When a Listening Ear Is More Healing Than a Spoken Truth

“People in pain are unlikely to hear unless they have first felt heard.”

When Lazarus died, Jesus raised him, but the first thing he did was weep. He raised his cry with the grief of the community, the mourners exclaiming, “See how he loved him!” Jesus showed his love for Lazarus by weeping. And then he walked into the tomb and healed him. He entered the pain and then entered the tomb. We fail people in pain when we try to heal them before weeping.

Pain, whether physical, emotional or spiritual, is so unsettling because it reminds us that we are finite. It confronts us with death. Sometimes sick people sign a DNR—“Do not resuscitate,” a legal document that guarantees that paramedics will not take “heroic measures” (CPR or life support) in order to save them if they go into cardiac arrest or stop breathing. I wonder if we should all view people in significant pain as having signed emotional DNRs. We are not trying to protect them from pain or even the type of death that results from lost dreams, lost relationships or a lost sense of invincibility. We are not trying to rush them from Palm Sunday to Easter, bypassing Good Friday. Things often need to get worse before they get better, and so we do not stand above the pit, detached, trying to throw them the rope of advice or impassioned defenses of God’s goodness. We go down into the pit with them, weeping with them, letting our heart break with the heartbroken, waiting together for resurrection.

A few years ago a student leader I worked with, Karri, had this conversation with another student, Sarah.

Sarah: “I’m worthless.”
Karri: “No, you’re not.”
Sarah: “No one loves me.”
Karri: “Yes, they do.”
Sarah: “God hates me.”
Karri: “No, he doesn’t. He loves you.”
Sarah: “I can’t do anything right. I’m a failure.”
Karri: “No, you’re not. Look at all you’ve accomplished!”

So much of that conversation rings true. A role of fellow believers is to remind us of who we are, to advocate for us when we are weak, to represent God to us when he seems far away. We are aghast when someone we love feels worthless, and we rush to them like white blood cells to an invading virus. Everything that Karri said in that conversation with Sarah was true. But here’s the problem. Karri stood outside the pit that held Sarah, looking in, trying to argue Sarah out of her feelings.

It is common for people to speak declaratively and factually when they are truly telling us how they feel. What Sarah meant was “I feel like God hates me” and “I feel like a failure.” Unbeknownst to Karri, her reactions, as well intentioned as they were, dismissed Sarah’s feelings. Sarah was in the pit, and Karri stood at the opening above and tried to drag her out. It’s as effective as trying to coax buds into blossoming in January. Instead, Karri needed to go down into the pit. This would have been better:

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Sarah: “I’m worthless.”
Karri: “I’m so sorry to hear that you feel that way. That must be so painful.”
Sarah: “God hates me.”
Karri: “Wow. That’s an awful feeling to have.”
Sarah: “I’m a failure. I can’t do anything right.”
Karri: “That’s such a heavy burden to carry.”

Instead of “speaking truth,” in this instance Karri is empathizing with Sarah, going down into the pit of despair with her. And now together, as two fragile and flawed human beings, they wait for resurrection, the work that only God can do.

In order to do this, Karri must put on Sarah’s emotional world, and she may have to access similar feelings and experiences she herself has had. The part of this that is so difficult and confusing for many people is that you actually encourage the other person to stay in the feeling. It is not your job to rescue them or even to try and make them feel better. It almost feels like you are digging the pit deeper rather than trying to pull them out. You have to even be careful about questions in these situations, because some questions can inadvertently take the other person out of their heart and into their head. If, in the moment of hurt, you ask something like “Have you ever felt this way before?” you can almost see their energy go from their bodies to their brains, out of the feeling and into their thoughts. Then you are no longer addressing the heart of the matter.

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I can practically hear the objections of readers yelling at me. Do we just leave people in despair? Do we wallow with them in their feelings and offer no way out? Do we all perish in the pit? My first response is, you would be surprised what can happen through empathic listening. Instead of only telling someone that God loves them, you show them that God loves them through bearing their pain with them.

The most critical element in speaking truth is not content or conviction but timing. People in pain are unlikely to hear unless they have first felt heard. The most biblical sermon, preached at the wrong time, will fall as flat as a wedding sermon preached at a funeral. People will be defensive, or silent, if the sword of truth is wielded at the wrong time. Don’t confuse their silence for agreement. But if they feel listened to and loved, then they may be able to hear the promises of God on the other side. Then they may be receptive to a question like “What do you need right now?” They may able to start thinking about the future and what new life God may be offering them.

Listeners weep and then heal.

The Listening Life: Embracing Attentiveness in a World of Distraction
By Adam S. McHugh (IVP, 2015)

Category: Christian Living

Taken from The Listening Life by Adam S. McHugh. Copyright (c) 2015 by Adam S. McHugh. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426. www.ivpress.com

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Adam S. McHugh is an ordained Presbyterian minister and spiritual director, a regular contributor to Susan Cain’s Quiet Revolution website and author of Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Place in an Extroverted Culture.