The Gift of Presence

Scroll through the newsfeed on any platform and you will find people sharing happy moments in their lives as well as people facing tragedies and loss. On any given day, a pastor may go from celebrating the birth of a new child in the congregation to visiting a church member in a hospice. Whether in ministry or in a friendship, how should you response when someone faces hardship?

In Chapter 6 of my book, Questioning Your Doubts: A Harvard PhD Explores Challenges to Faith, I share some ideas on how to comfort a friend experiencing loss and tragedy. The thoughts are not my own, but wisdom gleaned from the story of Job in the Bible.

In the book of Job, we find a prosperous man who lived in ancient times. He had a large family, a vast number of livestock and many servants. In fact, he was described in the Bible as “the greatest man among all the people of the East” (Job 1:3).

Job was righteous as well as prosperous. He tried his best to follow all of God’s laws. However, a day came when Job’s faith was tested. He lost his possessions, his servants, and his seven sons and three daughters to multiple tragedies. Next, Job lost his good health, and his body was covered in painful sores.

Along came three friends to bring him comfort him in his troubles. Here is what we can learn from their responses to Job:

    1. Show up. Job’s three friends initially did what all good friends should do when someone is hurting. Be present. Care enough to join your friend in the difficult moments in life. You do not need to bring answers. Simply bring yourself.
    2. Listen. Job’s three friends sat in silence and gave him the gift of presence without the clamor of words. Do not force a conversation with a grieving friend. Provide company. When your friend is ready to talk, listen attentively without rushing to reply.
    3. Speak carefully and sparingly. Job’s friends were doing a great job providing comfort until they opened their mouths. They did what many of us have done in similar circumstances – offer advice where none was needed. Resist the urge to offer solutions to what you assume is someone’s problem. Eliphaz failed Job by providing unnecessary counsel that only caused Job more pain. Bildad failed Job by offering a simple answer to a complicated problem. Zophar failed Job by speaking without compassion. Do not feel that you have to fill silence with words. Better to say a few restrained and wise words than increase someone’s suffering through insensitive speech.

Be present in times of celebration as well as suffering. Do not feel that you must provide answers to the why questions, but help your friend explore the possibilities in the now-what questions. Move beyond seeking to explain the purpose of times of sorrow to bringing healing and compassion to your friend.

The story of Job also teaches us that God is faithful, and the future after sorrow can hold greater blessings than a person can imagine. However, life cannot be rushed from sorrow to happy ending, and a true friend respects the timetable in another person’s life.

What lessons have you learned when responding to someone facing hardship?