When Words of Comfort Feel More Like Salt in a Wound

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We sat in the doctor’s office, exhausted by the constant struggles with our son, only to hear the doctor say, “I think you just need to give him more to do.” I don’t know if he could actually see the steam coming out of my ears and the tears building up, but I couldn’t believe that he would look at 8 years of insanity in our home and tell us it was all due to our inability to give our child enough to do.

As hard as comments like that have been, the ones that have hurt the deepest have been from other believers who have insinuated that our child’s problems were due to our lack of parenting, or that if we just prayed and trusted more, God would intervene. The reality is, it’s hard to sit with another person in the mess of their suffering without trying to impose our own “wisdom” and try to rationalize it away. Another person’s pain can make us incredibly uncomfortable because it confronts us with the undeniable reality of how vulnerable and out of control we really are.  

We see this clearly in the dialogue that is recorded between Job and his friends. In the end, we see that the greatest comfort Job’s friends offered was when they sat with him in silence. They faltered when they couldn’t bear watching their righteous friend suffer, convinced that only the unrighteous would suffer so deeply. Personally, I wonder if it was fear that sent them down the path of explaining and searching for a reason for Job’s suffering. They knew Job to be a righteous man and therefore, if God had brought this much pain upon his life, the same could be their fate as well. But if they could reason it away, pinpointing where Job had gone wrong and brought God’s wrath upon him, just maybe they could prevent such calamity from coming upon them.

Of course, I don’t know what was in the heart of Job’s friends, but I do see a similar fear in my own heart and have experienced it in other’s attempts to comfort me. When we see something horrible happen to someone who’s living a destructive lifestyle, we may feel badly for them, but deep down we can believe and comfort ourselves with the assumption that they must have brought it upon themselves (which can be true when we suffer the natural consequences of our sin). The temptation for the Christian, however, can be that we subtly believe that if we obey God, he will protect us from harm.

Therefore, when we see suffering come to a believer who we would consider godly and striving after Christ, it’s incredibly unsettling. Though we may genuinely desire to comfort them, we naturally want to find a reason for their suffering. Deep down, we want to know what we can do to keep such pain from entering our lives. And out of that fear, we are tempted to either run from their pain and avoid them altogether, or respond as Job’s friends – comforting them for a time, but then foolishly trying to make sense of their suffering with comments that are often unbiblical and unhelpful.

For example, we may hear comments such as, “Well, God must have allowed this because…”, or “I’m sure things will get better soon”, or “If you just trust Jesus and pray in his name, he will take this away from you.”

We see this in Job 5:8, in Eliphaz’ response to Job, “As for me, I would seek God, and to God would I commit my cause.” In other words, “If it were me, I would go to God and repent.”

And in Job 8:5-7, Bildad falsely promises, “If you will seek God and plead with the Almighty for mercy, if you are pure and upright, surely then he will rouse himself for you and restore your rightful habitation. And though your beginning was small, your latter days will be very great.”

These are foolish attempts to make sense of God’s ways as if we are wise enough to understand them and, as a result, it often ends up hurting the very person we are trying to comfort.

If you are walking through trials, I have no doubt that you could share how good intentioned friends have spoken words of comfort that felt more like salt in a wound than salve for the soul. This can quickly cause you to retreat from others, including the church. Although this is an understandable response when we feel hurt and misunderstood by others on top of feeling the weight of our trials, we have to guard ourselves from isolation and allowing those hurts to take root.

As I have walked through some very heavy seasons, with different church situations (some healthy, some not), and changing friendships (some that dissipated and some that continue to long-suffer with us), the Lord has grown and taught me through many of the ups and downs.

Whatever kind of community you are surrounded by right now, I encourage you to guard yourselves with these reminders –

Be grounded in the truth so that you can recognize what is false.

