We had an important rule at the support group I led for many years. It came from the Quaker writer Parker J. Parker: “No fixing, no saving, no advising, no setting each other straight.”

That must have been the single most important rule we had, and we kept ourselves to it, everyone speaking up when it was violated.

One of the most hurtful things a friend can do is to tell a person who is suffering how he should be controlling his condition—how he could fix himself. Yet no one can fathom the pain of others.

In his book Out of Solitude: Three Meditations on the Christian Life,  author Henri Nouwen, describes how a person could best respond to a friend’s suffering:

“When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.”

The book of Job gives an account of a righteous man who faithfully responded to difficult trials. It’s an example of great human suffering and is often held up as a lesson for how supporters should not respond.

When Job’s friends came to visit him in response to his suffering, they started out being compassionate:

…they set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathize with him and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him because they saw how great his suffering was.  (Job 2:11-13)

Later they became less patient, wanting to fix him.

“Yet if you devoted your heart to him and stretch out your hands to him, if you put away the sin that is in your hand and allow no evil to dwell in your tent, then you will lift up your face without shame; you will stand firm and without fear. (Job 11:13-15)

In his introduction to the book of Job in The Message Eugene Peterson says:

“On behalf of all of us who have been misled by the platitudes of the nice people who show up to tell us everything is going to be just all right if we simply think such-and-such and do such-and-such, Job issues an anguished rejoinder. He rejects the kind of advice and teaching that has God all figured out, that provides glib explanations for every circumstance. Job’s honest defiance continues to be the best defense against the clichés of positive thinkers and the prattle of religious small talk.”

“…The book of Job does not reject answers as such. There is content to biblical religion. It is the secularization of answers that is rejected—answers severed from their Source, the living God, the Word that both batters us and heals us. We cannot have truth about God divorced from the mind and heart of God.”

Some thoughtful and sympathetic advice from Eugene Peterson:

“. . . instead of continuing to focus on preventing suffering—which we simply won’t be very successful at anyway—perhaps we should begin entering the suffering, participating insofar as we are able—entering the mystery and looking around for God…we need to learn from them (people who suffer) and—if they will let us—join them in protest and prayer….shared suffering can be dignifying and life-changing.”

Love and compassion are the operative words. That’s what our friends who suffer most need from us. That’s how we can start them on the road to feeling better. There’s nothing like knowing you have the empathy of friends.


This has been Part 16 of the series In the Name of Jesus. Go to Part 17 – Rejection.


(I’m not a professional caregiver. Since 2006, I have given spiritual support as a peer to people living with all sorts of mental health issues. I write from the point of view of someone who has been there and understands—someone who wants to share the faith she has found in God.)