When Encouragement Isn’t Helpful

Have you ever received a well-intentioned “encouraging word” that made you feel worse? Cliché encouraging words can do more harm than good, especially if they misrepresent reality.

We’ve grown accustomed to saying things without actually meaning what we say. “How’s it going?” is not actually an invitation to regale us with your woes. It’s a lazy and unintentional way of saying hello.

Christians have their own set of encouragements that often miss the mark completely. They’re words we say in a split second without thinking about whether they’re actually true.

For example, the idea that I have free will and the idea that God arranged whatever is happening to me don’t mesh. They can’t. Either I have free will or I don’t. I can’t BOTH have free will and always be exactly where God wants me to be.

We think we know this, but we only know it as an objective logical statement. But have you taken a look at how you respond in real time to someone’s disappointment / difficult situation? Do we tell them things that aren’t actually true?

On the one hand, we believe that God doesn’t want us to disobey him or make foolish choices. But when we find ourselves suffering as a consequence of a foolish or unvetted decision, we console each other with the popular words:

God has you where you are for a reason!

But is that even true? How do YOU know? Who are we to tell another human being that they are in the circumstance they find themselves in because it’s God’s will?

What if the reason they’re suffering right now is the direct consequence of their own mistake? Then it’s not God’s will at all. And then the choice to patiently waiting for God to reveal His master plan in the midst of this difficult situation would be an epic waste of time.

And so… IF not all experiences are the result of being where God wants you to be, THEN we have a much greater responsibility than waiting for the plan to be revealed.

The Bottom Line

What might the cost be for giving someone a piece of advice that isn’t true? What if they believe us and make life-altering decisions based on our encouragement?

A word of encouragement should always be true. If it isn’t, we could hurt the very person we’re trying to help. It would be better for us to say nothing and love our friends in silence rather than reassure them with platitudes.

What then? How can we encourage our friends and family who are suffering?

The Alternative

The first and most recommended response to suffering is to sit with the person in their suffering. Placing a comforting hand on their shoulder while sitting in silence goes a long way toward giving the person space to feel their feelings without getting defensive.

It’s uncomfortable to sit in silence. It takes practice to do without feeling super awkward. And yet, it is those silent moments that communicate love more than words of advice or encouragement. Why? Because it communicates that we’re not impatient. It communicates that we’re not in such a hurry to move on to something else that we’d lob an illogical word of encouragement or recommendation their way.

It’s more human.

And if you want to say something, you can start by expressing sadness over their suffering. “I’m sorry you’re hurting” or “I’m sorry you’re going through this” goes a long way.

Those words, a hug, and an “I love you” go a long way toward comforting a person in their situation.

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