Chapter 1. What To Do When You Don't Know What To Do

"Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest."

Jesus, Matthew 11:28

"I don't know what to say." Have you ever uttered those words? Perhaps you said that after friends suddenly lost their child in a tragic accident. Maybe you thought that after seeing a coworker left by a spouse. Maybe you felt that way after an old friend told you how he had struggled with drugs but somehow kept going back to them. We have all been there.* We want to help others but feel helpless to do so. If you are a Christian, helping is part of your DNA. Galatians 6:2 says, "Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ." Helping people is something believers instinctively desire to do. We attend the visitation or deliver a dish of food after a death, but is that where our responsibility ends?

The Lord invited people to bring their pain and problems to Him, and He promised to give them rest (Matthew 11:28). However, some Christians avoid people with problems because of the awkwardness of not knowing how to help them. We need to reverse that trend and become an extension of Jesus' hands. When people are having problems they are more likely to listen to the gospel, which they desperately need. If you have ever wanted to do more than provide the obligatory dish after a funeral then this book will help you. What can we do to help the hurting?

*These problems only happen to someone else...

In 2004, 20 per 1,000 children died suddenly from accidents. The accidental death of children has been greatly reduced, but it is far more prevalent than we would like to believe. It has been estimated that anywhere from 40 to 50 percent of all first marriages in the United Stated end in divorce. That is believed to add up to about 1.2 million couples divorcing each year. In 2003, an estimated 21.6 million Americans or 9.1 percent of the population over the age of twelve were substance dependent. We often think these are the problems of "other people." Chances are you know someone who has or will have these kinds of problems.

Be There

The first thing we can do to help others is simply be there when they are in need. Being there helps people deal with the initial stress and shock of a trauma. Initially, people are dazed and often experience feelings of disbelief. They may say things like, "I can't believe this happened to me!" Being there conveys the message that they are not alone. Can you be there for them?*

*The man from Uz

Job lost his children, wealth, health, and the respect of his wife. His friends came to help him.

Now when Job's three friends heard of all this adversity that had come upon him, each one came from his own place—Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. For they had made an appointment together to come and mourn with him, and to comfort him. And when they raised their eyes from afar, and did not recognize him, they lifted their voices and wept; and each one tore his robe and sprinkled dust on his head toward heaven. So they sat down with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his grief was very great.

Job 2:11-13

What did Job's friends do for him in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy that befell him? Notice the phrase, "No one spoke a word to him." They simply sat with him and mourned with him. Job was in terrible pain, but he was not alone.

As Job processed what had happened to him, what did he begin to need? Notice Job's words in Job 3.*

*What is Job saying?

Read Job 3:1-3. In other words:

Read Job 3:21-22. In other words:

Read Job 3:25-26. In other words:

What did Job say? Basically he said, "I wish I had never been born (3:1-3); I want to die (3:21-22); the thing I feared the most has happened; I can't rest; I have nothing but trouble" (3:25-26). Did Job really wish he had never been born? He was upset. He did not need advice or correction. He needed someone to talk to. He needed to be heard.

Begin by Listening

Unfortunately, we often place little value on listening to other people. When we hear about a problem, we immediately begin to think of advice to give the person. We do not fully consider the scope of our friend's problem. Do we believe we can give a little advice and solve a problem that has been developing for years? It is our tendency to think someone else's problems can be solved easily.

We must listen to others before we can help them. There is healing in listening. Listening to others enables them to vent their frustrations. It often provides the opportunity for them to realize they have more alternatives to solutions than they previously thought.

When you listen to people, "actively" listen to them. Regularly make eye contact with them. Your body language conveys your interest. Lean forward and show that you are interested in what they have to say. People are helped when those who care about them actively listen to them. But how do you acquire listening skills? Many in the field of business have noted that listening is good for business. As a result, businesses actually train their staff in the art of listening. Interestingly, one study indicated that self-imposed silence greatly improves listening effectiveness and the development of listening skills.

If you are a student of the Bible you already know that. The next time someone tells you about a problem and you find yourself itching to give advice, consider the words of James, "Let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak" (James 1:19).

Try This

Go a few hours without speaking one day. When you do interact with people, try to listen to them as intently as possible.

What do you learn from your self-imposed silence about the people around you?

If you want to help others you must be careful about what you say. Sometimes we do great damage to others when we talk about issues of which we have little knowledge. Our culture values verbosity, but God does not.

In the multitiude of words sin is not lacking, but he who restrains his lips is wise.

