Last year, as I was finalizing plans for my upcoming book, working harder than ever to balance work demands and family needs, I went through a very dark, personal trial. I prayed every way I knew how and confided in a handful of trusted friends, asking for prayer. I made inquiries and sought the proper authorities for help.
I thought I was handling it.
And then one day in workout class, I broke down in tears. I suppose it’s only natural that my stress would manifest itself eventually in that way, but I didn’t expect it. And I wasn’t prepared to talk about it. I had been trying to keep it private, knowing sometimes people say the wrong thing and make it worse. And I didn’t have margin for worse. I was pretty much barely keeping things together as it was.
That day after class, my friends noticed my tears. I decided to trust them with the reality of my situation. And then I learned all over again what anyone who has faced a hardship or trial knows: people aren’t always great at knowing what to do or say in those situations.
That’s the primary reason why I wrote Alongside: A Practical Guide for Loving your Neighbor in their Time of Trial—to give people a road map to navigate their friend’s hard times with grace and love. So instead of unintentionally making things worse, they will have the tools to make difficult situations a bit better.
In my own life, I lived through a decade of hardship, wherein I faced eleven weeks of bed rest during pregnancy, had four back surgeries in six years, and walked through terminal illness with three close family and friends in as many years. I learned a thing or two in the trenches of my own hardships. But I learned even more from my bird’s eye view of others’ difficulties, as I witnessed both the beauty and challenge of loving another well in the face of life’s greatest hardships.
The Bible recounts a story in which Jesus was pressed by the Pharisees to sum up all of the Law. They were testing Him, and He responded with this answer: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ ” (Matthew 22:37–38).
Love God and love others—this is the sum total of a Christian’s expression of faith. Yes, most of us know we ought to love our neighbor, but if we are brave enough to admit it, we don’t actually understand how. Loving our neighbor can be daunting, confusing, scary, and vulnerable. But wholly living out our faith hinges on these two commands.
That’s why I believe reaching out to help others in their hardest circumstances is more than just doing the right thing. It’s our God-given responsibility.
Jesus’ simple directive to love our neighbor can be expressed in many different forms. But no matter the expression, love is the essential ingredient.
Practical Ways to Love
When your friend or loved one is facing a crisis, listening is one of the most valuable things you can do to support them. But listening isn’t always easy, and many people don’t do it right.
Listen; Don’t Judge. Early on in my crisis, I fell prey to one close friend’s judgment when I confided in her. I’m sure she didn’t think before blurting out her thoughts about my current hardship. But her words made me feel as if I had done something wrong to deserve my situation. They cut to my core. I know it’s wise to be careful how you act, but if someone wants to hurt you, they don’t need permission to do so. I was the victim, and it’s not my fault there are evil people in the world.
What I needed was my friend’s quiet concern and support. But her thoughtless words made a stressful, challenging time even harder for me.
Listen; Don’t Compare. We’ve all had that friend who says, “I know how you feel,” and then proceeds to hijack your story in favor of talking about their similar experience. Only often, it’s not similar. But either way, anything you do to take the focus off the hurting person and what they’re feeling at the time is unhelpful.
That day at the gym, when I bared my soul about my recent hardship, one friend said, “I know how you feel. I once had a person…” And then proceeded to make a very unhelpful comparison. I felt so violated that she would compare her situation to mine, because it was truly like apples and bananas. The only thing our situations had in common was they were “fruit.” But they looked and tasted nothing like each other; you know what I mean?
Don’t mistake comparison as empathy. It can derail your efforts to listen effectively and it makes the discussion about you, not the person you want to support.
When we listen attentively, we validate our friend’s feelings and lessen their burden in that moment.
The book of Job in the Bible tells the story of how Job lost everything—his family, his livelihood, his wealth, his health. During his profound pain and mourning, his three friends traveled a vast distance to be with him. Job 2:13 says, “Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and nights. No one said a word to Job, for they saw that his suffering was too great for words.”
For seven days, they sat with Job and participated with him in his pain. When your neighbor is in a dire crisis, your presence can be enough. The one who shows up stands out!
We don’t have to fix their predicament, but we can sit with them and show our support with our presence. The people in my life I count on the most and think of the most highly of are the people I know I can count on to show up for me, in good times or bad.
Choose Wise Words
There will be a time when we need to use words to express our care and concern for people facing loss or hardship. But the truth is, nothing we say can take away someone’s pain in the moment. Often our desire to say something is expressed in saying things that are true but not helpful. For example, when a mother has just lost an infant child, she doesn’t necessarily want to hear her child is “in a better place,” even if it is true. She wants her baby to be with her, in this place, in this moment. Unwittingly, we’ve just made her feel worse because we’ve trivialized her loss and been insensitive to her new reality.
So many people have been wounded by words that at first seem helpful. Phrases like “God must have been finished with them,” “There’s another angel in Heaven,” “God chose special people to have special children,” or “God has a purpose for this.” Whatever truth there may be in these statements, people in the midst of great loss or hardship aren’t necessarily comforted by them.
When you don’t know what to say, focus on affirming their feelings, acknowledging their situation, and expressing your empathy. A simple, “I’m here for you” can be far more powerful than words that come up short in times of great pain.
Coming alongside people in the hard places this life brings is more than a notion; it’s a biblical directive. Jesus meant for us to be part of the physical, human illustration of God’s power. We are meant to help, heal, minister to, and love someone for His sake. And in the midst of brokenness, there’s no better time to love than the present.
Editor’s Note: For more practical ways to walk with friends or family through the rough patches of life, pick up a copy of Sarah Beckman’s book, Alongside: A Practical Guide for Loving Your Neighbor in their Time of Trial, from your favorite bookseller or get more information at www.alongsidebook.com.
Written by Sarah Beckham
Photo by Ben White