The suffering of loved ones often comes unannounced, an unwelcomed intruder bent on stealing joy and hope. Without warning, we are thrust into the role of comforter, yearning to bring peace immediately through whatever means necessary – hugs, tears, and often far too quickly, words.

“I think I’m having post-partum issues,” my wife said, her eyes both beautiful and aching as she fought back tears. She sat in a wounded posture, ready to sleep for days if given the chance. I knew the adjustment from one kid to two had been difficult, but I wasn’t expecting this.

“You’re probably just stressed, stretched too thin,” I replied softly, trying not to sound dismissive. I had seen depression and anxiety before, and this did not look like it. I offered to take on more responsibility and give her more time to herself.

“I don’t think you’re listening.” And she was right. I had sped into diagnose and fix mode, instantly becoming the most sure minded of unqualified doctors. It took a long time before I realized my wife did not need my words: she needed my ears.

Words are powerful. God created the universe with the spoken word, became the Word embodied in Christ, and gave us a book about the world’s greatest treasure: Himself. As image-bearers, our words have power too. When used wisely, they give “sweetness to the soul and health to the body” (Proverbs 16:24). Our entire being, spiritually, physically, and emotionally, is bolstered through the grace of words. But imprudent words can “break the spirit” (Proverbs 15:4), setting fires that spread beyond our ability to squash the flames (James 3:5).

As image-bearers, we have the responsibility to use words wisely, a standard that means different practices in different situations. As we seek to comfort the suffering, wise responses often mean going against our natural tendency to both speak platitudes and offer immediate solutions.

For example, in miscarriage, loss families hear unhelpful phrases such as “you’ll have another baby” and “at least it was early.” These words are well-intentioned, but they seek a silver lining when no silver lining exists. A son or daughter has died and the hope of another child does not assuage the pain of losing this one. These words haunt grieving families by suggesting the depth of their pain has exceeded the magnitude of the tragedy.

We can have the best intentions and still do damage. I certainly wanted the best for my bride when I made those unhelpful comments. How do we avoid these mistakes? How can we mend hearts instead of adding to already weighty burdens?

By being slow to speak and quick to listen (James 1:19). This biblical principle is fascinating: to use words as an instrument of healing, we must first listen. To do so will give us with at least three advantages.

1. We Can Better Grieve with the Grieving

There are times for words, but we should first listen to the grieving, willing to mourn with them as they languish. The Bible encourages us to feel the suffering alongside the distressed, weeping with those who weep (Romans 12:15).  We should long to see their pain with the eyes of our hearts, understanding that in many cases, we will not have answers.

Jesus shows us how to grieve with our loved ones. When Lazarus died, Mary comes to Jesus weeping, and our Savior does not immediately offer words of comfort, even though He knew He would raise Lazarus from the dead. Instead, being “deeply moved in His spirit and greatly troubled” Jesus wept with His friends (John 11:32-35). Even if we feel we have words to speak, our first reaction should be to listen, empathize, and grieve.

2. We Can Reflect on What to Communicate

As sinners, we risk toxic words pouring out of us when we are too quick to speak. Instead, we should ponder what wisdom God would have us communicate (Proverbs 15:28). It’s hard to know what to say when tragedy strikes a loved one, but when we force out words in abundance, we prove ourselves foolish (Ecclesiastes 5:3).

By listening first, we remind ourselves that we are not a source of healing; God is the one who “saves the crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:17). We should strive to convey His wisdom instead of our own. The first step to that end is to be quick to listen and slow to speak.

3. We Can Reflect on How to Communicate

The Bible admonishes us to speak gently instead of using harsher tones (Proverb 15:1; 4). The words we use obviously matter, but our tone and presentation are important as well. By listening and reflecting first, we can determine the appropriate tone for the situation and the method by which we should communicate.

For example, I express myself more authentically and clearly when I write. Sometimes, I will say little to those hurting around me in person but will write them an encouraging or exhorting note later. That way, I can craft my response and give the grieving something they can keep if they find it helpful. Others prefer to speak their words, masters at using their tone to communicate empathy. Thinking through both what to say and how to say it will produce more edifying and helpful responses.

In my conversation with my wife, I intended to comfort her and construct a healthier path forward. Instead, I made her feel more alone. My problem was not the will of my heart but the foolishness of my head. God says there is a better way to address the suffering: listen, reflect, and pray for God’s wisdom. If we make that a common practice, we are more likely to bring catharsis than a deepening of wounds.

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