It’s probably safe to say that each of us has been on both sides: we’ve all experienced times of suffering and we’ve also stood by and watched loved ones suffer.
When a friend is in crisis, it can be hard to know what to do.
We want to demonstrate care and concern, but we’re afraid of intruding or saying the wrong thing.
Having been there myself, I’d love to share a few insights I’ve gained through dark times when others have stepped in to encourage me.
[Read more about my own trials here: Singing in the Shadow of His wings: Truths to cling to during trial and tragedy.]
1. Those who have experienced suffering are often best-equipped to encourage those who are currently suffering.
2 Corinthians 1:3-4 tell us this: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.”
Keep in mind that the situation need not be exactly the same. While it can be extremely comforting to receive encouragement from a friend who has been in your shoes, it is also comforting to receive encouragement from those who have suffered in other ways.
For example, as I experienced and then recovered from a recent ectopic pregnancy, prayers and encouragement from one friend in particular were especially meaningful because she herself had gone through the same thing years before. At the same time, I received great encouragement from other friends whom I know have weathered the storms of life, even though they’d never been through a situation similar to mine.
The application is this: We should always look to encourage those facing the same trials we ourselves have faced, but we should not let it keep us from encouraging those facing trials of other kinds. 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 (printed above) says “so that we can comfort those in ANY trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received.”
2. As a part of God’s family, it is our job to encourage each other.
The following verses from the New Testament speak of encouraging one another:
- Romans 12 (esp. verses 8, 10, 15)
- 2 Corinthians 13:11
- 1 Thessalonians 5:11
- 1 Thessalonians 5:14
- Hebrews 3:13
I especially love verse 15 of Romans 12:
Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.
And Galatians 6:10:
Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.
Also Ecclesiastes 4:9-10:
Two are better than one,
because they have a good return for their labor:
If either of them falls down,
one can help the other up.
But pity anyone who falls
and has no one to help them up.
3. Doing SOMEthing is always better than doing NOthing.
There are so many ways to help a friend in need, and none of us can do all of them. But there is always SOMEthing we can do to demonstrate love and support. (See below).
4. Do something practical!
I am reminded of Proverbs 3:27-28:
Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due,
when it is in your power to act.
Do not say to your neighbor,
“Come back tomorrow and I’ll give it to you”—
when you already have it with you.
And 1 John 3:18:
Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.
These verses make me think of a certain phrase I’ve heard over and over, and am likely guilty of having used myself.
Have you ever said any of the following to a friend in need:
- Let me know if there’s anything I can do.
- Call me if you need anything.
- Do you need anything?
If you’ve said one of these to a friend, what was their response?
Did they call you up and say, “Well, actually, we’d really love for you to bring us a meal.” Or, “We’re completely out of fruit at our house. Could you stop by the grocery store?” Or, “The kids have big-time cabin fever and I’m exhausted. Can they come over to play while I rest?”
Probably not. How many of us would feel comfortable making such a specific request for help? Not many. Perhaps I am alone in this, but I suspect not.
And I hope I don’t sound accusatory here. I know this is a very common thing to say when we want to be helpful but aren’t quite sure what to do. I myself have used the “Let me know if you need anything” phrase many a time in the past.
In many cases, the offer to help is quite sincere, though it often misses the mark of any real follow-through or practical help. Truthfully, I think it is often an attempt to pat ourselves on the back for our “thoughtfulness” without actually having to go out of our way to do anything. Well, I asked and she said they didn’t need anything. (Pat, pat).
In recent years, I have made a concerted effort to avoid this phrase and its many variations, replacing it instead with a more practical question or action from the list below. After finding myself on the receiving end of practical help and encouragement over the years (as well as not-so-practical help and pseudo-encouragement), I’ve picked up a few tips.
NOTE: While I believe most of the suggestions below to be universally applicable, always use your own judgement! Be sure to take into account your friend’s personality, as well as any cultural differences or extenuating circumstances. When in doubt, try asking your friend’s spouse or someone you know who is close to that friend. Be frank and explain that you’d like to do something helpful or encouraging. Ask them for suggestions, or provide your own suggestions and ask for their response.
