September 7, 2013

Competent Comforting 4 - Talk

The three previous posts in this series dealt primarily with a situation of grief after the death of a loved one, though they can also be used when dealing with someone that has been a victim of abuse or crime. If you've been able to do the things in those first three posts for your friend, you've gone far beyond what most people can and will do.

Talking is when the potential for hurting your friend becomes very high, and if you don't feel you can do these things effectively and compassionately, then it's ok for you to avoid this. Remember, this is a person you love; the last thing you want to do is cause more pain.

Don't dismiss or minimize their feelings about what has happened. Acknowledge their pain and anger. The ONLY exception that there can ever be for this is if your friend is blaming him/herself. And you have to muster every ounce of love and compassion in you, and pray for God's guidance to offer a correct and loving response. (Even this isn't always appropriate. I remember shortly after I graduated HS, a former coach accidentally backed over and killed his toddler daughter. How could he not justifiably blame himself. Something like that is best left to professional counselors. As friends, we simply support them as best we can.)

Don't offer any platitudes about God's sovereignty, or offer any theological justifications for what has happened. If you're someone who subscribes to a view of God that controls and ordains everything that happens in life, then keep it to yourself. If you don't, you're liable to lose a friend and drive someone away from God. What most people want at this time is simply understanding and acceptance. If you have to talk about God, focus on His comfort, and Christ's promise of the comforter He has sent us.

Be able to accept your friend lashing out in anger. Unless you have said or done something glaringly stupid and self-serving (and these posts should help keep us from doing that) the anger isn't at or about you; you simply happen to be in the way. If you can take it and then return with compassion, kindness, and acceptance, then you're truly living out Christ's self-sacrificial example, and forging a bond in your friendship that few people have.

In grieving a death, people will come to ask difficult theological questions, and be ready to have a more open exchange of ideas and concepts. This doesn't happen in the first few weeks; it comes after months, maybe years, of time. This also happens in abuse and crime victims, but their reactions will be very different, depending on the level of healing they have and the proper (read: professional) counseling they've received. Before you engage in these discussions, you need to have already decided which is more important to you; your friend, or your concept of God. Not God Himself, but your concept of Him.

If you're going to stick with your friend instead of a concept, then you need to ask yourself the big questions beforehand. It doesn't matter if you've already come to an answer, just that you've truly struggled with the questions. Why did God let this happen? How can people do these things to other people? Where was God when this was happening? Did God cause this to happen to me? Your answers need to be more logical than "biblical." People in pain can see right through an answer that has to hide behind the veil of being "biblical."  If you haven't fully thought out how your own theology logically extends through these kinds of questions, then you shouldn't be addressing them with your friend. God will always forgive us for mistakes in doctrines more easily than a friend might for causing pain at such a time.

Finally, go talk with someone about what you have experienced in doing this. You'll probably have things you will need to process and work through. I can't recommend anyone more than a good hospital chaplain for a talk like this. Talk to one beforehand, of you can. These are some of the most compassionate people you will ever have a chance to meet, and they will be honored to talk to you about these things. I have so much love and respect for the ones that I know, it's difficult for me not to cry every time I get to see them.  If you're not in an area where you can find one easily, a secular psychologist will be a good bet. The reason that I would put one's own preacher farther down this list is that this discussion is far less about you and your church's theology, and more about you and your feelings while doing this. What you will need in discussing this isn't doctrines or dogma, but insight into yourself, your words, and your feelings. A wise friend who knows you well can be more helpful in this than a preacher. The important thing is that you don't neglect yourself.

Remember above all else, that Christ is the great physician to heal, and the Holy Spirit is our comforter. They will be there with us, we just have to set ourselves aside enough to allow them to work effectively through us.

(Please feel free to comment with any additions you might have, especially if you're someone who has had to deal with a person who was more like one of Job's 'miserable comforters')

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