How to Help Hurting People

By: Anne Larsen

Jesus said that the world will know God's love by how well we love one another.  Most Christians have a deep desire to love and care for others well, especially when we see them in difficult circumstances.

However, we inevitably run into situations that are hard and complicated, and we may not know what to say or how to help and we fear doing the wrong thing. Sometimes we even say unhelpful, and even hurtful, things. We have all been in these circumstances, probably on the giving and receiving end of such “help.”

Gleaned from my years as a counselor, I have come up with some useful Do’s and Don’ts to keep in mind as we strive to serve others.

The Do’s

Do be present. 

When people are hurting, we don't necessarily need to say much.  Our presence alone is meaningful. We can listen to them, pray for them, and write them notes letting them know we remember they are in pain. In a crisis situation, being physically present can be very helpful.  My professor of crisis counseling encouraged students to be the first to arrive at a funeral and the last to leave, quietly meeting needs that we see.

People who are hurting are often angry, heartbroken, confused, or afraid, and sitting with people's difficult emotions may feel uncomfortable, but it can be remarkably redemptive.  Those moments of acceptance in their deep pain can often bring great healing.

Jesus is Immanuel, “God with us,” and we can reflect Jesus’ presence to people in their pain. 

Do try to understand. 

Trying to understand how people are feeling and why they feel that way is a vital step in caring for those who are suffering. When someone else can truly grasp and understand their pain, they no longer feel alone in it.

Understanding can be hard work.  Some helpful skills we can use in building understanding include paraphrasing what people have said to confirm we fully comprehend.  We can also ask clarifying questions and avoid assuming that our experience is the same as theirs. How they experience a particular situation may vary from my experience because of our different backgrounds or past life events.

When I was training to become a counselor, a married couple set an appointment with me to talk about domestic abuse in the marriage.  I felt angry with the husband, and I assumed that I understood why he was abusive.  In the end, I found out that his dad was a pimp.  That possibility wasn't even on my radar! Of course he didn't know how to treat women.  Asking questions that deepened my knowledge and my understanding radically changed my perspective on the man and how I approached helping him.

Do be patient, and think long term.

When people are hurting, it often takes a long, long time to recover, work through issues, and heal. It often takes longer than we would expect or longer than we are comfortable with. 

Mental health experts state that it takes at least two years to grieve and heal from the loss of a loved one. It may take three years to grieve an unexpected death and four years to grieve a suicide.  Persevering with people who are chronically ill, depressed, or in bad marriages most often takes much longer than we want; it is only the Holy Spirit who can help us to be patient and supportive over the long haul. 

Do develop a team of people to help when necessary. 

Precisely because change and healing are such long processes, it is often helpful to have a group of people work together to provide long-term support.  If the situation is particularly complex, if the person is particularly difficult or requires an excessive amount of help, it's appropriate and often necessary to assemble a team of people to work together to coordinate care.

The Don’ts

Don't invalidate their experience. 

When people are hurting, it's tempting for us to want to make them (and ourselves) feel better right away by saying things like “It's going to be okay. Everything is going to turn out alright.”  But sometimes that just isn't true.

It is better to validate how hard the situation is, and how it is normal to feel sad, angry, confused, scared, etc. We, the helpers, are uncomfortable with the thought that someone we care about is not going to be okay. So we make false promises that invalidate or make light of their pain.

We may also slide into the false health and wealth gospel claim that if you have enough faith, things will work out for you. For example, we may be tempted to think or say, “If you pray hard enough, God will heal your child.”  While it is true that our sovereign God can heal, God doesn’t always heal or provide a miracle. And if God doesn’t heal the child, the parent is left with heartache and guilt. The parent may be left wondering, “What was wrong with my prayers? Why wasn't my faith strong enough?”

A dear friend of mine lost her daddy when she was 23 years old. When he was on the verge of death, a well-meaning lady from her church came to the hospital and told her, “Honey, if you have enough faith, he will make it.” My friend was left with guilt and emptiness, as well as a lot of anger, after her father passed away. She thought that if she had been a better Christian, maybe her prayers would have been answered and she wouldn't have had to endure this horrible heartache.  It left her spiritually confused for years.

Don't over spiritualize. 

People are complex. We are spiritual, physical, and emotional beings. It can be confusing and difficult to try to untangle the causes of someone’s problems.  As Christians, we may be tempted to look for a spiritual root for every problem and every issue. But, it is important to remember that all parts of us are fallen: our minds, our bodies, our wills, and our emotions. We must not rush to the conclusion that every mental health issue is rooted in sin or a spiritual deficit. In reality, most issues have spiritual, physical, and emotional components.

Additionally, Scripture is not intended to be used as a Band-Aid; “Here, take two Scripture verses and call me in the morning.”  We should encourage people spiritually, but the problem lies in thinking that we can give people a verse like “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding,” and expect it to make them feel better.  This can be especially discouraging for believers who may already be trying to trust the Lord in the midst of hardship and yet struggling to figure out how to handle the accompanying difficult emotions and pain. By handing out Scripture like aspirin, we invalidate their struggle.

A more useful approach might be reminding them of a specific Psalm that wrestles with hard emotions. The Psalmists move toward God authentically in their hardships, rather than pulling away from him. This grants people permission to be real with God and not deny the reality of their struggle.

Don't give too much advice. 

I don’t think that we should always avoid giving advice; rather we shouldn’t be too quick to offer it as our first step in helping people. I usually wait for a long (and I mean long) time before I get to this phase. I want to understand the situation in full (which can take months of walking with someone), and then I want to encourage, validate, and build trust first. And only then, after a long time, do I give advice, if I have some to offer. In the beginning of a crisis, people generally can't hear advice anyway.  They are too muddled emotionally to move to action.

Don't feel responsible for changing other people. (And don't feel guilty if you can't fix them.)

God is ultimately responsible for change in a person's life, not us. Knowing this frees us from over-responsibility, guilt, fear, and even anger when the person we are serving doesn’t seem to change or grow. We can diligently pray and rest in God's sovereignty and therefore have freedom to move toward people in their pain without being crushed or angry when people don't change.

Excel still more…

In my years at Redeemer, I have been the recipient and the giver of care. We have received countless meals, been listened to, prayed for, and given gracious words of wisdom. People have watched our children, cleaned our house, and changed the sheets on our beds when I had back pain during pregnancy. We have been very well-loved by this church. 

As Dan often says, we can “excel still more” in learning how to care for others. Even as a trained counselor, I continue to learn how to best care for others as I enter into their struggles. It is often messy and uncomfortable, yet beautiful, to see God redeem difficult circumstances as we have walked alongside others in their pain and as dear friends have comforted us in our own hardships. 

My prayer for Redeemer is that the world would see how dearly loved we are by our Father as we love each other well.