You may have heard the story about a man trapped in his home during a flood. The man climbed up to the rooftop and asked God to help him. Then multiple points of rescue come to him — cars and boats and helicopters — but he turns them away, saying: “God will save me.” The story ends with the man drowning, and when he stands in front of God, he asks, “Why didn’t you save me?” God replies, “I did; I sent three people to rescue you and you refused each of them.”
We might be tempted to dismiss that story as silly, but the truth is that we can overlook God’s help when it comes in the form of other people. Because sometimes the Lord brings us peace, strength or wisdom, and other times he sends people into our lives as vessels for his messages.
And Scripture reinforces the importance of having a community that we can trust. We need people around us in every season of life. Ecclesiastes 4:9 says, “Two people are better off than one, for they can help each other succeed” (NLT). We are called to community so that we may encourage each other and be present in times of need: “Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2,N LT).
But sometimes it can be hard to figure out how to walk with our friends during unpleasant seasons of life. It’s important to ask your friends how you can pray for them and be there for them in difficult times, but since everyone’s burdens are unique, their needs may be different from your other friends’ needs. Listen to what they have to say and what they need from you when they are struggling.
But there are a few biblically-based pieces of advice we can all use when we’re walking with a loved one through grief and struggles.
Be Discerning About How You Share Scripture
The Bible is a source of comfort, but God has also granted us discernment in quoting it to friends going through difficulties. For example, telling someone who has just lost a loved one that “we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28, NIV) might actually make the grieving person feel worse. While Scripture is always true, the Holy Spirit can help us discern what is most helpful and potentially harmful to a person we love in their moment of pain. We can follow the example of Jesus, who often sat silently and mourned with those who were in pain.
And while your intentions may be good, telling someone in the middle of an anxiety attack to “not be anxious about anything” can invalidate their feelings. The truth is that mental illness is often a difficult subject to talk about with others, and requires prayer and discernment. Sometimes difficult times are caused by chemical imbalances in the brain. Many mental illnesses can involve low levels of serotonin, and this requires a person seeing a doctor and taking a prescription drug to correct. This chemical imbalance isn’t anyone’s fault, and we should be careful how we respond to those who are struggling.
We can rest in the truth that God — our Creator — knows about these issues, and understands them and the person dealing with them even when we, in our humanity, cannot. We’ll sometimes say the wrong thing or do the wrong thing because we’re imperfect. In those moments we can humble ourselves and ask for forgiveness from God and others if we cause pain.
One great thing to do before entering any conversation with our loved ones about grief or mental health is to pray Psalm 119:66 before we speak: “I believe in your commands; now teach me good judgment and knowledge” (NLT).
Let Yourself Feel Someone’s Emotions
In Mark 10:14, Jesus said: “Let the children come to me. Don’t stop them! For the Kingdom of God belongs to those who are like these children” (NLT). If you have kids, you know they are very free with their emotions, regardless of their understanding of them. If they’re happy, they giggle and babble and dance around. If they’re unhappy, they yell and flail their arms (or their whole body). As we grow up, we learn how to manage our emotions and process them appropriately. But the Lord still wants us to feel our emotions, just as children do.
Emotions can lead us to a more genuine relationship with Jesus. Look at David’s psalms, where he expresses every human emotion throughout them: grief, anger, joy, doubt. And since we are made in God’s image, he understands our feelings and sits with us in them. He calls us to do the same with those around us.
During any difficult season, let your friend experience their pain, their grief or their confusion, and be right there with them in those emotions. Don’t try to police your friend’s feelings. Grief, after all, is cyclical. They will likely go through a wide range of emotions as they process their trauma, pain and loss. Sitting in your friend’s emotions doesn’t make the truth of the gospel any less true. In fact, the perfect example of this is the shortest verse in the Bible: “Jesus wept” (John 11:35 NIV).
Why did Jesus cry when he saw Lazarus dead, even though he knew he was going to be raised to life soon enough? Jesus wept because he allowed himself to feel the pain of the people around him and the pain of his humanity. He calls us to do the same.
Don’t tell a struggling friend to get over their pain or that they “need to grow up”; you are communicating that your love and God’s love is conditional on them “getting it together.” Yikes.
What does it look like to love God and love others? As we are reminded throughout the gospel, it looks like loving your neighbor as yourself.
Focus On Their Problems, and Don’t Make It About You
It can be really tempting to tell your own story when your friend is telling you theirs. And this can be completely well-intentioned: You want your friend to know that you’ve been through whatever they’re going through and that they aren’t alone. But like we’ve already talked about, discernment is key; there is a time and a place for this expression of empathy, and the middle of your friend’s breakdown is probably not that time. Maybe save this exchange of experiences for over coffee, when neither of you are in the thick of pain. Creating empathy is important so that in the future you and your friend can go to each other, knowing there is understanding and relatability on both sides.
If you still want to express some empathy in some way, simply saying, “I understand” or “I’m here with you” is enough. When a widow’s only son died in Luke 7, Scripture tells us that this was Jesus’ response: “When the Lord saw her, his heart overflowed with compassion” (v. 13, NLT). Feeling compassion for your friend’s pain is critical, and crying with a friend through their pain can be so powerful. As we mentioned before, this was Jesus’ response to Lazarus’ death. Feeling a friend’s hurt enough that you have an emotional reaction is an expression of love and compassion.
Let your friend feel their pain at their own pace, and don’t make them conform to your timeline. If you’ve planned to connect with your friend and talk about their difficult circumstance but only have 15 minutes to give, let your friend know that up front. Don’t cut the conversation short because this could leave your friend feeling exposed and uncomforted. Your friend will be able to judge the level of their need, and if 15 minutes is enough for them, they’ll accept it. However, if they’re having an extensive struggle and need more than you are able to give at the time, offer to connect with them later if they need. Set aside a time where you can focus fully on them.
Any process of emotion or experience can take anywhere from hours to years, depending on the severity. If your friend gets through their difficult circumstance in a day, that’s great! If not, check up on them and listen to any new revelations or discoveries they’ve had. Let them process things as slowly as they need it to.
Continue Being a Friend
Ultimately, the best way that you can help a friend through hard times is to ask your friend what they need. They may want you to pray over them, they might want to take a walk, give or receive a hug or need you to simply be present and not say anything at all. They may even tell you that they need to be alone for a little bit.
The best way we can truly be a friend to others in difficult circumstances is by listening to what they need and not assuming based on what we might want or need in the same situation. God created us each uniquely which means that we all have our own emotional responses and coping mechanisms, and part of being a good friend is accepting and loving others through their hard times.
And finally remember: “A friend is always loyal, and a brother is born to help in time of need” (Proverbs 17:17, NLT).