Ed Stetzer and Jamie Aten
This piece was originally published in Christianity Today's The Exchange on March 29, 2017.
Listening will speak more deeply to survivors than any words you might say.
We live in a world where tragedies come—and come far too often. The world is broken, and tragic moments remind us of that reality. However, it’s unusual to know someone who is on the front page of the news for such tragedy.
But that’s the case right now. A few hours ago, news broke of a bus crash—a church bus crash, no less. And the pastor of that church is Brad McLean, who I (Ed) had the privilege of spending some time with in New Braunfels a couple of years ago, and again last year in Nashville. He’s a trustee at LifeWay, but also a friend.
Brad is now ministering in the midst of a crisis. And moments like these are when Christians have to learn to listen more because answers are not so easy to give. When catastrophe strikes, we want to know what we can do to help. We want to know what we can say that will bring comfort to those who are hurting.
That’s certainly what Pastor Brad is doing right now, but it reminds us all of what we should be doing.
Words can help ease distress and even spark hope in those in need. However, the truth of the matter is, there are no ‘golden’ words or phrases we can share that will make the pain go away. There’s nothing we can say that will make everything better. That’s why we often feel helpless when disaster strikes. Because our words can’t solve the problem, we are prone to freeze up, say things we normally wouldn’t, or sidestep difficult conversations.
As a result, we often fall into the trap of relying on platitudes that aren’t helpful and can even be harmful for someone going through a trauma. Sometimes, we rely on platitudes because it helps us, the helper, feel less anxious. We toss out a cliché to break the unbearable weight of silence. At other times, we share familiar statements that lack substance as a way to stop the outpouring of emotion that makes us uncomfortable. Thus, you may not like what I’m about to tell you.
If you really want to help people affected by the bus accident, then you need to listen more and speak less. Although listening may sound easy, it is not. It can be particularly challenging when we sit across someone who might be sharing a difficult experience with us. Thankfully, there are some simple helpful steps and missteps we can learn from the story of Job that can make us better listeners.
Instead of racking your brain for the perfect thing to say, focus instead on listening well. More than anything, survivors need to feel heard and understood. They need to know you are there, and will be there for them. A Humanitarian Disaster Institute (HDI) study after the 2015 South Carolina flood found this sort of positive social support helps protect disaster survivors from mental health problems.
Further, the same study showed that positive religious support (i.e., congregational social support) promotes post-disaster religious/spiritual well-being. Perceived post-traumatic religious/spiritual growth was also more likely to be endorsed by flood survivors reporting higher levels of positive religious support.
A useful example of social support in the Bible is found in the immediate response of Job’s friends to his suffering. While we often think of their bad advice later on, they started out well. When they heard of their friend’s suffering, they left their homes to go comfort him. They joined in his suffering by crying with him.
According to the customs of their day, Job’s friends also expressed their sorrow by tearing their robes and sprinkling dust on their heads. Then, they sat with him for seven days and nights, and “no one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was” (Job 2:11-13).
Here are some ways you can show you are listening:
- Acknowledge the difficulty of the situation. Survivors need to be reminded that their pain and struggle are legitimate.
- Be there through the difficulties. Survivors need to know that you will be there with them not just today, but in the future. They will not have to walk this road alone.
- Be willing to listen to the hard stuff. Sometimes it may get uncomfortable, but survivors need to be able to process what they have seen and experienced. Being able to speak it aloud may help them move through it.
- Relate to the survivor through his or her worldview. If he or she has a different set of beliefs or way of looking at things, try to understand where they are coming from.
- Help the survivor manage anxiety and other emotions. It’s a fine line between dismissing their fears and helping them to see a situation more realistically, but they may need to be reminded when their fears or anxieties are not grounded in reality.
- Notice and point out the strengths and changes you see in them. When you see growth and change happening, name it. Survivors may not be able to see the real progress they are making when they are focused on how far they have to go.
- Offer to pray with them. Don’t force a prayer on a disaster survivor. However, if a survivor is welcoming of you praying for them, then ask how they would like you to pray for them. Don’t forget to continue praying when you’re not together, too.
- Listen for risk or evidence of self-harm. If you are worried they may be struggling with a mental health issue, refer them to a mental health professional for support. Find more resources at apa.org, counseling.org, psychiatry.org, naswdc.org, aamft.org, and aapc.org.
Unfortunately, once Job’s friends opened their mouths, they started saying unhelpful things that ultimately made the situation worse. Primarily, they insisted that God must be punishing Job for something he’d done wrong, and encouraged him to repent so the judgment could end. And God condemned them for it (Job 42:7-9).
There is wisdom in looking at what Job’s friends did wrong so we can avoid the same failures. We can see from their example that it is unhelpful and even harmful to tell a hurting person how to feel, or to assign negative spiritual meaning to his or her suffering. Another HDI study showed disaster survivors who feel punished by God are more likely to experience negative health consequences.
There are certain phrases that are good to avoid altogether to keep from falling into this trap:
- “God only tests the strong.” This is simply not true; God is the one who is strong, even in our weakness.
- “It’s God’s will” or “God has a plan for you.” While there are seeds of truth in this, it could make the survivor feel like God wants him or her to suffer.
- “God must be punishing you for some hidden sin.” Don’t make the same mistake Job’s friend by blaming the victim.
- “I understand.” While you may have been through something difficult in the past, each person’s experience is unique and should be approached as such.
- “Don’t feel bad.” It is okay to feel bad after something traumatic has happened. Allow the survivor space to experience negative emotions.
- “You’re strong” or “you’ll get through this.” They may not feel strong right now, and this could end up making them question if they will in fact recover.
- “Don’t cry.” Crying is healthy.
- “It could be worse,” “At least you still have…,” or “Everything will be okay.” While this is meant to encourage, it could end up minimizing the real loss the survivor feels.
- “At least you don’t have it as bad as I did.” This minimizes the pain they are feeling now, and could make them feel like you are asking for their sympathy or are unwilling to offer it to them.
These types of responses usually come from a desire to help, but they usually have the opposite effect. Try to avoid them if you can. If you do say something that evokes a negative response, don’t be afraid to apologize and to keep trying. You don’t have to be perfect, you just have to be present.
Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College, is Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group.
Jamie D. Aten is the founder and executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute and holds the Rech Endowed Chair of Psychology at Wheaton College. His latest books include Spiritually Oriented Psychotherapy for Trauma and Disaster Ministry Handbook.