S.L.O.W.: How to Love Suffering People
We all want to help when our friends are hurting, but we may not be sure where to begin. Do we give them space and tell them to call if they need anything, or do we dive in and try to fix everything? Do we ask questions, or do we wait for them to initiate and speak? While the answers are unique to each person and situation, I’ve learned a great deal from my ministry to suffering people (as well as from my own experiences of loss).
The first thing God calls us to do for our hurting friends is to pray. It may be helpful to divide our prayer into three areas — their spiritual, physical, and emotional needs. So, we can pray that they would turn to the Lord Jesus and find peace in him even in their trial. We might pray for daily strength, physical healing, and financial provision. And we could pray that they not feel anxious or afraid, and that they’d be surrounded by caring friends.
We can also pray for ourselves. I ask the Lord to prompt me to pray for hurting friends regularly and to show me what to pray. I also ask him to help me fulfill my good intentions and to make my efforts toward them fruitful (2 Thessalonians 1:11).
In addition to prayer, though, there are other tangible ways to minister to hurting friends. Four ways that I’ve found particularly helpful are represented by the acronym SLOW. That acronym reinforces that God is working even though change seems slow, and it reminds me that I need to be slow to speak and quick to listen (James 1:19).
Having people show up is critical in the early days of loss and even long afterward. God created us to live in community. It is not good for us to be alone. We need each other, and wanting company is not a sign of weakness. Even Jesus wanted friends with him in his anguish, asking them to wait, watch, and pray (Mark 14:32–35).
In Job, we see the importance of this presence. When Job’s friends first heard of his enormous suffering, “they made an appointment together to come and show him sympathy and comfort him” (Job 2:11). They didn’t remain at a distance. “They raised their voices and wept” with him (Job 2:12).
“Just being there can give people strength to move forward, knowing that they are not alone.”
Sometimes we don’t show up because we don’t know what we’ll say. But we don’t need to have eloquent words, or any words — just our presence and love. Personally, I always welcome dark chocolate or salty snacks, but we don’t need to bring anything. Just being there can give people strength to move forward, knowing that they are not alone.
Few people are anxious to hear mini-sermons in the midst of their pain. Most would prefer to have friends listen or just sit with them in silence. On this score, Job’s friends were a good example (at least for seven days) when they sat with Job without saying a word (Job 2:13).
For the rest of the book, however, they berated him till he begged, “Listen closely to what I’m saying. That’s one consolation you can give me. Bear with me with me, and let me speak . . .” (Job 21:1–2 NLT). Rather than compassionately listening, Job’s friends kept offering advice and cliché theology.
Job knew his words were raw. He wanted his friends to listen as he processed his questions and losses aloud rather than arguing with him. He asked, “Do you intend to rebuke my words, when the words of one in despair belong to the wind?” (Job 6:26 NASB). Part of listening well in moments like these is patiently letting people speak without interrupting or judging them, prayerfully listening to their pain, and letting some of their complaints be as words to the wind. Listening allows people to lament and sit in the dark parts of their grief without trying to fix it or expecting them to rush through it.
The best counselors actively listen, not immediately giving advice or critique, but rather offering space for people to process their emotions and experiences. They ask thoughtful questions, pay attention to verbal and nonverbal responses, and offer reflections on what they notice. Offering that type of listening to our friends may be more healing and life-giving than anything else we do.
Offer Specific Help
Offering physical help is time consuming, and it’s easy to assume other people are taking care of those needs. But God calls us to care for our brothers and sisters rather than just telling them to go in peace without providing for their physical needs (James 2:15–16). Pray about what God would have you offer, considering the person’s needs as well as your own abilities and limitations. Sometimes our Lord calls us to give beyond what feels comfortable (2 Corinthians 8:3–5), but he also promises to supply the strength we need (1 Peter 4:10–11).
For our suffering friends, everyday tasks may feel monumental. Yet they often don’t know what they need or even what might be helpful. When we offer specific ways that we can help, we are serving them in multiple ways.
“While offering help requires forethought and sacrifice, the value to our friends often far exceeds our effort.”
Often, what they need is as simple as walking their dog, dropping off a meal, or babysitting their children for a few hours. Offering gift certificates for food-delivery services is also a great substitute for homemade meals. If you enjoy doing yardwork, are good with computers, or like folding laundry or doing anything else, offer your help in those areas. Or consider offering a block of time by saying, “I have Thursday from 2:00 to 4:00 free. Can I run some errands or help you with anything then?” While offering help requires forethought and sacrifice, the value to our friends often far exceeds our effort.
Words of Grace
Offering words of grace at the right time, spoken or written, can encourage others in their faith just as Jonathan helped David find strength in God (1 Samuel 23:16).
Timing is important, and there are some words that are better to avoid. Saying anything that begins with “at least,” offering false assurances, or encouraging people to “look on the bright side” can feel minimizing. Even sound advice or Scripture offered at the wrong time can feel insensitive. Romans 8:28 has deeply shaped my theology, but it felt heartless hearing it from a friend at my son’s funeral. That day, I longed for sympathy and understanding.
While throwing Bible verses and theology at people can be overwhelming at times, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t share our faith. We should be eager to tell people the reason for our hope, but we should do it tenderly, with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15–16). And after we share how God has met us in our own struggles, we can trust that the Holy Spirit will use our words. We needn’t belabor the point or press for a response.
When I talk about my faith, I often share three truths that have encouraged me in the pit. The first truth is that we have God’s presence. We know that Jesus is always with us — preparing us, strengthening us, and upholding us (Isaiah 41:10) — and nothing can separate us from his love (Romans 8:38–39). The second truth is that our suffering is not meaningless. God is using it both for our good and for his glory (Genesis 50:20; Romans 8:28), and nothing and no one can thwart his divine purposes (Job 42:2). The final truth that I cling to is that my real home is in heaven (John 14:2–3), where there will be no more tears or crying or pain (Revelation 21:4).
If you have a friend who is struggling and don’t know how to help, perhaps start by getting together. Be prepared to come close — not standing on the edge, waiting to be asked, but willingly entering the messiness of pain. It probably means listening and praying more than speaking, along with offering specific help as you are able. It also means being willing to share the hope and comfort that God has given you, confident that your witness will not be in vain.
Your friend’s healing may seem slow, but trust that God is using your efforts in ways that will one day shine in glory.
Credit: Vaneetha Rendall Risner