Several years ago, I heard a story of a little boy whose neighbor had just lost her husband to cancer. The little boy was accustomed to going in and out of the elderly couple’s home daily and he saw them as an extra set of grandparents.
Trying to be sensitive to the widow’s emotional struggle, the boy’s mother instructed him to stay away from her house for a while to let her grieve in peace. The little boy would often stare out of his bedroom window and see the television playing next door. On cold days, he saw smoke rolling out of her chimney and he remembered how he loved to hear their fire crackle. One day, he just couldn’t stay away any longer, so he put on his boots, hat, coat and gloves and eased next door. When the boy returned home and his mother asked where he had been, he told the truth and admitted he had disobeyed and visited their grieving neighbor.
His mother asked what he had said to the lady, and the boy replied, “Nothing.” Determined to know what was said, she asked again and again he replied, “Nothing.” When his mother asked what took place, he simply explained that he walked in and climbed into the widow’s lap and they simply held each other and cried for a while. He offered the ministry of presence.
One of the most difficult tasks of ministry is trying to figure out how to respond to hurting people. There is an abundance of hurt, pain, trials, grief and suffering all around. Far too often, I have tried to say something “religious” or “spiritual,” hoping my words would help make sense of the pain and suffering someone was experiencing, only to find that my words missed the mark. I have witnessed many well-meaning people fall into the same trap as they attempted to say something that eases the pain, but their words, like mine, have missed the mark.
Well-meaning words are not always well-received words. People who are hurting don’t want to hear “it will get better with time.” That ignores the level of their current pain. People who are suffering don’t want to hear that “someone somewhere is in a worse situation than you are.” That fails to acknowledge that their pain is justified. People whose lives have been turned upside-down don’t want to hear “God has a reason for everything; this is what is best.” That response makes it sound like God enjoys putting us through pain and their suffering doesn’t matter because it is part of a larger plan.
I began my search for something to say to folks who are suffering more than two decades ago as I ministered to a family that was grieving the loss of an infant child. I remember feeling intense pressure that I needed to say something that would make sense of the situation, but there were no words to say that would erase or explain the pain. I retreated to a quiet place where I could spend some time thinking and praying. After getting alone with God, all I could come up with was that I needed to show this precious family that I love them and that I hurt because they hurt.
Two decades have passed since that time. I have gained a great deal of life and ministry experience since then; yet today, all I know to do is show devastated people that I love them and I hurt because they hurt.
The next time you have an opportunity to encourage someone who is suffering, speak any words that God places on your heart, but keep in mind the ministry of presence brings more comfort than well-meaning words.
Chuck Sprouse is senior pastor of The Ninety Six First Baptist Church. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 864-543-2333.