I cringe a little whenever I hear a sideline reporter interview an athlete after a crushing loss—which happened a lot during the Olympics. When the heavy favorite underperformed or simply didn't medal, the reporter asked questions like this, in an attempt to get the athlete to say something worthy of Sports Center:
"You came in as the favorite tonight but seemed to struggle all night. What happened?"
The athlete, trying to be gracious (and avoid a frustrated response), usually responded quickly before cutting the conversation short.
Similarly, in the wake of tragedies like Hurricane Sandy, we watch news media assemble in devastated areas, trying to tell the victims' stories to a watching nation. We see the weeping grandmother trying to recover what's left of her home with a microphone in her face. While the reporters presumably mean well, they don't always give people the space needed when their world is falling apart.
I once heard someone say that she refrained from asking her infertile friends how they were doing because of a bad experience with trying to reach out. After genuinely trying to show support, but was met with a standoffish response when her friend was struggling with her inability to get pregnant. That scared her from asking another hurting person how he or she was doing. She just didn't want to be the reason for someone else's pain.
Trying to serve suffering people can be daunting. What if they aren't doing well that day? What if we bring up the pain just when they are ready to move on? These are all legitimate concerns. And because we often feel so badly for the one suffering, we feel pressured to not cause any more unnecessary pain.
We've all faced a barrage of comments from well-meaning friends. And while the words are delivered with the best of intentions, they often sting. In the days, months, and years following my miscarriage and our subsequent infertility, I faced a similar dilemma: Do I shun every person who makes an insensitive or poorly timed comment? Or is there a better way, even if it means my heart breaks a little more each time?
As the one who is hurting and suffering, it is easy to retreat. We are the victims in the situation, aren't we? Should we really submit ourselves to more pain when life alone seems to be the source of so much heartache?
Nancy Guthrie, speaking at a recent Gospel Coalition Conference, has a lot to say about how hurting people respond to those who are trying to minister to them. In her message "Is Your Church a Safe Place for Sad People? Learning to Walk With Each Other Through Loss," she speaks from her own experience of having lost two children to the same genetic disease shortly after birth. But she encourages suffering and hurting people to make it easier on their friends and family by bearing with them when they say the wrong comment or ask the wrong questions. Guthrie intended for her message to equip churches in their ministry. Her comments would have also helped my friend.
The reality is, many people do not know what to say to the woman who can't get pregnant or who longs to be married but has yet to meet Mr. Right. We often awkwardly approach the mother who loses a child, or our fear of saying the wrong thing prevents us from saying anything at all. The brokenness of this world manifests itself in a variety of ways, including from the mouths of the most well-intentioned among us.
But our response as recipients of awkward or insensitive comments should be one of grace and forbearance. While we are called to bear one another's burdens as Christians, we are also called to forebear with those who hurt us, intentionally or unintentionally. When we are called to Christ, we are called to a family. And everyone knows that every family is a little dysfunctional—even when our Father is the creator of the universe.
One of the easiest ways to live within the frequent messiness of our heavenly family is to learn to say "thank you" instead of "how dare you." Perhaps the statements regarding your perpetual singleness, empty womb, or endless unemployment are coming from an insensitive person, but more often than not they are coming from someone who truly loves you but has no earthly idea what to say. Whether we like it or not, we are telling a story in our suffering. Through our pain, we are showing a watching world what it looks like to trust God even when doing so doesn't make sense.
Our responses to insensitive comments tell a story, too. Do we push everyone away who doesn't say the perfect thing in the moment of our greatest need? Or do we lovingly thank them for their care, all the while running to the only One who fully knows and understands our pain and suffering?
No one can love us perfectly in this life. The good news is that we have already been known and understood better than we can imagine (2 Cor. 1:3-5; Heb. 4:15). When our friends and family fail us, we can trust that Christ will never do the same (Deut. 31:8; Matt. 28:20). This is how we learn to bear with those who have a little bit of learning left to do in the empathy category. And through it all, we learn to say "thank you" for even the smallest expressions of care.