Don’t Know What to Say?

By Grantley Morris


Say the Right Thing?

How to Help & Support the Bereaved, Hurting, Depressed

Be a Real Friend

The very fact that you have chosen to read this webpage puts you way above average.

One of the least recognized tragedies is that most of us presume we instinctively know how to be a good friend and how to say the right thing and give godly advice. Few of us would put ourselves in the league of professional counselors, but most of us feel at least able to offer a few helpful words to encourage or cheer someone who is hurting, depressed, bereaved or in a crisis. Sadly, that confidence is often misplaced.

Imagine being a nurse in a burns unit. You want to dress the wounds of patients with horrific burns, knowing that the slightest slip will send them to the roof in agony. Just one further complication: the patients are new to you and a power failure combined with emergency lighting having to be diverted to more critical areas of the hospital means the ward is pitch black. You cannot see a thing and the patients are new to you, so you don’t know the precise nature or location of their burns. That’s what it is like relating to someone who has inner pain. Emotional wounds are invisible. You can never be certain who is hurting, nor what well-meaning words will send them reeling in pain.

The average person approaches hurting people like someone cocksure that two weeks in a meat factory qualifies them to engage in heart surgery. The vast majority of us sincerely care and have no idea that our kind-hearted attempts to cheer are almost the emotional equivalent of trying to trim someone’s toenails with a chainsaw.

Before moving on to how to genuinely help, it is vital to explain why virtually everyone ends up sometimes hurting people without ever realizing it.

Job’s friends seem to have genuinely cared and yet they plummeted from comforters to tormenters when they thought themselves smart enough to help Job out by answering for him the enormous WHY? that pounded like the worst headache within him.

Omniscience is meant to be a uniquely divine attribute and yet we somehow seem to think we have failed our friends and even let God down if we are not all-knowing. Learning that “God is God, and we are not,” might seem pretty basic, but few of us seem to get it.

Finally, God could restrain himself no longer and brought peace by silencing everyone with a series of questions about nature that everyone present found unanswerable.

Job was an exceptionally godly man who knew God far better than most and yet it was only after being shot down by a hail of questions that only God could answer that he reached the point of saying:

    Job 42:3-6  . . . Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.  . . . My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.

If we truly know God, why aren’t we humbled into silence by the consciousness of how staggeringly inferior our understanding is, relative to God’s?

The fear of the LORD [realizing how terrifyingly superior he is] is the beginning of wisdom(Scriptures).

Humility is such a vital component of the authentic Christian life and so essential for anyone to radiate the beauty of Christ that I beg you to invest at least two seconds quickly scanning the Scriptures listed in the link to see how much God’s Word emphasizes it: The Importance of Humility to God

Instead of growing in humility and wisdom, the longer we are Christians, the more we are in danger of becoming arrogant know-alls. It has certainly tripped me up more times than I even realize.

Arrogance can have such grave repercussions as to turn our genuine attempts to help into something that drives people to suicide or into the slimy hands of the devil.

I am getting to know a man whom I’ll call Robert. Still to this day he is reeling in pain because of a child abuse too horrific for almost any of us to imagine. He used to lead worship at church and for five years belonged to a team of evangelists. He is very likable and, knowing my commitment to Christ, tries to be gracious, but the truth is that Christian know-alls, in the proud tradition – and I do mean proud – of Job’s “comforters,” have so turned him off Christianity that he has found solace in Buddhism and is now nearly an atheist. This highly intelligent and biblically knowledgeable man shared the following with me as a major factor in him abandoning Christianity:

    Each time I walk into a church I can palpably feel the tunnel vision. I know that many people in there, especially those in leadership, have their neat little view of the universe on handy mental flash cards, ready to whip an answer out at a moment’s notice to life’s biggest questions, rather than admit, “You’re asking the wrong person, dude. I’m just a mortal. How in the world could I ever even hope to contemplate the vastness of understanding even 1% of any topic involving God or ethics or morality or humankind.”

    Instead of them being willing and open and wanting to get to know me, as soon as I start to speak I can see their minds ticking off boxes to categorize me until finally, BING! “Here I have a verse for you,” which they quote, give their cheesy personality-less, churchy smile and walk off.

    I’m left standing there feeling . . . well feeling raped, actually! I feel they came to me, made out that they were doing something nice for me, used me for their own ego with their verse-come-into-my-mind, then promptly popped their clothes back on and scooted out the door.

    I see going to church and interacting with small-minded people who feel they can sum up humanity into a handy brochure of Bible verses synonymous with walking into a dark alley filled with drunken bikers. It’s too dangerous for anyone but a fool to risk. I always walk away deeply hurt and feeling used.

