When a Friend Needs Comfort
What not to say to a friend in need

Three wrong words I should never have said: “You’ll be fine.”

A friend of mine had come to me with a problem. She just needed to verbalize her thoughts. In my youthful vanity, I figured I could use my incessant optimism to “fix” her situation, so I uttered those three words. My friend knew deep down that she would be fine; she wasn’t asking for me to tell her that. She just wanted someone to listen, to empathize, to agree that what she was going through was, yes, difficult.

Proverbs 17:17 says “a brother is born for adversity.” The Jamison, Fausset and Brown Commentary renders it: “A brother’s love is specially seen in adversity.” When a friend goes through a tough time, that is a time our bonds of friendship can grow stronger. If we’re not careful, however, we can weaken those bonds by failing to give proper support or comfort.

How often have you felt like you didn’t quite handle a situation right when someone came to you for comfort? You didn’t know what to say. Or you thought you had something helpful to say, but the other person didn’t take your comments the way you intended.

Perhaps you were the one needing the comfort and support. When you discussed the trial with a friend, instead of listening and sympathizing, he or she gave you a pat answer or a lecture.

Now think of your positive experiences. Do you remember a time when you needed comfort and you found just the right person? He listened, he empathized. She didn’t lecture, but everything she said was encouraging. He made you feel like you weren’t crazy for feeling the way you did. And his simple words of comfort gave you the strength to tell yourself, Yes, I will be fine. In fact, I’ll be better when I get through this.

On the other side of the issue, maybe someone came to you. You didn’t know what to say, so you kept quiet. And when the conversation was over, the person said to you: “That’s just what I needed! Thanks for talking with me”—and you really hadn’t said anything at all.

When a friend comes to you for comfort in a tough situation, what he is looking for is simply someone to be there for him. Here are three points on how to be there for someone else—to be the best comfort to your friends that you can be.

1. Be quiet and listen.

James 1:19 admonishes all of us to be “swift to hear, slow to speak.” We all are usually the opposite: swift to speak, before realizing—too late—that we need to zip our lips and open our ears.

If you really listen to a friend in need, you’ll know what he or she needs. In Servant Leadership, Robert Greenleaf wrote that “true listening builds strength in other people.”

Here’s a tip: Do not be afraid of silence. Welcome it. Ask yourself what Greenleaf said to ask: “In saying what I have in mind will I really improve on the silence?”

During the middle of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln was in need of a sympathetic listener. In How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie related how Lincoln “wrote to an old friend out in Springfield, Illinois, asking him to come to Washington. Lincoln said he had some problems he wanted to discuss with him. The old neighbor called at the White House, and Lincoln talked to him for hours about the advisability of issuing a proclamation freeing the slaves. Lincoln went over all the arguments for and against such a move, and then read letters and newspaper articles, some denouncing him for not freeing the slaves and others denouncing him for fear he was going to free them. After talking for hours, Lincoln shook hands with his old neighbor, said goodnight, and sent him back to Illinois without even asking for his opinion. Lincoln had done all the talking himself. That seemed to clarify his mind. ‘He seemed to feel easier after the talk,’ the old friend said. Lincoln hadn’t wanted advice. He had wanted merely a friendly, sympathetic listener to whom he could unburden himself.”

Imagine being asked to travel hundreds of miles from Illinois to the nation’s capital, sitting and listening for hours—then leaving without saying a word—and knowing that’s all it took to help someone. Carnegie wrote: “That’s what we all want when we are in trouble. That is frequently all the irritated customer wants, and the dissatisfied employee or the hurt friend” (emphasis added).

Sometimes we are Lincoln in that story. Sometimes we just need to be the old friend: Come to Washington, listen to the issues, say nothing, go back to Illinois.

2. Don’t feel like you have to give advice.

This point goes against our human nature. We like to feel like we have the answers. It strokes our vanity to think we have the definitive word on the issue and that will help our friend. When we’re teens, we start learning many things quickly, and we can easily feel like we know so much, and now that someone has confided in us, it’s time to start dishing out the sage wisdom of our many years of life. But the last thing people want is an upstart know-it-all giving them advice.

