It happened again in my adult Sunday school class. As we discussed a certain Bible passage, I confessed my frustration. I admitted that I was failing in my attempt to apply this scripture to a particularly difficult struggle in my life.
The reaction from the group was typical: advice … lots of it. I could almost envision a circle of fingers being shaken at me. But I didn’t need advice, at least not yet. What I really needed was someone to help me sort through several confusing options.
Offering the right kind of help is one of the most blessed gifts we can give. I believe that much of what we consider helping, however, is ineffective. Even Christians – perhaps especially Christians – fail to offer this essential gift because, although we desire to be compassionate, we really don’t know how. And helping is hard. We make mistakes.
MISTAKES WE MAKE
There are several common mistakes we make when friends come to us for help:
- We give them advice. This can communicate the insulting implication that they can’t figure out what to do themselves. It may also be arrogant to suggest that we know more about their situation than they do.
- We say, “I understand.” This can be deadly to a hurting person. It’s likely that we can’t understand fully. No situation is like theirs, especially to them.
- We tell them about our own similar situations. All of a sudden the conversation is about us and not them. Justifiably, they may feel ignored and frustrated.
- We dismiss them with an “I’ll be praying for you.” Certainly we should pray, but that shouldn’t be the extent of the help we offer.
- We say only, “Jesus is the answer.” They either know this already and need more than a reminder, or they don’t know it and the phrase means nothing to them. Jesus is the answer, but He may just have provided us as His means to deliver it.
What, then, is the right way to help a hurting friend?
The first step in helping is to be available, to give a person our physical presence and our attention. Jesus continually made Himself available to people – as He traveled, as He taught, even when He had planned a retreat for the disciples. He spent time with His grieving disciples in the Upper Room after the Crucifixion, greeting them, “Peace be with you” (Lk. 24:36). He appeared to the men on the way to Emmaus and silently walked with them for a while (Lk. 24:13-16).
Job’s friends were available. They quickly and compassionately rallied around him in his pain. For seven days, they suffered in silence with him. But after a week they begin to fail him. They refused to accept Job’s claim that he had been faithful to God. Instead, they insisted that he must have sinned and tried to impose solutions to his dilemma. “Repent,” they said. “Curse God and die,” his wife suggested.
We too run the danger of offering bad advice when we move directly from being available to discussing a plan of action. There is an important step in between.
The critical component in helping is listening. Effective listening involves interacting with people in a way that shows respect for their feelings. Even if our intentions are good, immediately jumping in with solutions – thus ignoring what they say – shows a lack of respect.
Reflect the content. The first step in listening is to reflect back the content of what a person says using different words to repeat what he communicated. This process may seem awkward or phony at first, but it will sound stranger to us than to the person we are helping. This skill has two important benefits: It forces us to pay close attention, and it tells the other person that we have heard him.
At times, Jesus reflected back to people what He heard them say. After a short exchange, Nathanael declared Jesus to be the Son of God. Jesus reflected back to him the basis of his faith: “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree” (Jn. 1:43-51).
When I commented about my difficulty with the Bible passage, the others in my Sunday school class could have said, “It is hard to apply this verse to our lives.” Then I would have known that they had really heard my complaint and that they empathized with what is surely a common plight.
Clarify the hidden need. Reflecting the message works best when we reflect not only the content, but also the emotion and need behind what is said. The harried Martha complained to Jesus, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” Before offering a solution, Jesus reflected back to her the heart of her problem, which went much deeper than household help: “You are worried and upset about many things” (Lk. 10:38-42).
We too can minister to people by reflecting back their feelings and clarifying the need they express. As a public high school teacher, I sometimes come home from school with a litany of discouraging events. My husband, Roy, used to respond with, “Cheer up!” or “You should count your blessings,” or even “uh huh.” Now, however, he says, “You sound discouraged,” or “You must have had a hard day,” or “You need a hug.” I much prefer the new Roy. Now I feel as if he really listens to me – not only to what I say, but to what I need.
We must be careful not to “psychoanalyze,” though, when we reflect back people’s feelings. We should reflect just the surface feelings: “That must have hurt your feelings,” or, “You sound angry.” We shouldn’t go any deeper and suggest, for example, that they must be acting out a childhood trauma. Such a statement would be a wild guess and could even be harmful.
