Tullian Tripp Furman Roundtable

What Not to Say to Someone Who’s Suffering

“Job’s friends were great counselors,” Tullian Tchividjian observes, “until they opened their mouth.”

Tchividjian sat down with Paul Tripp and Dave Furman to discuss things you shouldn’t to say to a person in pain—many of which they’ve learned the hard way.

“I’ve made the mistake of comparing one person’s pain to someone else’s,” recalls Furman, pastor of Redeemer Church of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. Though perhaps well intentioned, this approach diminishes the real struggle before your eyes and leaves the person to conclude you “have no idea what I’m going through.” Along similar lines, Tripp adds that it’s remarkably unhelpful to tell someone, “You will never suffer as much as Jesus did.” To the person who suffers this comment sounds like Jesus set the bar so high that no one else’s pain matters.

“The mandatory happiness we require inside the church often perpetuates the pain people feel,” says Tchividjian, pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. “But we have a faith that actually embraces suffering, that looks it square in the face and is realistic about it. The idea that God suffers for us and with us is what sets Christianity apart.”

Watch the full seven-minute video to see these pastors discuss blunders they’ve made, comforting their kids, awkward silence, and more.

Loss from The Gospel Coalition on Vimeo.

  • Andrea

    So helpful to hear these pastors reject some of the common Christian platitudes that surround sorrow!

  • a.

    “mandatory happiness” ?

    really? to me, that kind of accusation/exaggeration tends to minimize what might be truths that follow in a post.

    nonetheless,still appreciate some of your points; may the Spirit be ever helping us; I think what you must be talking about is discerning the Spirit’s proper timing of sharing God’s promises

    wish Job’s friends had had a chance to know Paul and Romans 8:28. God‘s sovereignty and providence combined with the truth that He cannot violate His deep, wide, high, long love in anything He allows, is immeasurably comforting and hopeful to me. There was a time I did not know this and, to me, THAT is hopelessness.

    Christians have to be in a position to share a better answer in the long run, as the Spirit leads, than the world, which is often silence, anger, despair.

    Incredibly, the Lord promises much more that ‘being with us’ although that is enough; He also promises that suffering produces gain; That should be shared as a reminder in it’s proper timing in the course every valley of the shadow of death experience, for to not do so is unkind.

  • http://justanotherclaypot.blogspot.com Betsy Markman

    Admittedly, I’m only halfway through “Glorious Ruin,” so maybe my current confusion will be resolved soon. But I’m having trouble with this.

    First, please understand that I have always despised the so-called ‘Prosperity Gospel.” And I despise the cruelty of Job’s friends. And I understand that Romans 8:28 can be used to keep suffering people at arms’ length. I get that.


    Now that I’m halfway through “Glorious Ruin,” I find myself pulling up short whenever comforting Scriptures and promises pop up in my mind in difficult moments. “No, no, no, mustn’t think that way!” As if somehow those verses should be excised from the Bible, or at least I shouldn’t have memorized them.

    I understand that these verses and promises should not be used to foster denial, but please, guys, don’t act as if they’ve got no place in our walk!

    This discussion (and the first half of “Glorious Ruin”) make me feel as if they’re saying that Jesus should not have endured the cross “For the joy set before Him.” No, he should have just said, “This stinks, and I’m going to stew in the stinkiness for the sake of honesty.”

    In all fairness to Paul Tripp (whose books I LOVE) and to Tullian Tchividjian (whose thinking I’m only beginning to explore), this is probably a misunderstanding of their point. But I have to bring it up here, because I’m sure I’m not the only one struggling with what they mean.

    There HAS TO be a way to avoid triteness and formulaic thinking without throwing out the comfort of the Scriptures. I would love to hear a follow-up which explains and explores the proper place of comforting Scriptures in our lives.

    • Kristen K.

      Betsy, thank you for your comments. I greatly appreciated reading them. I also think it would be helpful to have a follow up post.

    • http://omegaopc.org Drew Adcock

      I have to agree with you Betsy M. While active listening is important and allowing people to grieve (grieve with those who grieve) is very helpful, there is more. In fact, much more. What gives our suffering meaning – is not just that it is suffering, recognize it, feel it, move on. No. Meaning in suffering (like meaning in exultation) comes from connection with Christ. Suffering can be didactic, but not always, but suffering is always connected to Christ. I’m not saying we can see the connection always – but that there is one.
      Still, I’m thinking that these Pastors would not want to say that listening is all you need. Rather, they are warning others against the common mistakes of rushing in to minimize and dismiss what should not be minimized or dismissed. To say peace, peace, when there is no peace – is no good.

