The Help That Hurts

Three Lies That Add to Suffering

A woman I know, whom I will call Helen, seemed to be in a hopeless situation. One could not talk long with her before the pain of her life seeped out.

In her early fifties, she continued to struggle with the chronic health issues she had suffered her whole life. The most recent iteration presented itself in nearly unbearable nerve pain. The only thing that seems to help is a narcotic that she won’t use for fear of addiction. Not an unwarranted fear either — her father was a raging alcoholic. Her childhood, passing mostly as a blur, hadn’t caused her to forget the constant anxiety over her father’s drunken rage.

Everyone in their family did whatever they had to in order to keep him appeased. Family rumors circulated that he had molested Helen’s older sister, but nothing has ever been confirmed because she committed suicide in her early twenties.

Unsurprisingly, though tragically, Helen married a man with similar tendencies as her father. He didn’t drink — Helen’s one requirement for a spouse — but he was emotionally explosive, couldn’t keep a job, and had multiple affairs. He decided to leave her with two young children when she was pregnant with their third. Helen has tried to work to support the family but the chronic illness has prevented her from much success. As a result, she frequently needs financial help from those around her.

Lies That Add to Suffering

Easy answers do not exist for Helen. Her situation isn’t likely to change anytime soon. Hers is the sort of case that makes friends, family, pastors, mentors, and even counselors bereft. In my years as a counselor, I know this: Helens are everywhere. Our cities and neighborhoods — maybe even our next door — contains men and women in similar situations. And so do our churches.

The body of Christ should meet such saints with hope that has no end (1 Peter 1:3–5) and that will not put us to shame (Romans 5:5). And we must do so wisely, lest her case overwhelms well-meaning helpers and quash the congregation’s appetite for care. The following are three lies I have witnessed in counseling that undermine our care of those who are struggling.

1. They Are Hopeless

The first lie that Satan will try to use in situations like this is that Helen’s situation is hopeless. So often, the grounds for our hope are based in physical ability, financial freedom, and relational success. Yet none of these are the grounds for gospel hope. Gospel hope is the hope that a risen and ascended Savior will return, making all things new. Gospel hope reminds us that there will be a day when there will be no tears, no disease, no abuse, and no need of currency. And we will experience perfect fellowship with our Lord and each other.

Where the dark looms heaviest, the light shines brightest — and that’s not a cliché. Researchers at the University of Columbia in the 1940’s determined that in complete darkness, the human eye can detect the flicker of a single candle from thirty miles away. In the midst of the gloomiest of situations even the smallest amount of gospel hope can be the light that someone needs to make it through until the dawn comes.

Before we offer hope, helpers should learn first to listen and empathize. Hope is always going to be part of the recipe, but as every good cook knows, it not just about the ingredients — it’s also about the process. There are times when darkness seems to be all that exists (Psalm 88:18). In such times, we should draw near to listen, pray, and weep, and then light our small candle in the darkness.

2. Our Help Won’t Change Anything

A second lie that Satan will try to use in situations like this is that offering help is hopeless. As helpers walk into the consistent and rarely changing difficulty of Helen’s life, it is common to be discouraged that they are having little to no effect. Nothing is getting better, no prayers seem to be getting answered, and it all seems futile. While an understandable sentiment, it is far from true.

God remade all believers for fellowship and community. That’s why the pronoun of reciprocation — allélón, translated as “one another” — is one of the most repeated in all the New Testament. For example, walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love” (Ephesians 4:1–2). Again, “Therefore encourage one another and build one another up” (1 Thessalonians 5:11). Even if a struggling saint’s situation doesn’t appear to be changing, that she has someone to talk to can make all the difference.

The transmission of hope is often unobservable. More often than not, the trajectory toward hopefulness is gradual and imperceptible. At those times, when hope seems nearly impossible and the situation seems to be getting worse, it can be easy for helpers to give up. But have faith. There is no darkness that can extinguish the light we have in Christ: “I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness” (John 12:46).

Regardless of whether our Helens can see it or not, helpers need to cling desperately to the promises of Christ. Sometimes, it is our clinging in faith to those promises that will best point them to the hope they have forgotten.

3. We Can Help Them Alone

Lastly, you have to be careful not to put helpers on an island themselves. Some cases are too much for one helper to handle. The struggler can be tempted to feel like a project because of the more people required. The helper can feel a sense of shame that they couldn’t help alone. But if we refuse to incorporate others, the struggler might not get the help he or she needs, and the helper will be burned out and hopeless themselves. Paul’s injunction to bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2) is not just an exhortation for the needy but for the helpers as well.

Supporting the helpers means getting others involved who can share in the burden with them. Often, it requires more than one person or couple to give strugglers the support they need. Therefore, a group of people should be designated to help care for the hurting. They should do so in a context where they, too, can talk about the difficulty of walking into a situation like this. The helpers need people to whom they can turn, who will listen and empathize, and remind them of the gospel they share.

A Candle in the Darkness

Praise the Lord that the darkness will not win (John 1:5)! This light will never go out, and it will light the tiniest of torches bright enough to get us and others through dark nights of the soul. Though there may be seasons — and long seasons at that — where hurt, fear, and sadness reign, if we continue to follow the light, the joy we receive will be indescribable (Isaiah 38:17) and indefatigable (Psalm 16:11).

There are hurting Helens everywhere. When we allow ourselves to help the hopeless, we often find that we, not they, are the greatest recipients. If we come without a plan as to how to consistently, practically, and compassionately bring gospel hope to the situation, then we may be lost in the darkness rather than helping others see the light. But if we come filled with grace and truth, we know that it is the darkness that is helpless in the face of the inexhaustible light of Christ (Revelation 21:23).

(@RevJASquires) serves as pastor of counseling and congregational care at First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina. He and his wife have five children.