When People Who are Hurting Need Questions: Button Three
August 24, 2017 by Sheree Phillips 0 comments
When People Who are Hurting Need Questions: Button Three
Editor’s Note: This is part three of a series on how to care for suffering people. If you haven’t yet read the first two parts I encourage you to do so before reading this post.
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Grace, a woman who I had just met the day before, was describing through tears the horror of standing in the street with her young children watching flames destroy their home. The home that held family heirlooms passed down from her grandmother and great-grandmother. The table where she had sat homeschooling her children. Books she had loved and collected since childhood.
“I wasn’t just watching my house burn. I was watching my life and memories die and there was nothing I could do.” While the fire had happened nearly a decade ago, she described and felt it as if it were yesterday. Many details were lost in the fog and shock of seeing smoke and making sure her children were awakened and left safely outside while she dashed in to grab the purse that held her cell phone to call 911 and her out-of-town husband.
I was speechless. What words could begin to suggest how sorry I was that this happened, and that it was understandably impacting her years later?
I remembered the first button: whatever I want to say right now probably is more to quiet my stunned sadness than care for my friend. So I waited. I let the scene embed further into my mind. I forced myself to sit for a few seconds and linger over her haunting tears and quivering fingers. And when shock began to melt into gut wrenching compassion I mouthed, “I’m so sorry.”
She glanced up and mouthed back, “Thank you.” Somehow we both knew the moment was too holy for words with sounds. So we sat quietly again. Then I remembered button two: when words come let them be few and affirming. I don’t remember what I said, which is interesting. I only remember the silent words…and the feeling of being so small before her looming pain that I needed to speak quietly. I probably mumbled something about how awful that must have been for her and how honored I was that she was willing to share the story and the pain with me.
But there comes a time for button three: Suffering people need questions, not answers. I asked Grace how she was feeling right then about talking to me. She said she was ok but scared. When I asked why she was scared she said, “Because after the fire I tried to talk to a friend and she reminded me that she understood my pain…but at least we had food and shelter.” Grace knew her loving friend was genuinely trying to help, yet her words brought only shame. “Yeah, I need to stop feeling sorry for myself and be grateful we have food and a place to live.”
I was Grace. Years before our family had walked through some horrifically painful situations with far-reaching results. I can’t count the number of times I heard wonderfully Biblical truths:
- God is in control and promises everything will work out for good!
- It won’t be long before your perspective will change, I promise.
- I hate that you’re going through this but can’t wait for the fruit to come.
- The Lord disciplines those He loves; I know He loves you guys so much!
- God is giving you an opportunity for your family to see and turn from your sins, what a gift!
- Let me share with you a passage that meant SO much to me when I went through a hard time last year.
- Just think about how God is going to use your suffering to help others down the road.
Sufferers don’t need to be pointed to their or others sins. Like Job’s friends, we too often presume sin is the problem, thus repentance and change is the quick fix. But most serious (and especially self-righteous) Christians are already proficient sin-hunters. People reeling during trials also don’t need premature assurances of all the good that will come from pit of shame or death or betrayal in which they are currently stuck.
During my ordeal, and a couple more ordeals since, the words that helped me most always ended with a question mark:
- Oh, Sheree, what’s the hardest thing about this for you right now?
- I know I can’t possibly understand how dark your days must be. Can you help me understand?
- What’s the most difficult time of day for you?
- What are you most afraid of?
And the most important question: How can I pray for you right now? (Not tomorrow or the next day because the answer will likely change – followed by a text or call saying, “I’m praying for you.”)
Those kinds of questions weren’t a carnal search for details (“Oh, my! What happened? Then what? Oh, Lord, how awful! How did that turn out? Then what happened?” ) Questions that demonstrate empathy, compassion and target the sufferers’ broken or anxious heart say, “I am really curious about the details, but I’m more concerned about you.” Questions that satisfy the listener’s curiosity about what, where, why and how simply plunge the knife deeper into an already-pained heart.
There may come a time when sharing details will become important to the hurting person. After Grace and I sat and cried together I asked if she would like to like to walk through what happened with me. She agreed and we spent time together walking through the rooms of that house together, one horrible memory at a time. It only took a question or two to unlock a flood of pain.
Last year I experienced another dark season when my faith was tested and my heart was torn into pieces. After a couple of friends had sat and cried with me one started asking questions. Because I felt such love and comfort from her – and because she wisely waited until I was ready to start processing what happened – her questions helped unlock places in my heart where both sin and grace were alive. This friend understands that “The purposes of a man’s heart are like deep waters, and a man of understanding draws them out” (Proverbs 20:5). And by then I was ready to embrace her assurances of God's sovereign control and how much good would come out of my suffering in my care for others.
Once you get three buttons right on a shirt or blouse, there’s not much chance of messing up the rest. Or can we?