What to Say When Someone is Hurting

By John Harris

No eyebrows. Bald head. Fifteen pounds underweight. Ghost-white skin. When I was undergoing six rounds of chemotherapy for stage IV cancer, I couldn’t hide.

It didn’t take people long to realize I was in a life-and-death struggle. When I talked to others, I could tell they were at a loss for words. What can you say to someone who may be dead in a few months?

After my experience, including going in and out of remission, I can tell you there are some things a pastor or church leader can say that can really help anyone who is going through a tough time. Here are some guidelines to help you say just the right thing:

Timing is Important. When you first talk with someone going through a crisis, don’t get into a discussion on theology, such as why God allows evil or the nature of sin. More than likely, the person is scared, frustrated, or even angry. They need a calm, reassuring voice of love, not theology.

Show Love. During my chemotherapy, I had friends from church bring me meals, cut my grass, and help with other chores. I was overwhelmed to tears that they would love me like this. I certainly was encouraged by their kind words, but their love overwhelmed me.

Be Ready for the “Why” Question. They may not want to talk about it at first, but there’s a good chance someone in a crisis wants to know why this is happening to them. Be careful: they may have reaped what they have sown, but the disciples were in error when they assumed that the man blind from birth had sinned or his parents had sinned. If the cause is not evident, don’t assume you know.

Prayer is Powerful. Praying together and out loud with someone in a crisis is powerful. It  puts the person’s problem on a spiritual level and calls upon God for his power and mercy. When you are going through a crisis, it’s easy to get self-absorbed. Pray puts the focus on God.

Have a Word. The Word of God is alive and penetrates to the soul (Hebrews 4:12). Therefore, this can be the salve to put on a wound. Share a Bible verse in love and not judgment.

Also, be careful not to dive into platitudes such as “everything will be all right.” It’s not about giving false hope but instead giving someone a rope to grasp. Tell them that you’re there to stand beside them and offer to help.

I remember a lot about my year-long battle with cancer, including losing all my hair, the physical weakness, and other hardships. I’ll never forget the pain.

But there was one thing that overpowered it all: love. I knew God loved me, and I felt the love of my Christian brothers and sisters. That was all I needed.

(John Harris is the author of “Five Stones for Christians in Crisis.” He is a writer for a Fortune 100 company and long-time Sunday school teacher. He blogs at Five Stone Fight.)

John Harris

John S. Harris is the author of Five Stones for Christians in Crisis, available at Amazon at: amzn.com/1469923092. He is a writer for a Fortune 100 company and has 16 years of professional journalism and communications experience. He holds a Master’s Degree in Corporate Communications and has more than seven years experience as a small group Bible study leader in several churches. He is a stage IV cancer survivor currently in remission. He lives in Tennessee with his wife and their three children.