by Don Hooser
How can we encourage someone suffering with a major illness and/or chronic health problem? This article focuses on questions like "Why did this happen?" and why friends should not assume they have all the answers. The second part of this series will focus on the kinds of advice to give and not to give.
When someone we care about is suffering, especially over a long period of time, he or she needs our compassion, moral support and often physical assistance. God is "full of compassion" and He certainly wants us to have "compassion for one another" (Psalm 86:15; 1 Peter 3:8). A good definition of compassion is "a deep awareness of the suffering of another coupled with the wish to relieve it."
Let's consider some key scriptures. John wrote that we "ought to lay down our lives for the brethren." Then he pointed out that wishes and words are not enough when we can do more to help. We should be willing to sacrifice time and "this world's goods" in order to love "in deed and in truth" (1 John 3:16-18).
Who did Jesus say will "inherit the kingdom"? He said it will be those who helped "the least of these My brethren" by giving people needed food, drink, hospitality, clothing and visiting them in whatever "prison" holds them (Matthew 25:34-36, 40).
We may at times have the opportunity to help with health-related needs, such as when the Good Samaritan gave first aid to an injured man (Luke 10:27-37). In the parable, the Samaritan was a wonderful example in following through, as he also sacrificed time and money for the stranger.
Clearly the Bible places more emphasis on works than words, especially when physical help is needed. James warns that merely wishing them well with sympathetic words ("be warmed and filled") is insufficient when it is within our power to give physical help also (James 2:13-20).
Don't know what to do to help? Just ask. "Please tell me what can I do to be of help. I would really like to help." If the person doesn't have a ready answer, bring up possibilities. "Would it help if I read something to you or ran an errand for you?" "May I bring you any food, drink or a damp wash cloth?"
There are people who need help but who would never suggest anything, even if you ask. However, if you are watchful, you probably can notice something that needs doing or something the person could use. However, be sensitive to avoid doing anything that would make him or her uncomfortable. Be alert to the boundaries the person has; what one would appreciate might seem invasive to another.
Power of Words for Good and Bad
What should I say? What you say doesn't need to be anything special or lengthy. What is always important is being an attentive listener . Some of us are tempted to be Mr. or Miss Fix-it, inclined to quickly suggest a "solution," rather than mostly listening.
Instead of trying to be a self-appointed savior, "rejoice with those who rejoice [over each bit of relief and good news] and weep with those who weep [over set-backs and suffering]" (Romans 12:15).
But don't neglect visiting and encouraging the sick because you are afraid of making mistakes. Pray for God's guidance and then "let us encourage one another" (Hebrews 10:25, NIV).
The Bible, especially Proverbs, has much to say about the potential power of words for either positive or negative effects (see also James 3). Whenever you have the opportunity, speak words of love, wisdom, comfort and encouragement. "The mouth of the righteous is a well of life... Pleasant words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the bones" (Proverbs 10:11; 16:24).
Perhaps the most encouraging thing you can say is to let the person know you are praying for him or her and even that you plan to fast for the person.
Regarding the harmful effects of words, this article is focusing only on unintended harm—words that hurt or offend someone even when we have good intentions—so that we all can become wiser, more aware and more careful.
Consider a few common mistakes people make while trying to show sympathy. Saying, "I know how you feel," can actually be discouraging, unless you have been through a truly similar trial. (Even then, we do not truly know how the person is "feeling"!) Trying to empathize by relating your lengthy "war stories" isn't comforting either. A sick person has enough to deal with, without hearing potentially depressing stories.
Be alert to how tired the ill person is. Typically, sickness itself is tiring, as are medical tests. Even wonderful visits with one's closest loved ones are also tiring. Don't wear the person out by staying too long. A sick person generally needs lots of rest.
Be positive and cheerful, but avoid telling the person to "cheer up" (Proverbs 27:14).
It can be difficult to know if the person wants to talk about serious matters or if he or she would prefer lighter conversation. Let him or her set the tone and respond in kind. Watch the person's eyes and expressions to perceive if your words are causing discomfort or if they are bringing relief.
Blaming and Shaming the Suffering
Throughout history, people have superstitiously assumed that the sick and injured are being punished for some sin. (Those who have never suffered from a serious illness or injury are more likely to think this way.)
Yet the Bible is full of examples of righteous people suffering from all kinds of health problems and other trials.
Upon seeing a man blind from birth, Jesus' disciples asked Him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" (John 9:1-2). Sadly, they assumed that his lack of sight was a divine punishment for sin! Jesus answered, "Neither..." (verse 3, emphasis added throughout). Jesus had to combat this judgmental attitude throughout His ministry.
In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the priest and the Levite neglected to help the injured man (Luke 10:31-32). Perhaps they were selfish and coldhearted. And did they assume that the injured man was being punished by God and that he therefore didn't deserve help? If so, they would have felt smugly justified in their decision.
