How to love those you lead when they’re suffering

What do you do and say the moment someone else’s worst nightmare is realized?

Our firstborn, Brett, had just arrived in our arms and in our hearts. We were 22 years old and full of the wonder of childbirth and parenting.

My husband, Rick, was a youth minister. Seven days after our son arrived, Rick was called upon to visit an ill baby born the same day as Brett. A large tumor had been discovered. Obviously, it was shocking and devastating for the young parents who were near our age.

I will never forget Rick coming home to his healthy baby boy — stunned in a way I had never seen before. We talked into the late hours of the night, with one reoccurring theme:

“What do you do and say in moments like this?”

We felt inadequate. Looking back, we were mere kids ourselves, yet Rick’s pastoral role required us to step into devastating moments in people’s lives — ready or not.


That was our first encounter of ministry in crisis, but hundreds of others would follow. Nearly 40 years have passed and we have stood in many people’s devastating, destructive moments.

When hurricanes swept away lives and possessions, when a home burned to the ground, when a shocking cancer diagnosis was delivered, when a spouse confessed their adultery or when a loved one had just taken their own life, we were there.

I was present when a child relayed a terrible matter to an unknowing parent only to have police knock on the door in the middle of it. I visited a jail to see a sweet, white-headed, 69-year-old grandmother who had just taken a gun and killed her husband. At 28, I went to a funeral home to assist in making arrangements with my 26-year-old friend who had just lost her husband to a heart attack.

In these moments, I struggled to know what to say or do. I never felt prepared or adequate. Not for a single one of them. In fact, the memory of many still leave me with a sick pit in my stomach.

Yet, in the unique role as spiritual leaders in ministry, we will be called to these scenes. We will be called to brutal places of shock and devastation, disarray and disappointment. Most of us won’t know what to do. We will feel crushingly ill-prepared.

Therefore, we should take guidance and coaching from this scripture:

“And now abide faith, hope and love … the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13).

In these tough moments, we are being called to dispense faith, hope and love.


We dispense love by being the “hands and feet of Jesus” which, quite frankly, I had trivialized because I had no idea of its power.

So then, how do we love?

We love by being present.
We demonstrate His compassion by showing up. Yes, just by showing up! Being present is not a small matter. In fact, it is almost everything.

“You don’t need a plan; you just need to be present.”—Bob Goff

Let’s go back to our struggle with “What do I say?” It’s okay to want a plan. We must understand that showing up is far more important than what we say. If we stay away because we feel uncomfortable or inadequate, we are demonstrating our comfort is more important than their pain. We put out the message that we love ourselves more than we love others. Bob Goff said it well when he stated:

“But the kind of love that God created and demonstrated is a costly one because it involves sacrifice and presence. It’s a love that operates more like a sign language than being spoken outright.”

We love by being practical.
Love is practical by doing good. I began to understand this shortly after my husband, Rick, passed away. Life was overwhelming as I was adjusting to widowhood. I struggled to manage single-parenting three kids and running a household alone. One afternoon I returned home to find some young men from my church’s small group had done my yard work — including scooping dog poop. I was in a fragile place emotionally and spiritually. I stood looking at my tidy, clean back yard and literally felt the love of God. He sent people to meet my needs and show me His love. Tears streamed down my face as I looked up to heaven with a powerful “You see me” discovery similar to Hagar in the Bible who understood God saw her circumstances and didn’t forsake her.

“Our practical love for those in need reflects the Father’s heart and is part of how we image our Creator God.”—Trillia Newbell

When we are present, we can begin to see the practical needs of hurting, broken people—and then we get to be part of meeting those needs. We can marshal others to participate and encourage in this way — as the body of Christ we are His hands and feet.


The verse “We walk by faith and not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7) kept replaying over and over in the midst of our car accident and my husband’s death. Yet, I couldn’t help but think “what I see is so hard and scary.”

Many are tempted to in the midst of calamities and trials because they are overwhelmed by dark, devastating circumstances. What they see can seem to easily overwhelm their faith. Yet when we are present alongside that brother or sister, we have the opportunity to communicate, “Don’t calculate without God in this moment.”

Listen to Paul’s words:

“And we sent Timothy, our brother and God’s coworker in the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you concerning your faith, so that no one will be shaken by these afflictions” (1 Thessalonians 3:2-3).

Like Paul sent Timothy, God sends us to strengthen and encourage people’s faith. God is deeply concerned about the health of our faith, especially in times of trouble. This should be of high concern for us as well.

Two ways we can encourage others to lean on Him in times of struggle:

  • Let your presence do the heavy lifting and use words when necessary. Your presence in their times of hurt can build bridges for more in-depth, direct conversations later.
  • Gently dispense reminders of Biblical promises, especially of God’s presence and His love, like “He will never leave you or forsake you.” Stay basic.

While suffering may be a fertile place for faith to grow, it also is fertile place for Satan to sow anger, bitterness, doubt and cynicism. Be cautious poorly timed words won’t add fuel to the enemy’s lies.

Additionally, when we step into the pain of people who do not know Christ, it can often be a place to discuss faith or create an openness to hear the gospel. The pain may create space and open dialogue for spiritual things, but tenderness, wisdom and timeliness must be in play. Don’t appear to merely be a spiritual opportunist; first, be a genuinely caring friend.


God has promised “hope for your future” (Jeremiah 29:11), but for the people we encounter in suffering, that reality is not yet at hand. The drug addict who relapsed again or the cancer that is still raging or the husband who is still in deep, dark grief will need kind words.

We literally are “standing in between hope and despair” as Steven Curtis Chapman says in his song, “Hallelujah, You are Good”.

“We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, sure and strong. It enters behind the curtain in the most Holy place in Heaven” (Hebrews 6:19).

There is a reason hope is an anchor: because it holds us as we are windblown, tossed and battered by the storms of suffering. We need hope for the things “at hand.” God is not done with our story.

For people living in their “not yet,” we dispense hope to them by believing truth for them. “He is making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland” (Isaiah 43:19). “We must fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen” (2 Corinthians 4:18).

We allow their hope to limp until the Spirit steps in to allow them to abound in hope. “Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you will abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13).

I believe these words by Joni Eareckson Tada. I have experienced them: “The greatest good suffering can do for me is to increase my capacity for God.”

So, as your encounter suffering people, let Joni’s words become your prayer. “Father let my presence, let my words and let my help increase this soul’s capacity for you.”

Read more about how to face your own stress and how to help others do the same.

Published December 17, 2020