Practical ways to help a friend in need:
Take a meal
Do not ask “Do you need any meals?” Instead, you might say something like “I’d like to bring you a meal. Which night would be best?” Meals are almost always helpful, but many people will be hesitant to respond with a “yes” to the first question. By rephrasing the question to communicate that you will bring a meal if they’ll pick a night, you can release them from feeling like a burden.
We’ve also had friends and neighbors simply drop off meals without asking. What an encouragement! And the meal need not necessarily be home-cooked. One of the most thoughtful meals we’ve received (from a friend who is not the home-cooked meal type) was a gourmet jar of soup from a favorite restaurant, with a bagged salad and artisan bread. It was something we wouldn’t have bought for ourselves and it made us feel pampered.
If possible, try to deliver your meal in disposable containers so your friend won’t have to bother with returning anything to you.
Send a restaurant gift card
If you don’t live nearby or your schedule doesn’t allow you to take a meal, this is the next best thing. Several dear friends have done this for us in the past and it’s encouraged us every time.
Make a specific offer to help
Again, do not ask “Do you need help?” Rather, “I’d really like to help by __________. When can I do that? Or is there something else I could do that would be more helpful?”
- keep their children while they have an appt or obligation
- stop by the grocery store to pick up a few items for them
- take or pick up their children for regularly scheduled events
- take a responsibility off their plate (especially for those who serve or minister together)
- have their children over for a playdate
Do something helpful without even asking
This one does require some discretion, especially if you’re not super-close to the friend in need. Any of the suggestions mentioned above would fit the bill, along with many other ways you might think of to address the needs of your particular friend.
When we lost my mother-in-law quite suddenly and tragically after a five-week battle with cancer, friends from their church were amazingly helpful. They showed up to mow the yard, without even knocking on the door. They simply went to the shed, removed the mower and started mowing. They also provided the entire meal for a large group of people at my in-laws’ home after the funeral service. No one asked them to do this, nor did they make a specific offer. They just did it. What a blessing to us at such a difficult time!
My parents also are expert helpers. I can’t even begin to list all the ways they’ve helped us and others during hard times over the years. We’ve learned much about serving others just by watching them step in and start helping without being asked. If we truly desire to help a friend in need, we will find a way to do so.
Speak sincere words of encouragement
Don’t feel like you need to make some great speech, filled with words of wisdom. In fact, that’s often the very opposite of what most people need at such a time. A simple and sincere “I’m so sorry you’re going through this” is often enough. If specific Scripture comes to mind, by all means share it, but do be careful not to preach or trivialize their pain.
Another way to speak words of encouragement is to share with your friend how they’ve impacted or encouraged you. When others indicate that my response to a trial has encouraged them, it encourages me. If my response to pain encourages someone else or brings glory to God in some small way, it causes me to feel like that pain has not been wasted.
Depending on how well you know that friend, you might even share something that’s borderline silly. In the midst of our most recent miscarriage, a dear friend shared that according to her husband, we “deserved 100 children.” I’m not sure I actually do deserve 100 children, nor do I have any idea how that would work or what I would do with them, but it made me laugh. It also felt like a compliment: it was his way of saying “I think you’re good parents and I wish it weren’t so hard for you to have more children.”
NOTE: When verbally encouraging a hurting friend, it’s always best to err on the side of fewer words. I asked Mr. Native Texan and my mother to share some ways they’ve been encouraged during hard times (and my mother has experienced more than her fair share of hard times). They both mentioned this concept.
My mom shared that some people don’t know what to say, so they wind up rambling on and on, or they say unhelpful things like “I know how you feel” when they really don’t. Mr. Native Texan explained that he appreciates when friends acknowledge the pain or loss, but then give him some space and carry on as normal (rather than dwelling on the painful situation).
Send an encouraging message
I am a huge fan of “real mail.” Who doesn’t love receiving a card or note in the mail? Many people claim they don’t have enough time to send mail, but I would argue that we all have the same amount of time, and we make time for that which we prioritize. (Did I mention this is a personal soap box topic for me?)
Keeping handy a stash of nice, blank cards, as well as postage stamps, makes it easier to jot down a note and send it off to a friend. Even a simple “I’m thinking of you” or “I’m praying for you” can be an encouragement to a friend going through a rough time.
And of course, an electronic message (via email, text, Facebook, etc) is better than no message at all, but I encourage you to take it one step further and try sending a hand-written note.
