When we visit the sick or shut-in, we want to empathize, encourage, and comfort, yet even with good intentions we sometimes say things that we don’t realize actually carry negative implications. Fear of saying the wrong thing can be a hindrance to putting yourself into a situation like visiting the sick. But withdrawal is not a biblical option. We are to encourage one another. That means learning to use words that edify and give grace (He. 10:25; Col. 3:16; Eph. 4:29). Learning requires practice, failure, correction and more practice. I hope this post will help. Launching from what not to say, it offers alternatives for what to say. The intention is to equip you for profitable conversation. Perhaps you’ll think of even better options.
Statements to avoid include the following:
“I understand.” Because problems in living are common to man (1 Cor. 10:13), another person’s difficulty might remind us of a similar difficulty in our own lives so that we think we know how this person feels. The desire to empathize is commendable but the fact is that no one but the Lord truly understands each person’s heart. Proverbs 14:10 says, “The heart knows its own bitterness, and a stranger does not share its joy.” We might understand that the person is suffering, but not exactly how it feels.
Therefore, rather than “I understand,” draw attention to the compassionate understanding of Christ. An alternative might be: “That must be difficult for you. I cannot know exactly how you feel, but our Lord does. You can pray to Him confident that He knows all things and loves you. He can comfort you in ways beyond what any human can.” This kind of statement considers the feelings of the other, not yourself. It connects with where she is and opens the door for your friend to share more if she wants. What she says may reshape your understanding of her feelings. Most important, it points the other person to the One whose understanding is most effectual.
“I had that (ailment), too, and I just gave it time and it got better.” I’m sure you’re trying to encourage by suggesting that improvement is on its way but do you really want to infer that your friend used poor judgment in seeking medical help?
An alternative might be: “I had that, too, and I’ll pray that you and your doctor will have wisdom and your body will heal.”
“Everything will be okay.” The intent to reassure another is commendable. The trouble is, you don’t know that everything will be okay because you don’t know the future. This statement promises what you haven’t the power to deliver. Perhaps this patient will never be able to return to her previous lifestyle. Perhaps her stroke was too severe for full recovery or it will be found that she has a chronic illness that has no cure. What if you say this in pre-surgery and then the surgeon finds inoperable cancer and just closes the person back up? What if in surgery an organ is accidentally perforated and she dies? What if there is post-operative pneumonia or sepsis or internal bleeding? So many things can happen. Proverbs 27:1 says, “Do not boast about tomorrow for you do not know what a day will bring forth.”
An encouraging alternative might be to inject the sovereignty and love of Christ into the situation. While everything might not be “okay,” everything is in His control and directed by His love. He ordains all of our trials for our good as well as His glory (Rom. 8:28-29).
“God will heal you.” How do you know God will heal? What if God will receive more glory by not healing?
This statement is a cruel one because it sets up false expectations through false advertising. If the expected healing doesn’t happen the person may grow disillusioned with God. God didn’t deliver! This devastating effect is the exact opposite of building the sufferer’s faith in the goodness of God. God never promised that problems would always be solved on this side of death. The hope a Christian has for heaven is certain. The hope he has for healing on earth is only tentative. It should be held loosely in the open palm of a hand submissive to the will of the loving Father who ordains suffering for our welfare.
An alternative might be: “We don’t know the future but we do know that God loves you and if you aren’t healed the grace of God will be sufficient for you” (2 Cor. 12).
“God wouldn’t have given you such a challenge if He didn’t know you were strong enough to handle it.” How do you know what God was thinking? The intent of this evaluation of the case may be to bolster resolve, but it is actually patronizing, setting the sufferer up as some special Christian for God to pick on. It elevates human ability rather than the strength and sufficiency of Christ. How is this encouraging to the patient who feels like she is dying inside, has lost hope, and is longing for someone to take her weakness seriously so as to help her know how to deal with it?