    • DC

      This comment is a good one and is worthy to be discussed. I think the conversation could go many ways, but I think one good point to be considered is along the lines of how communication works. Yes, truth is truth and worthy to be acknowledged. But you must also consider that communication takes 2 sides. You have the one speaking and the one hearing. If the one hearing is not ready to hear what you say, then what you say reaps no positive influence. If I lost one of my kids, I may or may not be angry with God, but one thing is for sure, I would not be encouraged by “He/she is in a better place” or a like comment. While it’s true, it’s also true that I deeply miss him/her and want him/her back. It’s true that I’m probably going to want to place blame on someone in order to make it easier to handle, and that someone will probably be God. Over time, I will hopefully come to a place where I can rejoice in God’s sovereign goodness, but that time is probably not going to be at the funeral. Point – we need to realize that just because we say something that is true does not mean we said it at the right time or place, or that it needed to be said at all. The outcome of communicating something to someone is highly dependent upon the state of the hearer, not just the fact that a truth is true. We need to consider the hearer, not only the truth, in our communication. Otherwise we can do more harm than good.

      • http://justanotherclaypot.blogspot.com Betsy Markman

        You make some excellent points. I know I have often been guilty of speaking the truth at the wrong time. How does one know what another person is ready to receive?
        I remember when an acquaintance’s baby was born with a heart defect and lived only a few hours. The next time we had a chance to be alone, I told her I wanted her to feel free to do whatever kind of talking she needed to do at any given time. She didn’t need to be okay. She could want to talk about the baby, our about something else for a change. She seemed to appreciate that, but she soon moved away and we lost touch, so I can’t tell you how it worked long-term.
        But, setting aside jokes about “It’s not about the nail,” I wonder if, in private conversation, it could sometimes be helpful to ask a grieving person what kind of listener/conversation partner they need at the moment. Thoughts?

        • DC

          I think the most important thing is not to have good pithy statements, but to have good presence in many cases. Like Tullian said in the vid, “Jobs friends were great counselors until they opened their mouths.” The bible tells us to “grieve with those who grieve” not “make their grieving go away.” Our roll in many cases is just support, and for many that comes from being there, perhaps taking them out to lunch a few times, stopping by for no other reason than to give them a hug, not annoyingly so – people need time and space, but enough to let them know they are not forgotten and that you care and are grieving with them. People lose hope when they feel forgotten. If you don’t grieve at a friends grief, well perhaps we should reconsider how loving of a person we really are! I don’t really think there is an exact science to this. But yes, to answer your question, sometimes it’s good to ask what they’d like from you. Others, asking would just put more pressure on them because they feel like you’re just placing the burden of expectation on them. This is why it’s so important to develop good relationships with people so you know them and their needs.

    • David Wolf

      Those are good questions, and others have already provided some good answers. I wrestle with the same questions myself, but here’s what I’ve come up with after thinking about it for the past couple days after reading your post.

      Jesus did, of course, go to the cross “for the joy set before him.” But let’s not forget that before he did, he wept, sweated blood, prayed fervently, and begged God for another way. I doubt that the promises of the Scriptures that he came to fulfill were too far from his mind at any point, but he didn’t resort to trite recitation of any of them in order to get over it. Instead, arming himself with the promises of resurrection, the hope of joy, and faithfulness to God, he was able to sinlessly face arrest, trial, and execution — yet not without grieving first.

      Similarly, he wept over Jerusalem’s waywardness. Their sinfulness, really. Though he preached faithfully in that city, it seems he first took a moment to say “this stinks” that they’re unfaithful and unrepentant. It is for that reason, though, that he’s on earth at all, and he makes good on it in both his preaching and his suffering.

      Hopefully his example provides us with a good framework for our own experience of suffering. There is a time for everything, as Solomon says. I think our times of mourning need to be experienced fully and honestly, but not in a way that gets in the way of obedience.

      There are two ways (probably more) we can use promises like Romans 8:28 when someone is suffering: 1) as a reminder to continue to rely on God, or 2) as an exhortation to get over it. One is legitimate, the other is not.

      Finally, we have the admonition in 1 Thessalonians 4:13 not to mourn “like those who have no hope.” I’ll leave the exposition of the verse to others, but I think it deserves a place in this discussion.

  • Sam Watts

    That was a very helpful discussion. I’ve said some of those same things critiqued in the video and never felt comfortable with what I had said. Great discussion, guys! I have only one criticism, and I mean it entirely as constructive criticism. Paul Tripp left Dave Furman completely out of the discussion. It’s easy to do. I’m sure I do it often, if not all of the time, so in (constructively) criticizing Paul, I’m also criticizing myself. Anyway, that aside, it was a very thought-provoking discussion; it hit the nail on the head; and I enjoyed it.

  • April Holbert

    I personally found this very timely. My husband and I are Christians, and involved in our church. We have issues. I just got blindsided with another issue a few weeks ago. My church wants to tell me that except for grace, it would be me in the sin that my husband is in. YES, that is true. BUT, that doesn’t help my broken heart right now. I just need someone to say, THIS STINKS, and let me cry today. There is a time and place for Godly counsel, and I am so thankful for it. But I believe, in the crisis, in the trauma of the event it is very important to let the person feel. God did give us emotions. I find it very unhelpful when someone asks me “how I’m doing” when they have not called me, or sent a text saying, I’m praying for you, I’m here for you, or anything. If you are not willing to cry with me when I’m crying, then you don’t get to ask me how I am. What I’m hearing is, “be ok, so I can be ok”. And, that’s not OK. Thank you for the post guys. It truly ministered grace to me today, and I am learning from this how to better minister to people in my family, and in my church.