Reflect the confusion. Reflective listening is probably most helpful when someone has confused or ambivalent feelings. If we can repeat back to him what he says, he may be able to recognize his confusion and take constructive action. Jesus did this when the father of a son possessed by an evil spirit said to Him, “If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” By repeating his words, “If you can,” in the form of a question, Jesus clarified the man’s ambivalence about his faith. Then He said, “Everything is possible for him who believes,” allowing him the opportunity to decide on a clear path of action. The man decided: “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mk. 9:20-27).
How, then, do we help people arrive at solutions? Not until we have truly listened to our friends will we have earned the right to be part of the third step: the process of solution. We must respect them enough to allow them to solve their own problems. Our main objective should be to encourage people to find their own solutions. We can facilitate this process by asking questions.
Talk about the present. People searching for solutions to a problem first need to talk about the present situation. Sometimes a simple fact-finding question reveals a lot. Jesus said to a demoniac, “What is your name?” The astounding answer, “Legion” (Mk. 5:9), was more than just an interesting tidbit: it was a revelation of the man’s whole problem. He was possessed by a multitude of evil spirits. No wonder his behavior was destructive!
Focus on what they are asking for. Next, help the hurting person to define exactly what needs to be done. Jesus asked blind Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?” (Mk. 10:46-52). Surely He knew, but He wanted Bartimaeus to articulate his need. Understanding what a person’s problem is can be an important step in healing.
Help them to generate alternatives. Then, encourage your friend to generate his own solutions, avoiding the temptation to offer yours. Ask him to consider the past, to remember what has worked before to solve a problem. When the disciples were worried about having enough bread, Jesus used a series of questions to remind them of the miraculous way in which He had just fed the multitudes (Mk. 8:14-21). They needed to remember and understand that Jesus was the solution to their problem.
Offer suggestions. If a friend truly cannot come up with a practical course of action, you may want to – carefully – suggest one, but only after all the steps already mentioned are exhausted. And get permission first. Ask, “Would you like to know what worked for me?” or “for a friend?” or “in the Bible?”
COMMITTING TO ACTION
Finally, once a person has thought about what has worked in the past and considered various options, he needs to decide on a course of action.
Jesus helped a Samaritan woman at the well to move from a position of pain and rejection to a position of acting in hope and faith (Jn. 4:1-26). She was confused about the issue of where to worship God, on the mountain or in Jerusalem. Jesus understood her desire to know God, summarized the two options she had articulated, and offered a third, couched in nonthreatening terms, as one that “true worshipers” are choosing: worshiping God “in spirit and in truth.” Then she offered her own solution, “When [the Messiah] comes, he will explain everything to us.” She had committed to an action – pursuit of faith – so she was ready for Jesus’ revelation, “I who speak to you am He.”
We can help a friend reach the stage of action by continuing to serve as a sounding board. Rephrase his ideas as he gropes toward a solution and help him to clarify his needs and options. Then, once you have found out what he really wants to do, encourage him to do it.
Jesus was encouraging people to action when he said to the rich young ruler, who was apparently seeking more fulfillment, “Follow me” (Mk. 10:17-22); to the nobleman with the paralyzed servant, “Go! It will be done just as you believed it would” (Matt. 8:5-13); to many sinners, “Go and sin no more”; and to the disciples, “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation” (Mk. 16:15). We can be sure, though, that Jesus had already ascertained the desires of their hearts. We too can encourage people to follow a course of action they’ve come to desire, but we need to be sure that the course of action comes from them and not us, as we may bear the blame if it doesn’t work out.
“Go forth” was, and is, Jesus’ message to all believers: Go forth in Him. This is the answer that our non-believing friends need also, an answer that they will be receptive to only if we afford them dignity and respect by first listening to them. If we can, through listening, help our friends remember or begin to see the hand of the Lord in their lives, and if we can encourage them to act on that knowledge, instead of remaining in hiding behind closed doors of confusion, then they will have a chance for victory. What a wonderful gift to give!
Cynthia V. MacDonald, Discipleship Journal
“Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person they are almost indistinguishable.”
– David W. Augsburger –