The reality is that while two of God’s purposes for trials are to prove the genuineness of our faith and to strengthen it (Jas. 1:2-4), no trial is about showing that we are strong enough to handle it. In that case, we deserve the credit. Rather, because of our sin nature we actually are not strong enough to respond with all godliness, and were never intended to be. It is God who is strong. God purposely made us limited and dependent. His intent is that in our weakness His power will be on display (2 Cor. 12:9-10).
An alternative might be to shine the light on the power of the Holy Spirit. He enables us to think right thoughts when in our own strength we would not (Eph. 5:18). By His strength, a sufferer can respond to trials in a way that glorifies Christ (1 Cor. 10:13). His grace is sufficient (2 Cor. 12:9-10).
“This is a blessing in disguise.” There are blessings that God works in His children through suffering, but He doesn’t play play games with us through disguise. This statement undervalues the pain of the other and can come off as unfeeling.
“Maybe God allowed it to happen because…” This is speculation, merely a human interpretation of an experience. You don’t know why God ordained this adversity in this particular person’s life; neither does she. Even when citing the Bible’s reasons we must be careful because we don’t necessarily know which of several biblical purposes for suffering applies to this person.
Furthermore, our reasons tend to be man-centered. In contrast, the man born blind suffered for years not primarily for himself but so that one day “the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 19:3), i.e., that when Christ was on earth the people might recognize that He is God. Lazarus suffered sickness that ended in death not specifically for his own good but “for the glory of God” (John 11:4), that Christ might be recognized as God.
Generally, people want a reason for what we deem a senseless adversity in order to justify it. If there is a good purpose it is easier to accept. A sense of purpose also engenders an illusion of control. But it is God who has control and He doesn’t need our justification for bringing adversity into our lives. It is not for us to figure it out or nod approval after we assess it as worthwhile. What the hurting person really needs is to trust Christ. She needs to obey His Word without having to identify a reason for the adversity.
A possible alternative might be: “I don’t know the purpose God has in mind for your particular trial and I’m glad that our faith does not depend upon knowing it. In faith, we know that any purpose He has must be a good one. By His grace you can love and trust Him. What can I do to help?”
“One day you’ll be able to comfort someone else in your same situation.” Due to the vicissitudes of illness and accident, we don’t know if the sufferer will have a “one day.” “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring forth” (Prov. 27:1).
While it is true that 2 Corinthians 1:3-5 teaches that one purpose God has for comforting sufferers is to equip them to comfort others, the present sufferer is in pain now. Turning the attention onto some unknown “other” in an uncertain future minimizes this person’s present, known suffering. It is commendable that you are attempting to find a rainbow at the end of this person’s storm, but the sufferer needs to know how to deal with the present winds and floods in her life.
- A stronger emphasis on the relief of suffering than on pointing the person to Christ will more likely produce deficient responses.
- A greater focus on wishes for the future than on realities of the present will more likely produce deficient responses.
- We ought not speak what we don’t know. What we do know is:
- God is sovereign, so He has ordained the present suffering.
- God is loving, so any suffering of believers in Christ is intended for their good.
- God deserves all glory, so when we suffer it is more important that He receive glory than that we receive relief.
If gracious speech is difficult for you, plan and practice. “The heart of the righteous ponders how to answer” (Prov. 15:28). Plan ahead what you believe would be the most fitting to say in the visitation situation you are entering. Let the summary principles above guide you.
Practice what you’ve planned. You can even gather samples of gracious speech you read or hear someone else say. Then in a private location practice those samples daily for a few weeks. This exercise has helped me.
Isn’t it encouraging that gracious speech can be learned? The learning process includes failure. That’s no fun! There are even times to ask for forgiveness from others. Keep going. The growth in Christlikeness is worth it.
For now, this ends a series of posts on visiting the sick. (It began at Visit the Sick.) I hope it has encouraged you to visit the sick or others who need encouragement. Of the Lord Jesus, Matthew records, “And seeing the multitudes He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and downcast….” (9:36). When we visit the sick or suffering, we can be like Christ by exercising compassion for the distressed and downcast. It is a privilege to serve His body this way.
Sources: See end of this post.