Jennifer Simmans is a global energy consultant portfolio manager living in the Dallas-Fort Worth area with her husband, Bob. She holds a Master of Arts in Biblical Counseling from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and has served with her husband in various church plants. Jennifer and her husband are members at The Village Church.
I live with a genetic disorder, a condition that has affected many areas of my life—from family planning to remembering to schedule MRIs every 3-5 years. There are days when I feel as if I’ve heard it all. Some have mourned this diagnosis more than I have, acting as if my life is doomed beyond repair, or that I’m handicapped to some extent. Others respond flippantly: Just let nature take its course, they say. Roll the dice and trust God if you end up birthing a child with debilitating or even life-threatening complications. Dive into the arduous process of adopting, and the financial impact will work itself out.
And on any given day, toward the seemingly thoughtful or thoughtless, I’m left with two options: I can either give them grace or dismiss them as ignorant or thoughtless.
Slowing Down to Listen
Consider it a result of the increased immediacy of information with the rise of social media, the ability to share with the click of a button, the ease of glossing over a post or tweet with little more than five seconds thought—whatever the catalyst may be, in our increasingly hurried culture, we don’t slow down long enough to hear someone out. We don’t take the time to hear their perspective, their motivation, or their heart on a particular issue of conviction or concern. Instead we settle for what we’ve merely perceived within the limited time or space we’ve afforded them.
I’m guilty of this. I’m guilty of assuming the worst in a person’s motive. This is partly from a historic mistrust in people, which is often rooted in control and pride. They don’t experience or perceive things the way I do, I assume—therefore, they must not be able to relate. Or I’m projecting my own lack of control of the situation onto them, rendering their words unhelpful. As soon as those walls of protection go up, I push away the counsel of those who are otherwise well-meaning. They’re dismissed before really being heard.
Many articles on the subject of caring for hurting people validate my indignation at people’s insensitive comments. There’s a wealth of guidance on what to say and what not to say. Writers, counselors, and ministers want to encourage their readers how to step into the hard places with loved ones. And while many would do well to heed their wisdom, I fear at times it can have an adverse effect, inhibiting a hurting person’s ability to receive well-intended words of comfort and encouragement.
Further, it can breed fear among those who just want to love their hurting friends well—a fear of rejection that overpowers their initial inclination to reach out with compassion. I can vouch for being in the midst of hard circumstances when I felt compelled to say something, but said nothing out of fear of man—fearing I would be wrong or not received as intended.
An Encouragement to Speak
For the friend who can’t seem to keep her home in order as a stay-at-home mom to children with life-threatening allergies, for the friend who sees five different specialists for five unrelated illnesses, for the friend who found herself a widow at 40, for the many friends who have tasted the beauty of blessing and the bitterness of disappointment—is it better to say nothing at all from the fear of not being well-received or understood? Or is it better to simply be there and let my imperfect, awkward words flow as they may?
Certainly we ought to seek wisdom in how to comfort and encourage, and sometimes that means slowing down long enough to just listen. But, sometimes, it means embracing the awkward. We need not shy away from offering a word from fear of not being received. We’re not the perfect Counselor; we’re not the One who is able to carry and sympathize with every weakness. But—praise God—the One who is our great High Priest is faithful to step into that space when we don’t have the answers.
May we take comfort in the truth that we can boldly come before the throne of grace in our time of need. May we, by the grace and prompting of the Holy Spirit, come alongside our brothers and sisters, even when we know we have nothing to offer. And lest we worry over the having the perfect words, may we rest in the word, the source of our true hope (see Heb 4:11-16).
An Encouragement to Receive
And, in turn, how can I extend grace to my imperfect friends trying desperately to offer simple words of encouragement when they know it may not penetrate?
If I’ve learned anything from life in community, it’s this: their words aren’t wrong simply because I didn’t receive them as intended. My friends and church members are not less compassionate or less understanding because their attempts at encouragement have fallen on deaf or weary ears. May my own hurt not taint the genuine attempts of friends speaking into the hard, messy corners of life. May my own understanding of a situation not present an opportunity for pride in refusing the kindness of a brother or sister. By relying on the Lord, leaning not on my own understanding but on the promise of his word (Prov 3:5), I am able to love them even in the midst of my own struggle. We are able to come alongside one another in mutual compassion (Phil 2:1-4).
Clinging to the comfort and hope of the gospel, I’m free from demanding that my friends love me perfectly. I don’t need their perfect ministry because I have the perfect ministry of Christ. And as I humbly receive from him, I’m able to humbly receive the imperfect love of others as tangible instruments of God’s grace to me.
“From the need to be understood, from the need to be accepted—Deliver me, O God.” —Audrey Assad