What to say to suffering people: When truth isn’t helpful

Is the truth always helpful? Always the best option?

I think it is. But when we humans seek to convey truth, we never capture it all. As a result, what truth we do share may not be the truth that is most helpful. There are two things that have me thinking about this today:

1. On Monday night I shared with a class some of our experience with infertility. Some things said to us were downright stupid and wrong. Other things were true. In fact, God does have a wonderful plan for us. But it wasn’t helpful to tell us that when we were hurting. Scripture teaches us that when we sing songs of joy to the downcast it is like drinking vinegar or adding baking soda to it. Kaboom!

2. In recent weeks, CCEF has posted a couple of things on their website that need to be read together. This week they posted David Powlison and John Piper’s “Don’t Waste Your Cancer” to their homepage. This was written by both men when they were in the throes of Prostate cancer. I encourage you to read it from the perspective I am reading it. My wife has breast cancer. We hope to beat it. But we are in the throes of chemo right now. How does this sound to you. True? Helpful? Now, when you have read that, go read Ed Welch’s post: “What Not To Say To Suffering People.” He wrote a follow-up here.  How does this sound to you? True? Helpful?

Seems the first could be seriously misused and does not address all of what you say for comfort in the heat of the battle. Surely we need to be a bit careful about what the person needs to hear. Yes, we can “waste” the cancer in a “woe is me” mentality. But be careful not to go there too quickly! Know your audience and what they need NOW from you.

What do you think? I’d like your feedback.


Filed under biblical counseling, CCEF, christian counseling, counseling, suffering, Uncategorized

10 responses to “What to say to suffering people: When truth isn’t helpful

  1. Jackie

    Hi Phil,
    I am sad to hear of the agony you and your wife are in the midst of. I have not read the suggested articles yet (I will) but wanted to comment just the same. I am a student and just finished a 10 month internship with a chaplain at a hospital and I would have to say that in spite of my own experiences with pain and grief (son’s death) compounded by the impertinent things people say out of their own discomfort, I can still make a bee line to saying stupid things to people in the midst of their pain every time I forget that there are often times NO WORDS that will bring comfort. I forget how in those moments a silent, accepting, compassionate presence is the best I have to offer. My prayers are with you and your family.

  2. Jess

    First of all, I’m continuing to pray for your family and trust that you have many who are coming alongside you in various ways during this trying time.

    As to the articles, I want to tread a bit carefully as I respect all of the authors and I do believe that they all present truth. The biggest differences that I see between the Piper/Powlison article and the Welch articles can be summarized under the broad heading of “tone.”

    I “hear” the former one as slightly condemning, even though I know that that is not the intent or the heart behind it. I also noticed that it is somewhat didactic in tone, which is a marked contrast to the two latter articles. They are more exploratory in tone, which I “hear” as very inviting. Welch seems to be saying, in effect, “Let’s think about this. Let’s question together.” The first article reads more like a report on the outcome of the authors’ own internal questioning and wrestling.

    So, perhaps, these were written at different times in the life cycle of consideration of the issues involved. The first article seems to follow after the period of reflection, whereas the Welch articles appear to be themselves a part of the reflection process.

  3. Jeff McMullen


    This is good stuff. Thanks for sharing it.

  4. Dana

    This post reminds me of an excellent kids’ book I’ve read a few times with my kids, “Honest to Goodness Truth”. It’s the story of a little girl who goes from telling lies, to always telling all the truth, all the time. Her mom helps her think through the reality of people’s feelings, while telling the truth. Not exactly about suffering, but I think it helps kids (and adults) begin to think through truth in a way that isn’t always binary.

  5. jeanette

    Thank you for this post. Too often, I’m scared to let myself or others be in that place of lament too long for fear that it’s displeasing to God. But your post reminds me that there is a place for grief and mourning, not to mention honesty about our emotions. And it reminds me that, even as God-loving friends, it’s ok to simply listen in tender silence without trying to “correct” someone else’s experience of their pain. The truth is not as easily conveyable as a well-worn (yet truthful) statement about God’s purposes would make it seem.

    Your blog has been a source of great wisdom & encouragement to me in the past year. I trust that your family will find the same..!

