After my post a few weeks ago, “The Best Way to Discourage a Suffering Friend,” a close friend stopped by and asked, “Was that post about me? Was I the discouraging friend? I know that I have said and done all of those things before. Now I feel awful.”
I laughed, and assured her that she was not the discouraging friend. But her comment made me realize that my post could have been misinterpreted. It was not meant as a rant, as a way to discourage people from speaking, or as a tool to hammer our friends who have hurt us. It was meant to build bridges, not tear them down.
We will fail our friends. And they will fail us. Either by what we say and do, or what we do not say and do.
All too often, I am so afraid of doing the wrong thing that I end up doing nothing. I want to say something profound and life changing, but instead I give trite and hurtful advice. I would like to be thoughtful and available to others, but I end up preoccupied with my own problems.
Unfortunately, I’m always at the center of my universe. I want grace when I have hurt others, especially inadvertently, but I’m hesitant to extend that same grace when I’ve been hurt.
Oftentimes people don’t know what to say when my world caves in. So they say nothing at all, or even avoid me. Intellectually I know it has more to do with their own issues than with me, but I feel alone and unwanted when no one follows up. Even good friends go back to their everyday lives eventually and I am left to sort out my “new normal” by myself.
Other people do engage me, but with insensitive remarks. They are not trying to hurt me; most of the time, they really do care. But in their humanness, they fail me. My friends want me to feel better when I am sad. Sometimes they offer advice, platitudes, and comparisons. Sometimes it's helpful but often I feel misunderstood.
There’s no question that either avoiding me or overanalyzing my suffering is painful. But through every trial I’ve endured, both of those reactions occur in varying degrees. So how should I respond when my friends wound me?
I'm pretty sure that my initial thoughts on the matter are wrong: blame, harsh words, demands for an apology. My second thoughts aren’t much better: avoidance, subtle rebuffs, dropping the relationship.
As I was considering the ideal response to insensitive comforters, I reread Job. The conclusion took on new meaning as I saw that God did not tell Job he could write off his friends, abandon their relationship, or blame them for his misery. Clearly his friends had misspoken about Job’s situation and about God. They had made Job’s misery worse. They had misunderstood him.
But rather than abandon them, God told Job to pray for his friends. Job needed to ask God to forgive them before God would bless Job. This was an important part of Job’s healing- Job couldn’t stay angry with the friends who had let him down. He needed to pray for them, to forgive them, to want the best for them.
Is this what God is asking me to do for the comforters who have let me down, who have not been there when I needed them, who have sermonized when they should have been silent, who have judged me unfairly? Am I really supposed to pray for them?
It seems like a lot to ask of me, the sufferer. But as I reread Scripture, God’s answer is “yes.”
I am also being asked to forgive them. As Job forgave his friends. As Christ forgives me.
As Jesus said on the cross, “Father, forgive them. They know not what they do.”
Our well-meaning friends often don’t know what they’ve done, yet somehow I feel they should have known better. I may be right, but harboring a grudge magnifies my suffering, leaving me feeling isolated, defensive and misunderstood.
It takes a conscious effort to pull out of that pattern because forgiveness isn’t easy. It is always costly. But the joy and peace that flows into my life as a result is miraculous. It cleans out old wounds. It breaks down walls. It restores my soul.
Forgiving my comforters isn’t the only thing God asks of me. I also have to acknowledge my own shortcomings. When I’m struggling, my expectations of others can be unreasonable. I have often not told my friends what I wanted them to do- somehow I just expected them to know. Usually they didn’t.
It was helpful to tell my friends what I needed. Not assume they knew when I wanted to talk. When I wanted them to sit in silence with me. And when I needed help. Sadly, I don’t voice my needs often, because it makes me feel vulnerable. But when I have taken that risk, I have felt understood and known.
I have sinned against the people who were trying to help me, by expecting too much, walking away in anger, believing the worst motives. I need to extend grace to those who hurt me. Especially when I’ve taken offense only to discover later that I had totally misread the situation. But at the time I was so overwhelmed by my own pain that I couldn’t see a different perspective.
Suffering unravels me. When my friends aren’t supportive, it intensifies my already heavy burden. It is tempting to move on, and find people who can meet my needs.
But Jesus calls me to love and forgive these friends who have failed me, rather than condemn them and walk away, in search of the perfect church, the perfect friends, or the perfect community.
Sometimes I need to tell my friends how to help me. Sometimes I need to see my own sin in the situation. And above all, every time, I need to extend grace, remembering how desperately I am in need of it.
“For while we were still sinners, Christ died for us."
photo courtesy of Jonathan Davidar