Entrusted with Agony

How to Love a Suffering Soul

Recently, a friend asked me to share some advice for how to be a caring presence for people experiencing deep emotional pain. He didn’t ask this because I’m a trained counselor or therapist — I’m not. He asked because, even from my high school days, people have sought my help in dealing with all manner of difficult, complex, and sensitive afflictions.

As I thought back over decades, dear faces and names came to mind — most of them remarkable, loving, spiritually earnest, bright, kind Christians — who at some point found themselves facing the kinds of tribulations that afflict and sometimes overwhelm us as fallen humans. I’ve had the painful privilege of walking alongside them as they endured debilitating depression, suicidal despair, tormenting mental illnesses, deep inner wounds from past sexual abuse, various kinds of undesired and dismaying sexual dysphoria, spiritually dark and disorienting faith crises, and more.

I mean it when I say it’s been a privilege. It is no small thing when others entrust us with some of the most tender, vulnerable parts of their souls.

None of this, however, qualifies me to speak as some kind of expert soul physician — because I’m not one. This is something I think I can speak to not because I’m an expert, but because I have some extensive experience. And since we’re all called at times to the ministry of being a caring presence for someone in pain (as well as receiving such care when we’re in pain), we can share lessons we’ve learned with each other. So, what might I say to my 20-year-old self if I had ten minutes to counsel him on how to be a caring presence for sufferers?

Caring Presence

In the Christian sense, a caring presence is someone who listens carefully and sympathetically to troubled souls in order to accurately understand the nature of their affliction and struggle, and then eventually seeks to help them put it in biblical perspective and see (or remember) how their suffering fits into God’s redemptive, providential purposes. In other words, the primary care we’re called to offer a suffering saint is hope.

“The primary care we’re called to offer a suffering saint is hope.”

When our souls are in turmoil, we all crave peace. And the peace we crave doesn’t come from having all our why questions answered, but it’s a peace that surpasses understanding, a peace that comes only from the God of peace (Philippians 4:7). This peace comes from the hope that God is working all things, even (especially!) our suffering, together for our ultimate good (Romans 8:28) — a hope that comes only from the God of hope (Romans 15:13). Good Christian soul care always aims to help a hurting person “hope in God” (Psalm 42:11).

In such a short space, I can’t give much specific advice on how to counsel a suffering soul, because so much depends on what someone is suffering and why. I can share some brief reflections about being the kind of caring presence a hurting person can turn to in dark moments. And to do that, I’ll use Micah 6:8 as a framework:

He has told you, O man, what is good;
     and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
     and to walk humbly with your God?

A deeply just, kind, and humble person has the fundamental qualities required to be the caring presence a suffering person needs. But for reasons that will become clear in a few moments, I will address these requirements in reverse order: humility, kindness, and justice.

Discernible Humility

I’m beginning with humility because of these words from Jesus:

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. (Matthew 11:28–29)

Weary, burdened souls didn’t come to Jesus just because he proclaimed himself “gentle and lowly.” They were already coming to him because they could discern, from observing and listening to him, that he was someone who offered them the rest and safety they craved. Jesus had a gentleness about him that sprung out of a fundamental lowliness that made him approachable — a safe person to come to for those longing to escape the burdens they bore from external oppression and internal sin and disorders.

A fundamental humility is also what makes a disciple of Jesus approachable. A disciple who walks humbly with God shares with Jesus a high view of God’s holiness (Psalm 130:3–4; Hebrews 12:28–29), the doctrine of sin (Romans 3:23), the fallen nature of the world (Romans 8:20–21), and God’s fathomless mercy in the gospel (Romans 5:6–11). This disciple “can deal gently” with other struggling souls “since he himself is beset with weakness” (Hebrews 5:2). Having a clear-eyed grasp of our own depravity and desperate need for God’s mercy means we won’t be shocked when we’re confronted with someone else’s.

If weary souls burdened by false teaching, disorders, and sin discern in us, as many did in Jesus, an authentic humility that manifests in the ways we gently deal with others, they are likely to come to us for the help — the hope — they need.

Loving Kindness

In 1 Corinthians 13, what were the first words Paul chose when describing the nature of Christlike love? “Love is patient and kind” (1 Corinthians 13:4). Scripture, of course, teaches that love is far more than patience and kindness, but it’s worth keeping in mind that these were foremost on the apostle’s mind as he, under the Spirit’s inspiration, wrote his profound, beautiful description of what it looks like when we love one another.

Such descriptions of Christian love are laced through Paul’s writings. For instance, Colossians 3:12 says, “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” It’s clear that God’s children are to love kindness.

That’s because God loves kindness. Not only do we see this in Jesus, but we see it in God’s most famous Old Testament self-description: “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth” (Exodus 34:6 NASB 1995). It is, after all, the kindness of God that leads us to repentance (Romans 2:4).

So, if distressed souls discern that we, like God, love kindness, that we have a disposition to extend mercy, grace, and patience to those who need them, they are likely to come to us for the help — the hope — they need.

Judicious Counsel

What does it mean “to do justice” to a person experiencing significant emotional pain? One crucial thing it means is to be as judicious — as wise, prudent, honest — as possible with any counsel we give. What does this look like?

A judicious counselor is careful. Whenever we are ministering to another soul, especially a suffering soul, we must remember that “death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21). Our words can heal or wound, reveal truth or obscure it. Therefore, it’s imperative that we be “quick to hear [and] slow to speak” (James 1:19). I’ve learned from experience that there is often more going on in a person than I initially perceive. To adequately understand the nature of someone’s struggle and situation requires patient listening and good clarifying questions.

A judicious counselor is truthful. There are many dimensions to truthfulness, but I’m going to focus on one common pitfall for counselors: the temptation to speak more than we actually know or to claim that we identify with the sufferer’s experience more than we actually do.

“When others come to us for help, that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re the best person to help them.”

When others come to us for help, that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re the best person to help them. Perhaps God has equipped us to provide them some helpful insight, or perhaps our calling is to guide them toward someone better equipped to help them. Either way, we must be honest and forthright about the limits of our knowledge and experience and not speak authoritatively about topics of which we have little understanding. This is why I addressed the qualities of humility and kindness first. Humility helps guard us from the pride of presuming we are wiser than we are or of desiring the admiration of suffering people more than we desire their well-being. And kindness helps us keep the well-being of sufferers — their finding hope in God — our foremost priority.

Lastly, a judicious counselor is trustworthy. As I said earlier, it is no small thing when others entrust us with tender, vulnerable parts of their souls. Therefore, we must vigilantly guard what they share with us in confidence, even if it requires us to “swear to [our] own hurt” (Psalm 15:4). For “a gossip betrays a confidence, but a trustworthy person keeps a secret” (Proverbs 11:13 NIV). Only in the most extreme and rare cases, when someone’s safety is at stake, do integrity and love demand that we share necessary information with the appropriate parties and authorities.

If souls in anguish over sensitive kinds of suffering discern that we are a judicious counselor and will handle what they confide in us carefully, truthfully, and in a trustworthy way, they are likely to come to us for the help and hope they need.

Where Care Begins

Obviously, volumes more could be (and have been) written about how to care well for those suffering significant emotional pain, but it all begins with being the kind of person that others can trust with their suffering. That kind of person hopes in God, is discernibly humble, loves kindness, and is judicious in the ways he or she treats suffering saints. That kind of person is very likely to be a caring presence for weary, burdened souls and to help them find the peace and hope that only God can provide.