Proverbs 10:19

Our tongue can get us into a lot of trouble, so we need to think before we speak. For example, consider some of the statements of Job's "friends." They demonstrate how damaging it can be to fail to listen to the hurting and how ill-given advice can be harmful.

Helpful or Harmful?

Consider the following statements that Job's friends made to him:

"Remember now, who ever perished being innocent?

Or where were the upright ever cut off?

Even as I have seen,

Those who plow iniquity

And sow trouble reap the same."

Job 4:7-8

"If you were pure and upright,

Surely now He would awake for you,

And prosper your rightful dwelling place.

Though your beginning was small,

Yet your latter end would increase abundantly."

Job 8:6-7

Are these statements generally true?

Job's friends made statements that are generally true. Eliphaz's words remind us that we reap what we sow. Bildad told us to seek God and we will find Him. However, they were making assumptions. They assumed Job had sinned and had not sought God. As a result, their words were harmful, and God condemned them for saying them. "My wrath is aroused against you... for you have not spoken of Me what is right" (Job 42:7). They would have been far more helpful to Job if they had left the interpretation to God and concentrated upon listening to their friend and encouraging him.

When we speak to the hurting it is important to paraphrase what they have said. This lets them know we understand them and encourages them to keep speaking. We may also ask open-ended questions that cannot be answered with one-word responses. Open-ended questions are more effective than closed questions. "Are you doing okay?" is a closed question and tends to stifle further communication. While "How have you been doing since your mom passed?" provides the opportunity for further communication. Sometimes people need an opportunity to tell their story. As they do, they often talk about their frustrations and pain, which helps them get better. In our fast-paced world many people do not have the opportunity to share their story. They do not get to be heard.

Try This

Listening has become a lost art. Watch a morning talk show or evening news show and observe the interviewer. Is that person really listening to the individual being interviewed? Or does it appear that the interviewer has a preplanned point he or she is trying to get across?

Empathize with the Hurting

The way we talk to hurting people can be just as important as the words we say. If people do not feel we are concerned for them, what we say will have little impact. To truly help we need to "put ourselves in their shoes" as we listen to their problems. Imagine how you might feel if you experienced a loss similar to that of your friend. This will help you avoid making misguided statements that could be harmful. Paul made a similar suggestion when he described how he sought to reach people.

Paul's Approach to People

"Though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win the more;

and to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law, that I might win those who are under the law;

to those who are without law, as without law (not being without law toward God, but under law toward Christ), that I might win those who are without law;

to the weak I became as weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.

Now this I do for the gospel's sake, that I may be partaker of it with you."

1 Corinthians 9:19-23

What steps did Paul take to reach people?

With whom did he empathize?

How did he empathize with them?

We can learn a great deal from Paul about how to help people. He had empathy for others. Many confuse empathy with sympathy. Sympathy or pity for someone can result in the individual becoming dependent upon the helper or the helper being repulsed by someone who does not want to be seen as a victim. Empathy is an attempt to comprehend what someone else is going through. An example is imagining what it would be like to learn that you had cancer. Although we cannot truly understand how a person who has just received that news might feel, trying to imagine what that would be like can prepare us to help that person. Empathy may be the most important component of the helping relationship, and to express it we must step out of our comfort zone.

Find the Helpful Helper

Linda talks to you about the hard time she has had since her mother died.

Which response would be empathetic?

The first response to Linda is not empathetic. The last response is also not empathetic but is the one we tend to give. It is so easy to start talking about our own experiences and to dispense advice, but this only detracts from helping the hurting person. If you are going to help hurting people you must embrace an attitude of servant-hood and clearly understand that the focus of the helping relationship must be on the hurting person, not on you. The second response to Linda is truly empathetic. It acknowledges the hard time she is going through and encourages her to keep talking. This response is clearly the most helpful.

It is not about you.

Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others. Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 2:3-5

What attitude did Jesus have?

Then Jesus said, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do."

And they divided His garments and cast lots.

Luke 23:34

What Kind of Fruit Are You?

Read the story below of Pleasureville. What does it remind you of?


There are problems in Pleasureville. Children are contracting smallpox and passing it on throughout the schools and neighborhoods. Workers are spreading germs throughout the workplaces. Many have sores that are visible and constant nagging coughs that need a good dose of cough syrup. A visitor to Pleasureville might assume there is no medical care in the village, but there is a hospital with plenty of empty beds and stockpiles of vaccines and antibiotics. In addition, there seem to be medical clinics on every corner. So why are there so many sick people in Pleasureville?