The best way to guard yourself from hurtful and unbiblical comments is to continually fill yourself with the truth and promises of scripture. If you are meditating on the truth of the gospel daily – remembering that your sins have been paid for and you are no longer under God’s wrath, then you won’t be as flustered when someone insinuates your suffering must be the result of some hidden sin in your life. The truth we must remember, however, is that though God is always using our trials to grow us up in him and purify us for righteousness, it is no longer out of his wrath and punishment (Romans 5:8-9).

Likewise, if we are grounded in the truth that as followers of Christ, we will suffer as we follow our suffering Savior (1 Peter 2:21), we won’t be as shaken and confused by the false promise, “If you just believe and have more faith, God will take away your suffering.”  

We have to be grounded in the the Word of God, both individually and with our spouse (if they are willing). It will keep us anchored in the truth and protect us from spiraling into spiritual confusion when the misguided words of others are spoken into our suffering.

Be discerning in who you surround yourself with when your capacity is limited.

There may be seasons when we are so burdened by grief or overwhelming trials, that our capacity for fellowship, explaining our trials, and expending energy is more limited. While we have to be careful that we don’t isolate ourselves, leaving ourselves vulnerable to the enemy, we may need to be wise and discerning in who we surround ourselves with.

For example, our home life is often exhausting, and mentally and emotionally draining. There have been seasons when we have both been so weary, it’s taken every ounce of our physical and emotional energy to step out into public (such as church) where we know we’ll be asked how we are doing. It can be tempting to simply avoid church because it feels easier, rather than looking for which areas we can cut back on and what should be protected.

While we need to be discerning in how we choose to spend our time and energy, we have to remember that being with the body of Christ is a gift and provision that God has given us, as imperfect and flawed as it is. If we are ever tempted to believe the lie, “No one understands what I’m going through or no one cares, so I might as well not go to church anymore,” we are believing a lie of the enemy who seeks to isolate us from others. However, if we are sure that we are staying connected to a local church and hearing the Word of God preached consistently, we can be discerning about who we choose to spend our time with and what relationships we put more energy into.

During these seasons, it’s crucial to be intentional about surrounding ourselves with other Christians who are prayer warriors and encouragers; those who are firmly grounded in the truth of the God’s word. Along with that, we must pray for humility to hear hard truths from those who love us, care about us, and have walked closely with us. God uses trials for many purposes, one being to expose and set us free from sin we are blind to. To that end, he often calls humble loving friends to help us see sin that may be hindering us in our walk of faith.     

Personally, we have found it helpful to build into friendships with others who are currently going, or previously gone through significant trials of their own. There is a unique compassion and encouragement that others can offer who have experienced their own deep suffering, and have received the comfort of Christ. On the flip side, it’s also been important to realize that just because someone isn’t suffering, it doesn’t mean that they can’t walk alongside of us and be used by God to serve, pray for, and encourage us in a way that their season of life allows them to (1 Corinthians 12:4-11).

In time, if the Lord chooses to lift our own suffering, these seasons can be incredible teachers in learning to suffer alongside of others. As you learn what has helped and what has hurt, God can use you to comfort others with the wisdom and compassion you received in your season of trial (1 Corinthians 1:3-7).  

Be quick to give grace.

Lastly, remember that we are all flawed sinners in the process of being made more like Christ. Most people who speak a hurtful comment have good intentions, even when they are unknowingly speaking out of insecurity, fear, and lack of understanding. When they do hurt us, we need to remember that there is a good chance that we, too, have unintentionally hurt others at times, out of our own ignorance, and we all should be quick to extend grace and forgiveness to one another. When we are hurt by the words and judgements of others as Job was, we need to filter their words through the lens of the gospel, asking Christ to help us discern what is true, and trusting that God will ultimately be our defender. By God’s grace, he can even use the judgmental and hurtful words of others to draw us to him, grow us in grace, truth, and compassion, and use us to bring comfort and hope to others who are hurting.

In Christ,

Sarah Walton

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To read more on the hope we have in suffering, check out “Hope When It Hurts – 30 Biblical Reflections to Help You Grasp God’s Purpose in Your Suffering” authored by Sarah Walton and Kristen Wetherell here or here.

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