those words they had entered in with me. And because they were identifying with the pain they knew there was nothing more they could say.
But it didn’t stop there, checking in on me via periodic texts and calls over an extended period of time reminded me I was not alone, that someone was thinking of me. Interestingly, the messages didn’t necessarily demand a reply, they simply left the invitation. This was freeing because as you know when you’re in the midst of hard, one more seeming obligation is hard. But knowing they were still standing by, for when (or if) I needed them was reassuring.
Also noteworthy, these women were not in my most inner circle, but it didn’t stop them from reaching out to love me in a no strings attached kind of way. Obviously we can’t be all things to all people, but may we be people who commit to long-suffering alongside those God puts in our path, or to who pop into our minds. May we look to meet their needs even though it calls for sacrificing self. And if we start by speaking things like “I don’t know what to say,” I believe we will venture past awkwardness to the deep, soul-satisfying connecting we are called to.