How to Harm a Heavy Heart: Loving Sufferers Begins with Listening – Vaneetha Rendall Risner

How to Harm a Heavy Heart

I still struggle with what to say to my friends who are suffering.

I wish I had the perfect words, the most applicable verses, the most effective comfort. I want to choose my words carefully because platitudes and “count your blessings” attitudes can make an open wound even deeper. People aren’t usually looking for advice or cheering up — they first want someone to weep with them.

Proverbs 25:20 aptly describes how I’ve felt. “Whoever sings songs to a heavy heart is like one who takes off a garment on a cold day, and like vinegar on soda.”

Good-Intentioned Cruelty

When we take off a garment on a cold day, we feel exposed and unsafe. Stripped of our protection, we are vulnerable to the elements. Forcing someone to listen to happy songs when they are suffering can leave them the same way — feeling alone, vulnerable, unprotected.

Vinegar on soda leads to an eruption. When we keep trying to make sad people happy, they can explode in anger. I have. Yet even so, I’ve offered an overly positive attitude on multiple occasions. When I see my friends’ tear-filled eyes or angry stares, I realize that my attempts to cheer them up have come across heartless.

Singing happy songs to a heavy heart is cruel. Telling grieving people that their pain is a gift can feel judgmental. Making them sing praise songs when they don’t want to can be hypocritical. People need space to grieve and to process what they’re facing without feeling judged. Everyone grieves differently; even a husband and a wife who have lost a child can each experience unique grief. As Proverbs 14:10 tells us, “The heart knows its own bitterness.”

So, instead of singing happy songs to a heavy heart, sit and listen. Pray. Empathize if you can, and be quiet if you can’t. You just need to show up.

Discovering Lament Together

A friend in our small group is struggling with a debilitating, terminal illness. We all love her and want to help, but frequently we don’t know what to say. Her grief and progressive losses are heavy, almost crushing, and yet she specifically asked us to encourage her in the Lord.

How do we mourn someone’s pain while pointing them to Christ without sounding preachy? Our group has struggled, either silently listening or actively speaking, unsure of which direction to lean. And then we discovered the power of corporate lament.

In Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy, Mark Vroegop encourages believers to lament together as a way to comfort the hurting. It acknowledges their pain while offering hope in the Lord. He says,

I’ve seen groups stumble their way through the grief of others. For example, during prayer request time in a small group, a couple shares a painful issue they are walking through. Their candid, heartfelt pain creates an awkward heaviness. What should happen next? How do you prevent [someone] from offering his well-meaning but shallow advice on how to fix the issue?

Vroegop suggests praying a lament Psalm, inviting the group to echo the words of the psalmist on behalf of their friends.

Using Psalm 142, our small group lamented aloud, reading a line from the psalm together and then adding our own words afterwards. We were direct and honest, offering unedited words of grief and complaint, of petition and promises, of trust and praise. Rather than talking about God and our frustrations, we were talking directly to God.

We all left that time changed. Our friend felt heard and encouraged. We saw the power of praying the Psalms together, crying out to God using the very words he’s given us. I echo Vroegop who says, “I’m passionate about lament. It has the possibility of providing a pathway and a language that allow people not only to deal with the reality of their pain but also to be refocused on the trustworthiness of God.” Having witnessed its effectiveness, I will return to corporate lament often.

Start with Listening Well

Sometimes we aren’t in a setting to lament together through Scripture, but we can apply those principles to everyday conversation. We can invite our friends to talk about their feelings without judgment, beginning the conversation by saying, “This must be so hard. It would have opened a whole host of struggles for me. How are you feeling?” Sharing our own battles and temptations invites others to speak, knowing they won’t be judged.

When our friends speak, let them talk without interrupting or correcting. Invite them to share their inner dialogue. To voice what they’ve been telling themselves about their suffering. We talk to ourselves all day long, either speaking words of fear, despair, and anger, or of courage, resolve, hope, and joy. And what we tell ourselves matters.

The conversation starts with active listening but may, as with my friend, move into encouraging them in the Lord. Lament passages begin with questions or declarations of fear and distress, but they almost inevitably turn to declarations of trust and praise. Sometimes God calls us to speak, to help our friends turn to take hold of his promises, as we remind them that God is with them in the fire (Isaiah 43:2). That he will never leave them (Hebrews 13:5–6). That there is an incomparable joy and reward awaiting them in heaven (Luke 6:23).

Above All Else, Pray

We needn’t overthink our words, as if they are the only hope for our friends. And we shouldn’t assume that our role is always to make them feel better in the moment. Sometimes after prayer we may be called to challenge their thinking for their good. But regardless of what we do or say, the best thing we can do is patiently and persistently pray — for their healing (James 5:16), for their health and well-being (3 John 2), for spiritual blessings like increased faith (Luke 22:32), for them to be sanctified through suffering (John 17:17) and strengthened by the Spirit, filled with the fullness of God (Ephesians 3:14–19).

This is what I’ve learned from Scripture about ministering to those who are grieving: Be gentle, and don’t press them to talk or to count their blessings when they’re not ready (Proverbs 25:20). Lament with them, and cry out to God on their behalf. Don’t hold back your tears. Sit with them in their pain (Job 2:12–13). Help them find strength in the Lord (1 Samuel 23:16). Comfort them as the Lord has comforted you (2 Corinthians 1:4). And above all, pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17).

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