All our differences aside, there is one great equalizer among us – we all make some pretty lousy decisions once in a while. The nature and gravity of those decisions vary, of course, but the act of making poor choices is pretty much universal.
And subsequently there are times when we have to face up to our choices and the consequences.
That this is a universal phenomenon means we see it from both sides as we travel through life. There are times when I must face my choices and consequences, and times when someone else in my life is facing their choices and consequences.
Particularly for those of us who have been there, we often find ourselves driven to be present for the next person. It’s something I refer to as ‘paying grace forward,’ and I think it’s a natural response/drive (Jesus Himself talked about this principle in Luke 7 while He was hanging out at Simon the Pharisee’s house).
So how do we encourage someone going through a rough patch?
Really being there for someone is more than just showing up, isn’t it?
Well, actually, it does kind of boil down to simply that. Kind of.
Often we think we need to have some profound advice or witty contribution. When we don’t have something wondrous to say, we feel like we’re a huge let-down. The truth is: just being there is comfort enough.
But of course, there are moments when having something to say is important also. It’s about balance.
Based on my own experiences on both sides of this coin, I think there are three things to keep in mind. I’ve seen (and felt the effects of) positive and negative applications of these principles. And I think all three of them are key to helping us find what to say and what not to say.
Don’t judge. I know that one sounds obvious, but it’s worth mentioning. Sometimes it’s hard to resist that knee-jerk reaction of saying “What in the world were you thinking?!?” Or to make sure they understand all the consequences of their actions.
But in reality, if they’re grappling with this, they’ve probably already thought about that ad nausea. The last thing they need is someone reinforcing their negative self-talk. What they need is understanding, encouragement, and help developing a plan to get through this and make things right.
Save your judgment and indignation for the ones who are actively and blatantly bringing hurt to others. Don’t kick the wounded.
Don’t assume you know. If you’ve never been there, don’t assume you know what they’re going through. You don’t. Maybe you’ve been in something remotely similar. Maybe your Aunt Sally has been there. Maybe you’ve been associated with numerous people who have been there. It doesn’t matter. None of that makes you qualified to say “I know exactly what you’re going through.”
Even if you have personally been there, don’t assume you know what’s going on inside them. You may have first-hand experience of their pain, but you are not them. One thing I’ve learned from my own journey, and from helping others through theirs, is: we all process differently. A mentor of mine once told me that, and I’ve found it to be consistently true.
That doesn’t mean it’s not helpful to say “I can relate.” Just don’t think you have them all figured out.
Don’t try to solve it. Listen intently, pray fervently, be the shoulder to lean on, help them talk through it, even throw in a few suggestions on what they can do.
But know that coming up with a complete solution is not your purpose.
It can be tough, being there in the right way. There are judgment calls involved, and you will miss a few. But if you keep love and grace at the forefront you’ll be a good friend and the right kind of supporter.
And they’ll appreciate it.