Unfortunately, Pleasureville describes the spiritual nature of many of our own communities. Some of our communities seem to have a church on every corner. Outside the walls of these churches are people who have every conceivable problem. Although the cure is found in the application of the biblical teaching and resources found in these churches, we don't see people racing to the churches for help. Would you go to a doctor who had open and visible sores? Would you want to be examined by a nurse who had a constant cough? Perhaps many do not seek help from the church because it does not seem all that helpful. As believers, we cannot help people who do not want our help. So how do we encourage the hurting to let us help them? We live as ambassadors for Christ who embody the fruit of the Spirit.

The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law.

Galatians 5:22-23

Before you go further, conduct a "fruit of the Spirit" assessment by completing "What Kind of a Fruit are You?" at the end of this chapter on page 28.

Acts 11:24 describes a man who was extremely helpful to people. His name was Barnabas, and he was said to be "full of the Holy Spirit." What does that mean? That means he embodied the principles of Galatians 5.

Barnabas: A Case Study

He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were added to the Lord.

Acts 11:24

What happens when people have the fruit of the Spirit?

And Joses, who was also named Barnabas by the apostles (which is translated Son of Encouragement), a Levite of the country of Cyprus.

Acts 4:36

What kind of actions might someone engage in to have the name "Son of Encouragement"?

The words we say to people are important. Have you ever noticed how one critical comment can take the wind out of your sails? A psychologist told me once that ten "'atta boy's" can be wiped out with one "you stink"! We need to tell people when they do well and when we appreciate them. But sometimes people need more than words. Sometimes there is just nothing to say, and we must act to help people. Barnabas was an encourager not only in words but also in actions.

Act to Help the Hurting

Often we find that it takes more than words to effectively help people.

If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, "Depart in peace, be warmed and filled," but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit?

James 2:15-16

Barnabas didn't just talk, he acted. He saw people who were in need, and to help meet their needs he sold a field and laid the money at the apostles' feet. We don't know how much Barnabas made when he sold the field, but we do know the church appreciated his generosity because his actions received a lot of attention. People were pleased with Barnabas; so pleased that Ananias and Sapphira acted like they had done the same thing. Only they had not. They held some money back because they were trying to impress people and in the process they lost their lives (Acts 5:1-11).

Do we have to give people money to help them? Sometimes that is the most helpful thing to give, but at other times there may be something even more precious to give—time. The Bible says our life is like a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away (James 4:14). Time is one of the most precious things we can give to others. It takes time to reach out and help the hurting. Many years ago in an article in Reader's Digest a woman described the difficult time she had after her mother died. She said her neighbor was extremely helpful to her. The morning after her mother died her neighbor knocked on her door and said, "Give me all the shoes your family will wear to the funeral." He took their shoes and shined them. She said it seemed like the most helpful act someone could do for them. They were packing to fly home and did not have any spare time. The neighbor walked in and removed one small burden.

Find the Helpful Helper

A coworker of yours named Sally has been married for three years and has a new baby. Last week she found out her husband has been having an affair. He has told her he does not love her anymore.

Which action would be most helpful?

It does not sound very spiritual, but Sally needs someone to take care of her baby so she can have time to figure out what she needs to do.

When Saul had come to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples; but they were all afraid of him, and did not believe that he was a disciple. But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles.

Acts 9:26-27a

When fear prevented the disciples from helping Saul (later named Paul), Barnabas reached out to him. Saul had changed, but most of the Christians thought his conversion was a trap. No doubt their fears about Saul were based on memories of his role in the death of Stephen. Yet in spite of how others responded to Saul, Barnabas risked his life and brought him to the apostles. What fears keep you from helping others? Are you afraid of losing a friend or of being ridiculed? We must move through our fears to help others.

When Paul needed someone to be his mentor, Barnabas was there to help. Barnabas took Paul under his wing and taught him. What kind of ego did Barnabas have?

What kind of ego did Barnabas have?

As they ministered to the Lord and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, "Now separate to Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them."

Acts 13:2

Now when the congregation had broken up, many of the Jews and devout proselytes followed Paul and Barnabas, who, speaking to them, persuaded them to continue in the grace of God.

Acts 13:43

And Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul, Hermes, because he was the chief speaker.

