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How do others respond to your suffering?

The best way to respond to another person's suffering is at an emotional level, not a rational one.  Respond to emotion with emotion. [1]  I don't mean that we fake an emotional response, or become overly dramatic or animated as we acknowledge their anguish; but rather, we learn to hear with our hearts, rather than dispensing prescriptions. 

How a person handles your pain will tell you about their view of God.

When sharing our heartache with others, most of us get a corrective response.  Here's what the Corrective Response sounds like:

1. "Here's what the Bible says about that; now just believe it." 

2. "Here's my experience and how I handled pain:  You should adopt my attitude."

3. "You're over-reacting or too sensitive.  It's not as bad as you think it is."

[It may, in fact, not be as bad as they think it is, but telling them so isn't likely to improve their situation or perspective.]

The negative impact of the Corrective Response:
The fallacy here is that reason cannot always heal; and will often make the suffering worse.   And reason is a cheap substitute for entering into another's suffering:  It takes more energy and love to "weep with those who weep" than offering a rational [and clinical] response to their hurt. 

The collateral damage of the corrective response is one of dismissal, which quickly becomes shame:  Because your heartache isn't taken seriously,  your suffering is leveled as an indictment against you because you're too weak, too faithless, or too sensitive to handle the situation well.  Or, so go the assumptions about you.

Suffering is not faithlessness:
Often times, the corrective response is built upon the assumption that your response to pain indicates a lack of faith.   The truth is, that while your "flesh may be weak" and faithless; your good and noble heart is not:  Your new heart may be growing in trust, but it was equipped with the same confidence in the Father that Jesus himself held onto.  "Christ in you" means that there is a very deep part of you that still trusts, despite your very real feelings of abandonment.

Don't see pain as necessarily a lack of faith.  Emotions are not always reliable indicators of a person's true inner strength; especially when they themselves are overwhelmed and can't see their own hope and resilience while its buried beneath the rubble.

The positive impact of responding to emotion with emotion?
1.  Responding with emotional empathy opens the sufferer up to the healing presence of God.

2.  Responding with emotional empathy give the listener permission to be taken seriously, especially when something challenging may be needed to be said at a later point in time.  Without empathy, the listener doesn't have permission.

3.  Responding with emotional empathy makes the listener a safe harbor for a broken vessel. 

We can learn to ask: What is my friend experiencing? 

  • Fear?  
  • Betrayal?
  • Futility? 
  • Loss?
  • Forsakenness?

Learning to respond to emotion with emotion, particularly the emotions the suffering person is drowning under, will help us serve as an advocate rather than as an advisor; a companion rather than a courtroom judge; a compassionate healer rather than a clinician.

[1]  Intimate Life, Intimate Life Ministries

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Reader Comments (4)

True but all too rare. I have found another common response to suffering is: avoidance. I am going through a terrible trial right now. Many people have abandoned me including people who I actually thought of as friends. People feel this stupid need to try and fix it. I never ask them to, I never want them to. But most of them can't stand it if they can't fix it. So, an even more painful way they deal instead of directly blaming you is... avoid you. Stop returning your calls, stop answering your email. Give you polite smiles or just the cold shoulder when they see you.

I know we can only handle so much of another's pain, and sometimes it's necessary to step away for a while. But you could at least tell the friend, "I need to step back from this. I'm feeling overwhelmed. I have too many of my own problems and I'm feeling pulled down by yours." That really would be better than avoidance.

It really is sad to me that people need to be told any of this. I don't understand what's so hard about it. I'm not saying I'm perfect. I'm just sick to death of people making excuses for their relational failures ("don't depend on people, they'll always let you down, only God is perfect") instead of admitting when they let someone down, get up, and try again.

May 16, 2013 | Unregistered Commentersomeone

Wow: I can so identify with how you are feeling. You have a right to feel angry and disillusioned - even abandoned in a way. It seems to me that finding community where people have the will and strength to suffer with each other is rare. My wife and I have found this to be sadly so.

For me, we continue to pray for community where empathy and non-judgmental compassion are cornerstones. Where people know how to fight for each others' hearts. That's what we are searching for and pray for with great urgency. I'm convinced it's possible, though rare, because I've experienced glimpses of it.

I'm really sorry the Church isn't being Emmanual, "God with us," for you.

May 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJim Robbins

Often times when sharing an emotional trauma or just something I am upset about....the person I am trusting with that feeling makes it about them. Next thing I know I am listening to there "problems". I think I am able to draw out emotion from people but all too often my story is cut short because I feel they don't really care and just want an ear to listen to them. I confess I am often guilty of this as well. Often times people confide in me and I am triggered by a memory and I can't help myself from Sharing it. My desire is to listen well and to share emotion well when needed. Perhaps The Lord will open that door for me as I believe this is a part of my character flaws that need development. I think men's hearts would be more fulfilled if they felt heard and understood. My fear is that the issues of other men will become a burden if the listening it not reciprocated. That has happened to me before.

May 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMark H

Hey Mark,

I totally get what you're saying. I"m sorry there have been some guys that make it about their own pain when you've really needed their strong and listening ear. Guys have such a need to fix things, rather than trusting the Holy Spirit to release the good in the other man's heart.

Sadly, I've been guilty of turning the conversation back to me; allowing my own pain to dictate the conversation, when it should have been about the other guy at that point.

It does get tiring and frustrating.

May 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJim Robbins

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