“The Lord God hath given me the tongue of the learned, that I should know how to speak a word in season to him that is weary: he wakeneth morning by morning, he wakeneth mine ear to hear as the learned” (Isaiah 50:4). Packed in this verse is so much education! The tongue of the learned usually uses his wisdom sparingly. In fact, true education is not puffing yourself up with knowledge—it requires shutting your mouth to listen. The latter half of that verse says that God wakens our ears “to hear as the learned.”

If you have learned to listen, you are on your way to being truly educated, and to being able to speak “a word in season to him that is weary.” The wisdom comes in not only knowing what to speak but when to speak it.

There may be nothing you could say. One person in the Bible wrote, “[M]y soul refused to be comforted” (Psalm 77:2). Another, when realizing the fate of God’s rebellious people in prophecy, said, “[L]abour not to comfort me” (Isaiah 22:4).

How do you handle a situation like that? Will you have the “magic” words to remedy it? Notice the Apostle Paul’s advice: “Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep” (Romans 12:15). He does not tell us to try to cheer up those who weep. He says weep with them! If you’ve been sad, you know how much that strengthens you when someone simply admits, Yes, this is sad! When we’re sad, sometimes we need to feel that we are not alone in our feelings.

We all have that kind of help in Jesus Christ, who is “touched with the feeling of our infirmities” because He “was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). He is there to comfort all of us, because He knows what it’s like. He has been through it! The English phrase “touched with the feeling” is from the Greek word sumpatheo, where we get our word sympathy. It means to be affected with the same feeling as another. How that strengthens and helps us when we go through trials—to know that someone else has the same feelings.

2 Corinthians 1:3-4 talk about the “God of all comfort; Who comforteth us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God.” We use our personal experiences with sore trials to help others! If you can draw from personal experience, do so. We tend to heed the advice of those who have been through a similar situation.

Consider the story of the man who was walking down a street and fell into a hole with no conceivable way out. A doctor walked by, and the man called up for help. The doctor wrote a prescription and threw it down the hole. A priest walked by, and the man called up again. The priest wrote a prayer and tossed it in. Finally, a friend walked by, and the man called up: “Hey, Joe, it’s me. Can you help me out? I’m trapped down here.” The friend tossed himself in the hole, to which the other said, “Why did you do that, Joe? Now we’re both stuck in the hole!”

The friend responded, “Yes, but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.”

When our friends are downcast about something, they may need help from those who’ve been in similar situations and can show them that there is a way out—that things will get better.

3. Encourage them to get help.

Bear in mind that you do not always have the experience to help a friend in need. As a trusted friend, however, you can point them to an adult (a parent, minister or educator) who may be able to help. In addition to your shoulder to cry on, your teenage friends need more mature guidance. For instance, sometimes your friends suffer because of things they have brought upon themselves. Sometimes they are wallowing in self-pity in these cases. Encourage them to consult a trusted adult.

They may need to pray about it more—taking the matter to their heavenly Father, who sits with the sympathetic High Priest, Jesus Christ. Simply saying, I know that must be hard, so I’m going to pray about this, may prod them to discuss their pain with God if they are not already doing so.

James 2:15-16 teach us: “If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?”

Me saying to my friend, “You’ll be fine,” was essentially be ye warmed and filled. I wrote a useless prescription, or a formulaic prayer, and threw it into the hole. I did not give “those things which are needful to the body.” And it profited nothing, except a perturbed look from my friend who needed comfort.

Again, that aid is usually just being an open ear, sympathizing with them, and directing them to those who can offer greater help.

Peter said: “… having compassion one of another, love as brethren [or, as brothers], be pitiful, be courteous” (1 Peter 3:8).

Be pitiful—or compassionate, tenderhearted. Be courteous—friendly. And have “compassion one of another”—sumpatheo. Be a compassionate ear, a courteous listener; strive to grow in love by sympathizing with and relating to the feelings of others as if they were your own. Then you will be that great comfort and friend who helps when others are in need.