People who suffer tragedies are assumed to be "worse sinners," but Jesus emphatically said, "I tell you, no!" (Luke 13:1-5). It's wrong to assume that a person's suffering is the result of sin and to assume that the greater the suffering, the worse the sin.
For example, in Jesus' day it was common for the people to blame, disdain and shun all lepers, assuming they were cursed by God. Jesus shocked people by touching the untouchables, talking with the outcasts and healing those considered unworthy. He focused much attention on the "little" people ("the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind," minorities, women, children, etc.), which was revolutionary at that time! (Luke 14:13).
Every child of God is important to Him and should be important to His other children! "The members should have the same care for one another. And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it" (1 Corinthians 12:25-26). Members whom we think are weaker often need more attention than others do, not less attention (verses 18-25).
Don't neglect or give up on anyone—even if the person has spiritual problems. The Good Shepherd taught that when a lamb went astray, it was more important to take time to search for and rescue it than to stay with the 99 that did not go astray (Matthew 18:1-14).
He illustrated sacrificial love by washing the disciples' feet (John 13). Then He said, "For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you" (verse 15; also 1 John 2:6). ( He said to wash feet, not to speculate about how their feet got dirty. )
Job and His Friends
The book of Job teaches us much about what not to assume or say. Job understandably complained that his three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar, were "miserable comforters" (Job 2:11; 16:1). He said, "How long will you torment my soul, and break me in pieces with words?" (19:2).
However, of all Job's supposed friends, at least these three cared enough to visit Job and spend considerable time with him "to mourn with him, and to comfort him" (2:11).
These three friends seemingly had good intentions. But their understanding of God, especially why God allows suffering, was largely erroneous. They probably thought their speculation and criticism was constructive, but they only further discouraged Job.
Eventually a fourth acquaintance, Elihu, pointed out where Job's views and the views of his friends had been wrong (chapters 32-37). Finally, God spoke and profoundly painted the spiritual big picture for all of them (chapters 38-41).
Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar had mistakenly assumed that Job was being punished for disobeying God's laws and deserved all the punishment. They also assumed in their simplistic theology that God always rewards good and punishes evil in this life, with no exceptions. They saw no purpose for suffering other than retribution and punishment.
Job's friends had good intentions to give comfort, but instead gave him added mental and emotional distress. We all need to ask ourselves, "If I had been Job's friend, what conclusions would I have drawn from his calamities and what would I have said?"
Avoid Speculating, Judging or Preaching
When a person is going through a serious trial, he or she is already wondering why and "why me?" Even if the sick person asks you these questions, don't assume you have the answers or start guessing. Especially don't start guessing about what sins the person might have committed!
True, sin causes suffering, but many other factors cause suffering as well. Only God knows the full picture. We must not assume anything. And if a sin or mistake is clearly involved, it isn't up to friends to point out the obvious.
Don't assume that an ailing person lacks faith! Typically, a person in a health trial is fervently reaching out to God. Serious and/or chronic trials can actually strengthen one's faith. The Bible is filled with examples of suffering people who had great faith in God, such as in Hebrews 11.
Death is certainly not evidence of a lack of faith. Everyone dies of something eventually. Facing death courageously and serenely with one's hope fixed on the resurrection is beautiful in God's sight. "Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of His saints" (Psalm 116:15).
A related error is for people to assume that an ailing person is suffering the consequences of breaking principles of healthful living. ("If you had been eating what I eat, you wouldn't have gotten this sickness.") All of us are usually partly to blame for our health problems, but usually many factors have contributed—some known and many unknown.
Genetically, we all have different strengths, weaknesses and predispositions to health problems. Diseases may result less from one's recent lifestyle than from the accumulated effects of one's whole life, starting from conception. Parents and many other influences have been partly responsible. Many environmental and nutritional factors affect us and it is impossible to know them all.
When anyone is going through a trial, the person of course should examine and judge himself or herself for possible sins and mistakes (1 Corinthians 11:28-32). However, that's a personal matter; it is not the responsibility of friends to examine or judge the person! We need to offer a shoulder to cry on, not a finger to accuse with.
When we read of Jesus healing a person, we never see that Jesus lectured the person on his or her physical mistakes—what he or she should have been doing healthwise. Jesus focused much more on spiritual matters than health matters, and focused on healing rather than blaming. Our focus should be similar.
It's helpful to remember that our loving God only allows His saints to suffer when the trials will benefit them spiritually. God compares the spiritual trials of His people to the refining and purifying of silver (Psalm 66:10; Titus 2:14).
To those with health problems, especially long-term ones, be a good listener, an encourager and a helper. In so doing, we "bear one another's burdens" (Galatians 6:2). With this labor of love, we contribute to the healing process.
Part 2 will cover advice—to give and not to give.
(This was first published in the February 2007 issue of United News.)