Dr. Layton Talbert received his M.A. and PhD. in Theology from Bob Jones University, where he has been teaching Theology and New Testament Exposition in the Seminary since 2001. Prior to that he spent three years teaching as an adjunct professor at Baptist College of Ministry in Wisconsin. He has been a regular writer and editor for Frontline Magazine since 1993 and has authored the book, Not By Chance: Learning to Trust a Sovereign God. Layton and his wife, Esther, have five children (home schooled) and have also been caring for his mother, who has Alzheimer's Disease, since 1994 in their home.
When unforseen tragedy occurs it is only natural to want to reach out and give comfort to those who are hurting. In the following Message of Hope, written by Dr. Layton Talbert, you will find timely advice on what to do and how to be of service in "Helping Those Who Are Hurting."
Helping Those Who Are Hurting
Dr. Layton Talbert
How can you help—or hinder—someone going through difficult circumstances? Often it’s hard to know what to do or what to say. Job’s friends stand out as both positive (initially) and negative (eventually) examples. Here’s some practical advice from those who have suffered not only the affliction of circumstances but also the added burden of well-intentioned but unhelpful words and actions.
Be sympathetic. "Weep with them that weep" (Romans 12:15) is not fuzzy, feel-good, sentimental advice. Nor is it hyperbole. It is a divine exhortation. Don’t feel compelled to attach some explanation to their circumstances. You need not—and probably don’t—have the answer to their affliction. There is a time for counsel (usually when the sufferer solicits it), and there is a time to lay your hand upon your mouth and just weep with them—"a time to keep silence, and a time to speak" (Ecclesiastes 3:7). The open and sympathetic ear of a Christian brother or sister who is willing simply to listen without rushing in to advise, to decipher, or to criticize can be enormously comforting and helpful in working through a difficult experience. Our initial instinctive response to a suffering saint ought to be sympathy, not suspicion or censure, nor even the feeling that we ought to or have to be able to answer their questions and explain their suffering. Admit your ignorance, offer tentatively your insights (if you have any insights), and affirm your love and prayer.
Be available. "Bear ye one another’s burdens" (Galatians 6:2). Offer whatever assistance you can—to run errands, keep the kids, help with chores, or provide meals. Call, or write notes, periodically. Simply being present and available gives great encouragement and assurance to the sufferer that he or she is not alone, and that their difficulty is not being ignored or forgotten. Some people have a spiritual gift for ministering selflessly out of themselves, pouring their lives into the sufferer(s). Remember that in the Lord’s eyes, when you minister sacrificially and selflessly to a fellow believer, you are ministering to Christ Himself (Matthew 25:34-40).
Be sensitive. (Proverbs 14:10; 25:20). Availability must be balanced with sensitivity. Visits and calls are often a great encouragement. But there may also be times when your presence is distinctly undesired or inappropriate. Be aware of that possibility and ask before imposing your presence at what may be a particularly difficult time when privacy, not company, is needed. Sometimes the most helpful thing you can be is absent. Do not take that personally. Respect the personalities with whom you are dealing. For some, talking is therapeutic; it helps them process their pain and clear their mind. (Even so, and especially for these kinds of people, individual updates can consume hours.) For others, talking is painful, a groaning burden. Discern that (even by asking directly, if necessary) and adjust accordingly. Avoid presenting issues that will compound their confusion. A consistent complaint of sufferers I have talked to have mentioned the pain and difficulty posed by those well-intentioned (but sometimes untactful) believers who over-zealously push their views on some alternative care or cure. Sometimes they are speaking from experience; sometimes they have only become personally convinced of the value of something. If the sufferer asks, fine; if not, be careful, judicious, tactful, suggestive, and brief in any recommendation you feel inclined to give. Trust to Providence to direct them according to His mind and purpose (which may not always necessarily involve healing).
Be prayerful. "Remember . . . them which suffer adversity as being yourselves in the body" (Hebrews 13:3). The most effectual ministry we can have to suffering fellow believers is to reassure them that we are praying for them, to actually pray for them, and to pray for them as you would want to be prayed for if you were in their circumstances. Mentally and emotionally putting yourself in their shoes and thinking through the ramifications for their situation is a profoundly profitable spiritual exercise for the one praying as well. Often God will instruct us through the trials of others and adjust our own spirits as we pray for them.
Be patient. "Support the weak, be patient toward all men" (1 Thessalonians 5:14). Working through a trial of any magnitude can take a great deal of time. If the sufferer is exhorted to "let patience have her perfect work" (James 1:4), it is not too much to ask that those around the sufferer to do the same. Suffering is not an inconvenient obstacle to "normal" life or to serving God. It is not a matter of "getting over it" so they can get back to the business of serving God and normal life. For the duration of the trial, this is what God has for them in terms of life and ministry. Also, be patient in terms of your own ministry to them. Expect an extended time of ministry.
Be scriptural. Realize that another person’s trials may have several possible explanations and purposes. Resist the temptation to be a surrogate Holy Spirit. While it is true that "all things work together for good" (Romans 8:28), few suffering Christians have not thought of that verse long before you have. Some truths only God Himself can effectively and deeply minister to the suffering saint. In addition, the Lord rarely uses suffering to accomplish only one specific, isolated object. God typically orchestrates a symphony of purposes through any single experience affliction.
"First-time" sufferers often don’t know what to do or where to turn. They are overwhelmed, confused, exhausted. They want to find some sense and direction from the Lord and His Word. But meaningful personal Bible study can be virtually impossible—mentally, emotionally. This is kind of like doing all the research to diagnose and treat your own spiritual malady—while you have this horrendous affliction consuming all your time and attention and thoughts. Find and keep on hand some genuinely helpful books that are particularly helpful for suffering—books that distill salient Bible doctrines and make them immediately applicable. This is kind of like giving someone an instant IV. But be sure they are doctrinally sound and reliable; mystical or spiritually left-field writings (particularly those that insist that health and healing is always God’s will) can consume more time than they are worth and confuse rather than help the sufferer.
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