Acts 14:12

Barnabas kept his ego in check. Because he was motivated by love he was able to focus on Paul's needs. Sometimes we avoid helping people because we fear they might get ahead of us or might hold us back. Notice the shift from "Barnabas and Saul" to "Paul and Barnabas" between in Acts 13:2 and Acts 13:43. Finally, in Acts 14:12 Paul is referred to as the "chief speaker." Barnabas knew Paul was the better speaker. Instead of sulking at Paul's success, he helped Paul progress to a position where he could impact many people to follow Christ. True helpers desire the best for the person they are helping. They are willing to help others find their place in God's work. They work with the selfless attitude of Jesus (Philippians 2:3-4).

Does your ego get in the way of helping others? Are you willing to see others pass you by to stand in the limelight? Barnabas kept his eye on the mission. The gospel benefited from the emergence of Paul while Barnabas obediently took the back seat.

Keep It Confidential

If you are a person who embodies the fruit of the Spirit you can help people by listening and expressing empathy when they approach you with problems. However, we must make sure we do not harm those who share their hurts with us. Never repeat a matter told to you in confidence unless you are doing so because someone is in danger. In other words, if someone asks you to keep something private make sure you do. Do not repeat what people tell you about themselves even if they do not ask you to keep the information private. People who want to hear about problems to be entertained or to get juicy gossip would do better to stay away from hurting people. Consider the following Proverbs about the importance of keeping private information confidential.

The Talebearer

The words of a talebearer are like tasty trifles, And they go down into the inmost body.

Proverbs 26:22

What are your motives for listening to someone?

A talebearer reveals secrets,

But he who is of a faithful spirit conceals a matter.

Where there is no counsel, the people fall;

But in the multitude of counselors there is safety.

Proverbs 11:13-14

He who covers a transgression seeks love,

But he who repeats a matter separates friends.

Proverbs 17:9

What happens when people break a confidence?

Hurting people desperately need someone to talk to. If they do not find a trustworthy counselor, they might fall (Proverbs 11:14). Is there ever a time when things shared in confidence need to be told? Consider the situations below.

To Tell or Not to Tell

An Overbearing Mother-in-law

Jane shares with you that her mother-in-law is giving her a hard time. She feels that her mother-in-law is imposing on her and her new husband's free time. You are an acquaintance of Jane's mother-in-law. Should you talk to her about Jane's concerns?

A Debt-Ridden Friend

One day over coffee Jim mentions that he is in terrible debt. He does not know which way to turn and has even considered filing for bankruptcy protection. You know people who could help Jim. Should you tell anyone about Jim's difficulties?

A Mourning Mother

Helen has been extremely depressed since her son died. Many years ago her husband left her. After that event she poured her life into caring for her son. She tells you she wishes her life were over. She has thought of killing herself. Should you tell anyone about this?

A Problem with Pornography

One day Lawrence approaches you and says, "I have something heavy on my heart. I have to share it with someone." You listen to him, and he tells you he is entangled in pornography. He also shares with you that he is attracted to young children. Unfortunately, his wife runs a daycare center out of their home, and he has been spending more and more time at home during daycare hours. Should you tell anyone what he has shared with you?

Most of us realize the importance of avoiding gossip. If we betray a confidence, it is often out of carelessness or in a genuine attempt to be helpful. Consider the problem Jane is experiencing. If we knew her mother-in-law, we might try to "fix" this problem. But Jane does not need that; she needs to be heard. We can heed the principle of Proverbs 11:13-14 and give Jane a safe place where she can get counsel. If we betray her and break the confidence, we will probably further separate these two women. The problem Jim is going through is similar in nature. He needs counsel and someone he can trust and talk to. We can listen and help him identify some approaches for dealing with his problems. But what should we do about Helen and Lawrence?

When people visit a professional counselor, psychologist, psychiatrist, doctor, lawyer, or pastor, what they say is privileged communication. Our system values giving people the opportunity to talk freely and to get counsel and advice without fear of that confidence being betrayed.

Professional ethical codes from the helping professions are informative. These codes require that professionals take steps to prevent people from harming themselves or others.

Ethical Codes

"The general requirement that counselors keep information confidential does not apply when disclosure is required to protect clients or identified others from serious and unforeseeable harm when legal requirements demand that confidential information must be revealed...."

American Counseling Association Code of Ethics, Section B.2.a.

"Christian counselors refuse to condone, advocate for, or assist the suicidal, homicidal, or assaultive/abusive harm done to self or others by clients, including that which is threatened by verbal or other means. In fact, we are under an affirmative ethical duty to prudently intervene for the sake of protecting life, and under certain conditions, to report deadly threats to the proper authorities and those threatened by clients."