    I once went with a male friend of mine to a new church. The nicest thing that was said to me the entire time was, “I think you’ll find you both will fit in here. We’re very accepting of your lifestyle.”

    My friend pointed out to me later, “Um . . . I think they think we’re gay, dude.”

    That just sums up for me: the nicest word anyone in a church has ever said to me was still incorrect and based on presumption rather than getting to know me.

It is terrifyingly rare for anyone to be a Christian for long without acting like Job’s friends who were sure they were serving God and helping their friend with godly advice when they were actually deeply wounding him and incurring God’s hot displeasure (Job 42:7). Few of us will ever realize this side of eternity all the damage we have caused while being convinced we were delighting God and blessing people. I shudder to guess at how often I have joined the ranks of deluded do-gooders who are blissfully ignorant of how much damage they cause.

Of course, the opposite danger to overconfidence is to be so scared of saying the wrong thing that we avoid people who we know are having a hard time. That, too can deeply hurt people.

Both mistakes often have the same cause: fear of admitting that we do not have all the answers. To avoid these dangers we need to feel comfortable with our limitations and to realize that these very limitations are actually our greatest asset, empowering us to come alongside hurting people as equals, rather than causing them to feel like idiots for not being as “smart” as us.

When people need God, step out of the way and let them connect with God. Our unique, divinely appointed contribution to helping people who are hurting is not our ability to fake divinity but our humanity; not in having all the answers but in embracing with these dear people the bewilderment that is an integral part of being human.

Only when our trust grows so deep that we can truly let God be God can we at last relax enough to be truly human.

The book of Proverbs repeatedly warns of how foolish it is to talk too much (Scriptures) and James warns that the tongue is like a seemingly harmless spark that can ignite a wildfire. I had thought the danger of the tongue was merely in saying things that we knew were nasty. And I thought the foolishness of talking too much was only in uttering too much trivia. Only recently have I seen the significance of this introduction to James’s dissertation on the destructive power of the tongue:

    James 3:1 Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.

Only when I realized that this commences his discussion of the tongue did the full impact of his message finally hit me: it is dangerous to act like a teacher because we often slip up. We take upon ourselves the role of teacher whenever we give our two cents’ worth of advice, and by doing so we expose our victims to great danger and ourselves to the wrath of God, just as Job’s would-be helpers did. What pain would be spared if only we could hold our tongue and restrain our urge to act like know-alls!

Rather than let Job’s bitter experience be wasted, let’s burn into our brains something critical he learned:

    Job 6:14 To him who is about to faint and despair, kindness is due from his friend, lest he forsake the fear of the Almighty. (Amplified Bible)

Most of us feel a compulsion to talk, when what people who are hurting need is not words but kindness.

As James emphasized:

    James 1:19 My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry

The man I quoted above was delighted to read an early draft of this webpage and added this:

    Perhaps people would be less hurt when Christians (and other people who mean well) stopped trying to help. If God has placed someone on your path, walk with them and get to know them. You will probably learn a lot more than you impart, but by not judging and just listening and enjoying the other person, you may give them a gift that is beyond words and beyond answers.

A Happy Ending

A few weeks have passed since writing the above. I kept giving Robert the respect and non-judgmental love that we owe everyone. I treated him as a valued friend, eagerly looking forward to hearing from him, continually listening to him, feeling his pain, sincerely praising him and holding him in high esteem. There was nothing artificial about this, nor mixed with ulterior motives. It was just an unconscious reflection of the person I have slowly become after many years of the Lord patiently molding me, primarily through unpleasant trials. (Trials might not be directly from God but all the glory goes to him for the astounding way he transforms them into a sculptor’s chisel so that what for years seem painful, useless and devastating, result in a divine masterpiece for which we will spend all eternity praising God.)

Robert was wary at first, but after weeks of unconditional love and genuine respect, not only did his trust in me gradually warm, but so did his trust in God. He now has a beautiful relationship with God and I value him as my ministry partner.

The Next Step

I suggest you to ease your way further into the delicate matter of speaking words of comfort by reading another webpage. It commences by reinforcing the point made in this webpage and then moves on:

Everyone’s Guide to Basic Counseling and the pages it leads to.

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© 2010, Grantley Morris. May be freely copied in whole or in part provided: it is not altered; this entire paragraph is included; readers are not charged and it is not used in a webpage. Many more compassionate, inspiring, sometimes hilarious writings available free online at  Freely you have received, freely give. For use outside these limits, consult the author.