Life often comes with its fair share of cultural expectations. It’s expected that you’ll go to college. It’s expected that you’ll land that big job. It’s expected that you’ll get married. It’s expected that you’ll have children. And, it’s really easy to relate to one another when everything’s going right in our lives; when those expectations are all being met. But what do we do when we find ourselves or someone we know struggling in one of those areas? What about the student that doesn’t go to college? What about the individual who is struggling to find a job? What about the single individual who desires to be married but it doesn’t seem to work out or the individual who’s marriage fell apart due to no fault of their own? What about the couple that longs for a child but each month passes with no new life to celebrate?
Let’s be honest, these situations make us uncomfortable. What do we say? How can we help? How can we encourage? How can we love them well?
Too often, in an effort to comfort others, we heap platitudes on them such as “patience is a virtue” or “all in God’s timing.” While those things are true, is that really most helpful in these situations? In these often tender spaces, even the slightest off-hand comment intended in jest or to “lighten the mood” can be a nail piercing the heart of people in the midst of those valleys. Assuming we want to encourage and come along side folks in these struggles, what can we do?
1. Don’t Assume
First of all, be very careful not to assume things in these situations. Don’t assume that someone isn’t trying to find a job. Don’t assume that the single person isn’t looking for a spouse or just needs tips on how to meet people. Don’t assume that the couple needs your prompting to desire children or that they just haven’t thought about it. And most importantly, don’t assume that these individuals need, or want, your advice. If they do, they may very well seek you out. But, too often, assumptions can lead to careless comments or remarks that can cut deeply. Instead, we need to focus on the next point.
2. Just Be Present
It’s simple, really. Just be present with them. Don’t try to make light of the situation. Don’t try to gloss over the pain or sense of failure they may be feeling. Be present with them in their hurts. Be present with them in their situation. Just listen to them. Be a sounding board for their frustrations. Follow James’ advice and be “quick to listen” and “slow to speak” (James 1:19). Validate that their situation is real and painful, and just be with them. Sometimes your presence alone and validation of the reality of their situation is more helpful and comforting than any words you could ever speak.
Also, don’t treat them differently. Don’t be afraid to talk to them. Don’t be afraid to invite them over. If you’re a married couple and they’re single, don’t be afraid to have them over or to build a friendship with them. If you have a family and your friends are struggling with infertility, don’t be afraid to still be in relationship with them. Although it may be a tender situation, it doesn’t mean they don’t want to be involved in the lives of their friends’ families.
3. Be Careful & Thoughtful
We should be careful in both our speech and our actions. Just as James tells us to be slow to speak, when we do speak we should follow Paul’s advice and make sure our speech is thoughtful and fits the moment so that it may be a vehicle for grace and encouragement (Eph. 4:29). Again, don’t always feel as if you have to speak but if you do feel the need, speak carefully and thoughtfully. We should also be careful that we don’t give the impression that something is wrong if they don’t go to college, don’t get married, or don’t ever have children. The Lord may very well call individuals to a different path in life. He may call them to a trade/vocational school, he may call them into the mission field, he may call them into singleness to free them up for a particular ministry, he may call the couple to adopt or foster rather than have biological children. We don’t know the Lord’s plans but we do know that all His plans are for their good (Ps. 84:11, Romans 8:28), so be careful not to give off signals that anything other than cultural expectations is less than good or acceptable.
4. Encourage Them
Ultimately, be willing to encourage them in whatever life situation they may find themselves. The enemy of our souls is often using these situations to cause these individuals to doubt God and His goodness or faithfulness. In these difficult moments they will often need someone to fight the fight of faith alongside them. Encourage them to remain focused on Christ and his kingdom, even in the midst of various life circumstances. Remind them of Matthew 6:33 and encourage them to pursue God’s kingdom and trust that He will give them exactly what is good and best for them. Our world is broken by sin and things don’t always work like they should right now, but remind them that redemption is coming and, as Paul said, “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18). Help them to remember that, as a friend of mine recently said, “God is too loving to be unkind and too wise to make a mistake.” But, just remember to be careful that your encouragement doesn’t slip into thoughtless platitudes (see #3).
Life in a broken world comes with many challenges and many sufferings. As members of the body of Christ, let’s seek to love one another and encourage one another in every one of life’s circumstances. Let’s be careful to put assumptions aside and just be present with those who may be walking through valleys. Let’s seek the Lord’s help in how we might use our lives to be a grace-fill encourager.