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Pain and suffering confront us everywhere.  When someone we know is faced with grief, disease, crisis or loss, we often feel unsure of how to meet their need or provide comfort. Having been on the receiving end of some helpful and some not-so-helpful “help” over the last few months, this is what I have found to be a blessing in time of need.

First of all, pray. If it is appropriate, let the person you are praying for know that you are praying. As the events of my own personal crisis began to unfold, I had several people come to me and tell me that God had laid me on their hearts in recent weeks, before I had even known what was about to happen. That was a humbling and amazing experience—to know that my Heavenly Father had been at work, prompting others to intercede for me, when no one knew there was a problem on the horizon. Even if you do not know exactly what to pray, bring them before the throne of the Father, and the Holy Spirit will intercede on your behalf (Rom. 8:26–27).

Secondly, don’t be a Job’s counselor. In the book of Job, we see that listening, not giving advice, is the surest way to be a help and not a hurt to those in need. When Job’s friends sat in silence with him for seven days, they recognized that “his suffering was very great” (Job 2:13). When they opened their mouths to speak, their focus shifted to themselves and they lost sight of their friend’s suffering, damaging their relationship with their hurting friend and drawing the ire and condemnation of the Lord in the end (Job 42:7). It is easy from the outside of a situation to come to intellectual conclusions,  i.e. “God must have known it would be best to take your spouse now before they suffered something worse.” “Your financial woes are just God’s way of teaching you to trust him more.” “Divorce is never God’s will; surely he will give you strength to endure your husband’s abuse.” “Don’t worry about your miscarriage. God will give you another child.”  These types of responses may sound logical to you—they might even have Scriptural validity—but to the hurting one they are the sting of a whip on a gaping wound. Unless God has laid something specific on your heart to say, express your love, express your sympathy, but don’t express your opinions.

Thirdly, if you feel called and are able, offer to help. Be specific in your offers. Even when someone makes a general offer of help, it is still often difficult for those in need to ask for specific assistance. Do you want to bring a meal? Ask if Thursday would be a good day to do it. Be the one to offer to watch a sick child so that mom doesn’t have to miss a day of work to stay home with him. If you have financial means to offer, put a gift in an anonymous envelope to bless them.

Fourth, walk the road with them. Whether you have been in their shoes or not, you can always walk with, sit with, and listen to someone who is hurting. Often that is the most meaningful help we can give. Some of the people whose help I have valued most in my journey through pain are people whom I was not more than acquainted with twelve months ago. Many of them have not experienced the same grief I have. But they are people who chose to step into my pain with me. They have walked beside me, without pressure, without judgement, without coercion. They listen when I am hurting, and better yet, they lift me out of it by interacting with me beyond the pain. We talk about books, writing, art, coffee, the kids; they help me to step out of the nightmare.

Lastly, I would encourage you to endure with the hurting for the long haul. Serious hurts like divorce, miscarriage, or the death of a spouse or child do not fade away in weeks or months. Keep praying, keep listening, keep offering help and support. Keep walking beside us. We may be overwhelmed with just trying to keep our heads above water day to day, and we may not acknowledge how much your support means to us. But don’t think we don’t notice, and don’t think we don’t need it. You are the Lord’s hands and feet ministering to us.

“But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” ( 1 Cor. 12:24-26).