Ask how they’re doing and then LISTEN
What a treasure to have friends or family members who have honed the skill of listening. Many of us are all too eager to share our own thoughts and feelings, as opposed to asking thoughtful questions and truly listening to those around us. I confess that I am often guilty of this.
I have two friends in particular who are excellent listeners. When I experienced a rough time that lasted for about a year following our big move, a long-time friend in another state spent a good deal of time just listening to me on the phone. She asked probing questions and then let me respond, without judging me or trying to draw parallels to her own situations. She didn’t trivialize my experience or preach at me with many spiritual words. It truly was a dark time for me, but it would have been so much worse without her compassionate, listening ear.
Demonstrate support with your physical presence
Stop by their house to say hello and check on them. Show up at the hospital and ask if there’s anything you can bring. Attend difficult events with them.
Again, I think of my mother-in-law’s funeral service. It was not local and we had not asked any friends to come. Nevertheless, about five of my husband’s closest friends made the drive of several hours, and simply showed up completely unannounced. One friend even flew in from another state! What a show of support and true friendship to my husband at such a hard time.
I think also of that dark time of discouragement I experienced after our big move. That same out-of-state, good-listener friend made a trip to visit me for several days, just to be an encouragement. It required a solo car trip of several hours with her one-year-old, as well as a solo flight home with him (her first time to fly alone with the baby). She and her husband also raise full-time support in order to minister in the inner city, which means they have to manage a tight budget. Her trip to see me was a labor of love that truly encouraged my heart.
One more example…Three weeks after the birth of Little Brother, while we were still feeling isolated and uprooted after the big move, a dear friend from Texas came to serve us for one full week. The trip had been planned for months and she followed through with it even after discovering her own pregnancy. She farmed out her own two children and came to take care of us: cooking up a storm, entertaining Older Brother, running to the grocery store, loving on Baby Brother and more, all while pregnant herself. What a gift of friendship to our family during a trying time!
Give a thoughtful gift/Send or deliver a “We Love You” care package
This could be anything from standard pampering gifts like candy, flowers, candles, special bath & body products or other items you know they’d enjoy, to special gifts that speak directly to their experience.
After our first, terrible miscarriage (Read more about that here), a sweet friend brought me a homemade CD mix of her favorite praise songs. To this day, it was one of the most meaningful gifts I’ve ever received. To think that she would take the time to do that for me was such an encouragement, on top of the fact that listening to the words of those songs brought comfort and perspective to my soul and reminded me, over and over, of truth from God’s Word.
After the loss of my mother-in-law, our class at church brought us a small houseplant in a beautiful pot. It was a blessing to have a living, growing reminder of the person we’d lost, as well as a reminder of a group of people who loved us. And the pot itself was a perfect match for the decor of our home, which was no accident. It demonstrated such thoughtfulness.
My recent emergency surgery for the ectopic pregnancy happened to occur in the middle of the night before the very day of a ladies’ event I’d coordinated. We were to learn how to make T-shirt scarves (look them up on etsy–so fun!) and I was disappointed to miss it. The other ladies made me a scarf and rosette and sent it home with Mr. Native Texan that Sunday at church. I love the scarf, and every time I wear it I’ll remember their thoughtfulness.
Pray for and with them
One of the most powerful ways to encourage others is to pray Scripture for them. I could say a whole lot about this topic, but perhaps I’ll save that for another time….Sometimes we don’t know how to pray for others; we aren’t sure what to say. You can never go wrong when you pray God’s Word back to Him!
See this list for some great passages to pray for a hurting friend (or for yourself when you face a trial): Fiery Trials–Help from the Scriptures when going through the fire
If praying Scripture is new for you, or seems intimidating, you may appreciate these suggestions in Steve Hall’s article Helping Hurting Friends.
In summary, may each of us seek to encourage those who are hurting.
We may not be able to help in each of the ways mentioned above, but there is always something we can do. And remember: A generous man will prosper; he who refreshes others will himself be refreshed. (Proverbs 11:25, NIV)
A few more ideas for encouraging others:
- 10 Tips for Encouraging a Friend (from aheartformyshepherd.com)
- How to Encourage a Friend in Grief
- 19 Ways to Encourage Others (from powertochange.com)
How have others encouraged you during a difficult time?