American Association of Christian Counselors Code of Ethics, Standard 1-121.

Even helpers who are not professionals can glean important lessons from these codes. Once people become a danger to themselves or to others, we must take a more active role. In those cases, the principles of Galatians 6:2 and Jesus' model for confrontation (Matthew 18) need to be applied.

Willing to Confront

We have a responsibility to talk to Helen and convince her to see a physician or some other professional about her problem. If she is actively suicidal, we should take her to a hospital or medical facility for immediate treatment.

Lawrence would fall under the auspices of Matthew 18. If he is truly repentant for his behavior, he will make a concerted effort to keep away from places where he might bring harm to others. If he is not, others will need to be involved to prevent him from causing harm. Quite simply, in these cases we have a responsibility to confront the individuals and provide them with specifics about how their behavior is dangerous and potentially harmful.

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that 'by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.'

Matthew 18:15-16

When we point out sin to someone, we are helping that person in a way similar to how Nathan helped David (2 Samuel 12). Imagine what might have happened to David had Nathan refused to confront him. The Bible tells us, "Faithful are the wounds of a friend" (Proverbs 27:6). These "wounds" can be unpleasant at the time, but they are necessary if someone is to get better. A true friend helps others see their errors so they can become better people (Proverbs 27:17).

Being helpers does not mean that we are always pleasant. Many people experience problems that require difficult and serious confrontation. Frequently, confrontation with people addicted to alcohol and other drugs must be brutally honest. This is often called an intervention. After we confront a person in private and that individual fails to respond appropriately, we may need to ask the family and friends to become involved in the confrontation and to help arrange for the necessary treatment.

Find the Helpful Helper

At work one day you are with Sally as she talks to a coworker about reconciling with her spouse. The coworker (who lives alone) says, "If I were you I'd say good riddance to the man. You don't need him. You ought to sue him for everything you can get out of him."

Which action would be most helpful?

We also need to confront people who make damaging comments. In Acts 15:1 a problem developed that hindered the spread of the gospel. People were trying to force the Gentiles to be circumcised. The Bible says Barnabas and Paul were disturbed because they knew this would hinder the spread of the gospel. They confronted those who made the faulty statements to prevent them from causing further damage (Acts 15:7-11). How does this translate in the twenty-first century?

Sometimes our friends will face problems that require more help than we can provide. Some of these problems may be addictions, major depression, or debilitating anxiety. In these cases it is critical that we help them find the right kind of professional help. (In chapters 2 and 3 we will take a closer look at this process.)

Convey Hope

Sometimes problems seem insurmountable. We might even be shocked or disgusted by the things hurting people share with us. When I was in graduate school, I conducted my internship in a facility where juvenile sex offenders were treated. Many of these youth had committed despicable crimes. In a group counseling session one day, a youth who had molested several children said, "There's no hope for us. Aren't we all doomed to hell?" At that point the group leader, who knew I was preparing for the ministry, asked me to address their spiritual concerns. I shared with them the principles of Jeremiah 18.

Jeremiah 18

Then I went down to the potter's house, and there he was, making something at the wheel. And the vessel that he made of clay was marred in the hand of the potter; so he made it again into another vessel, as it seemed good to the potter to make.

Then the word of the LORD came to me, saying: "O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter?" says the LORD. "Look, as the clay is in the potter's hand, so are you in My hand, O house of Israel!"

Jeremiah 18:3-6

What was God's message for Israel?

What are the implications from this passage for the problems we experience?

The message of Jeremiah 18 is that God forgives those who seek His forgiveness and He can rebuild the most marred life. Lives scarred from sin may never be the same, but with God's help they can be cleansed and rebuilt into beautiful vessels. As a helper, it is important to convey hope. Be careful not to be judgmental or condescending with people who have scarred their lives by involvement in sin. Our objective is to help them to sin no more, as Jesus demonstrated with the woman who was caught in an adulterous act (John 8:1-11).

Appendix A

What kind of fruit are you?

  1. I love the hard-to-love.
    True        False
  2. I have joy.
    True        False
  3. I am at peace.
    True        False
  4. I am patient.
    True        False
  5. I am kind.
    True        False
  6. I am good.
    True        False
  7. I am faithful. (You can count on me!)
    True        False
  8. I am gentle.
    True        False
  9. I have control of my life and passions.
    True        False
  10. I need to go home and go back to bed.
    True        False