    • Sara

      “I just need someone to say, ‘THIS STINKS,’ and let me cry today….But I believe, in the crisis, in the trauma of the event it is very important to let the person feel.” Yes. This. It seems so simple yet in reality appears so difficult for people — whether Christian or not — to put into practice. Active listening is so so so important in relationships, especially when one party is hurting.

  • http://bettycatherine.wordpress.com/ Betty Pompell

    I wonder how/if these three men would respond differently if the question was “to unbelievers”? What do you think? If we are talking to our atheist or agnostic friends, should our response to their suffering be the same as how we respond to believers who are suffering? Do we still remain silent, just “let them hurt” and tell them, “I don’t know how you feel. This is horrible.”? Or do we find ourselves in a glorious opportunity to share of Christ’s suffering and offer of salvation?

  • Erik Swanson

    Thanks for this video. I like these speakers, and I appreciate the comments above. The only comment I have is that the pace of the video is overwhelming for someone who’s currently in the midst of suffering. It sounds like 3 competitive guys all trying to share their insights before the clock runs out and its time to finish filming. Such a pity, as I agree with the content of what was said. If there’s a sequel, PLEASE slow down the pace of the conversation.

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  • Carin Clarke

    when my son died if someone had mentioned God I might have hit them. He was studying for the ministry and was horribly taken from me. If anybody heard me laugh during his funeral its when my friend said to me “someone is going to tell you he’s in a better place. Ask them which one of their kids would they like to send to that better place.” when I was ready i ran to a Christian counselor to get answers.

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  • a.

    further, re: ‘mandatory happiness’, one could choose to mock or choose to obediently teach God’s heart about this, just as for all of God’s word which He wants us to know for our benefit and His glory. The Lord has His word for us about ‘rejoicing always’ and we ought understand, pursue, proclaim, request its blessing, by His power and grace. There was a time I didn’t know ’rejoicing always’ was a possibility even in deep suffering– not knowing that truth-a tragedy.

  • Mariah A. Taylor

    I have learned what not to say to the suffering or one who is grieving through years of visiting the sick and shut-ins, and prison ministry. I choose to say little and sing songs to encourage them instead. Nothing is more of a hindrance than to tell someone”I know how you feel, don’t cry or at least you know where they are, etc. etc. Sometimes it is best to say nothing and let them talk, but always ask for the guidance of the Holy Spirit and never speak on your own.

  • Katherine C

    If someone is in pain and suffering partly because they have wrong thinking (eg. A teenage girl is crying loudly in the cinema bathrooms to her sister “Mum always makes me tag along with you and your boyfriend and I feel so left out! I’m sick of it”)… is this a situation of suffering where one should talk to them about it?

    Tullian’s example of his daughter saying she had a rough day seems to be in the same category as the example I’ve given. Also the video seems to say we should never minimise a person’s pain… or distinguish between big and small pain… so I’m not sure what the video actually encourages us say now… even if the pain is brought on by a sinful attitude.

  • John

    Grateful for this conversation… btw, the ministry Q Place (www.qplace.com) has a good training module to help each of us practice getting better at this valuable skill – its entitled: “The Art of Loving: How can we love people who are hurting?” – it is part of the Arts of Spiritual Conversations curriculum. Grief, pain, sorrow & suffering are common to everyone – in & out of the church. Loving people who are hurting is a generous way to demonstrate Christ’s love. Thx for this discussion.

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  • Sean L

    We often think we can help alleviate the trumoil or pain someone is going through in the midst of a tradgedy, mostly because of this felt need we have to fix broken things. There’s nothing wrong with this, and what I mean by that is God has set a plan to fix the broken relationship between Him and man since the fall. The greatest tradgedy, however, I believe, are the tools we try to accomplish this with.
    I give you permission to not know the answer. I give you permission to not say a word. I give you permission to take my hand and help me walk through this thing that is too big for me now. Sometimes I can’t stand in the morning because it’s too much. I often feel as if I’m standing alone when I finally gather the courage and strength too. I am diligently pursuing answers from God and you don’t always need to feel like your the only one that hears from Him. As a matter of fact, many people who are going through a tradegedy are the closest to God then they have ever been.
    Often these are tools that are overlooked, somewhat because they present no immediate solution, and regularly they take too much time.
    If someone is grieving, if someone is going through a tragedy, just being there is sometimes good enough.
    I can not begin to tell you the swell of condulences and misplaced well wishing that I have had to endure over the past three years. I might have given up if I didn’t love Jesus so much. Misquoted scriptures, misguided statements like God won’t give you more than you can handle, or God caused this for a reason. I’ve had the comparissons… I’ve had the “at least she’s still here!”
    They don’t understand what my family has had to endure, what it’s like having to take care of not only my three young children but my spouse, but I don’t hold it against them.
    This video I believe can be a valuable tool for us to think before we speak, and that sometimes the best action is just standing still.

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