  6. We know the truth….God is in control. He works all things together for the good. He never leaves us or forsakes us. He is our Comforter. He will not allow more in our lives than we can handle. But, when it comes to what is helpful and what isn’t to a hurting person, I think most people aren’t counselors and they just don’t know. So yes, they say things they shouldn’t say or may actually cause more hurt. But what should we do about it…condemn them? God knows their hearts. Not everyone knows how to encourage or show their love and support in the best way that can comfort a hurting person. I think the articles may be somewhat helpful in making us more sensitive and understanding, but I think wrong assumptions and judgements can easily be made just because someone didn’t say something that would fall under the “helpful” list. Every hurting person is different. I remember when I went through something tragic, a friend told me that I could learn from this terrible experience. Sure, it wasn’t the right thing to say at that moment in time, but I knew her heart. It was the truth, and it helped later, but what helped the most was knowing she was there, doing her best to show she cared. Many times people stay away because they don’t know what to say or how to act. I know a family who lost their baby daughter. The people from their church were so afraid to say the wrong thing that they didn’t reach out to this family. That hurt them deeply. So, not everyone will understand or know what to say. I find I get my greater comfort and encourage from the Lord during times like this. He always has the right words at the right time. He sends people to give what they can and to show His love and support. I praise God for He is good not matter what we go through. He understands. He cares. He comforts and He always knows what is most helpful to us.

  7. D. Stevenson

    About a year ago a friend of mine was given a burden. She is exposing her heart in an online journal and I am observing.

    One thing I have noticed is that expressions of despair and doubt can coexist with faith.

    Another is that even if we refrain from saying the insensitive, our helpful words still hurt the bruised when said out of time.

    There is a time to be silent and a time to speak.

    Perhaps this verse is also apropos.
    Do not be hasty in word or impulsive in thought to bring up a matter in the presence of God. For God is in heaven and you are on the earth; therefore let your words be few.

  8. Scott Knapp

    I am presently going through a protracted time of difficulty and suffering, along with my wife and boys. A debilitating medical issue has crippled my wife, and crushed our dreams of normalcy. As one of the “sufferers” who is on the receiving end of others’ comments, I’ve observed something that makes me fell almost as bad for the would-be encourager, as I do for my wife and family.

    When someone approaches me for the purpose of offering encouragement (tactful or not), they’re not approaching someone who is merely hurting; they’re coming into the presence of someone who is hurting, AND has an accumulation of emotional baggage; hurting AND more than occasionally has an idolatrous agenda for obtaining relief; hurting AND a demand that others contribute in some way to the aforesaid agenda. On some blessed occasions, they come into the presence of one who is both profoundly hurting and worshiping well.

    It’s not safe to appraise the “helpful” value of words by how they land for me, if I’m not operating as a wounded worshiper. Spirit-guided responses are not homogeneous; He speaks differently to the hurting, according to the need of the moment. To one lady, Jesus said “go thou and sin no more,” while to another man he said “let the dead bury their own dead.”

    When I’m operating with any other agenda than worship while I’m hurting, the “help” I want is to relieve my pain, to anesthetize it in some meaningful way TO ME…and if you’re listening to the Spirit and He has something else in mind for you to say to me…I’ll likely resent you for what you’re bringing to me…it’s “unhelpful.”

    I’m in no way attempting to put a silver lining around careless, ill-chosen words; I am, however, suggesting that whether words are “helpful” is not always best judged in the moment of pain and sorrow by the receiver; the offer-er must be in step with the Spirit, then offer what he’s received with a sincere heart, and step back and let the Spirit work.

    • Karen

      If one could do all you said in the moment of suffering, he would be Jesus rather than a sinful human being experiencing the curse of living in a fallen world.

      Jesus puts a responsibility on us when we minister to pray for wisdom and to act with love. This means coming alongside them, asking how we can be helpful (recognizing they may not know the answer to this), loving them where they are instead of condemning them or thinking about how their “baggage” is playing out.

      Jesus is the one who knows their hearts, will make them aware of their areas of sin and change them. Tchividjian makes a profound statement to this effect, “Job’s friends were great counselors until they opened their mouth.” http://vimeo.com/73059118

  9. Susan

    Ed Welch’s articles are spot on!!! I have suffered for the whole of my adult life…chronic debilitating illness(es). Particularly when our children were small…when I’d been through a very difficult pregnancy we desperately needed practical help…compassionate understanding. Unfortunately, on the whole our church(es) just didn’t get it…don’t get me wrong—there was a little bit here & there…but we needed a “thunderstorm” of help and at best we got a few “droplets” here & there. And what makes it so difficult and the reason we stopped looking for help or even expecting any was that my situation had no end in sight—it still doesn’t. People are too busy living their lives to be slowed down over the long-haul. I get it. If I had not lived the life that I have lived so far…I doubt that I could have been as giving a person as is required in situations such as mine. I whole-heartedly encourage anyone reading Ed’s articles to put into practice what he is suggesting—you have no idea how much it will mean to that suffering person (& their family)!!!

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