Issues of mental illness and suicide have been in the news recently—both locally and nationally. While the Gospel offers much life to those struggling, it is often those who purport to carry the Good News who do the most damage to those who are suffering. In that light, we asked Adam McHugh, a former hospital chaplain and author of the newly released book, The Listening Life, to offer some insight into what it means to listen well to those who are in pain.
Few things shut down a person in pain faster than quoting the Bible at them. As I write that, I can hear the sirens of the Heresy Police surrounding my building. Yes, the Bible contains the words of life, the promises of God-with-us that have comforted saints and resurrected sinners. But the Bible can also be the ultimate conversation killer. It can be used as a tool for silencing people and for short-circuiting grief, hurt, and depression. Sometimes people use the Bible in a way that makes hurting people feel like God is telling them to shut up.
This [piece] is based on two premises. First, life is hard. If you haven’t experienced that yet, just wait a little while longer. If you are in a sunny season of life, by all means bask in it, because a storm front is not far away. Second, many of us are at a loss for how to respond to a person who is experiencing that life is hard. We are daunted by the weight and emotion of painful situations and our best intentions seem inadequate. We say too much or we say too little, we quote the wrong verse or feel a compulsive need to quote a verse at all, we do the wrong thing or we do the right thing wrongly, or whatever we say or do falls with a thud.
I don’t like saying this, but it has been my experience that Christians are often worse at dealing with people in pain than others with different beliefs. Truth be told, I have chosen on many occasions to share my painful moments and emotions with non-Christians rather than Christians, because I knew I would be better heard. Dietrich Bonhoeffer lamented the same thing: “Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking when they should be listening.” This saddens me, and confuses me. It seems to me that no one should run into the fire like Christians, because we follow a Savior who descended into hell. No one should be better equipped to respond to suffering than those who wear crosses around their necks. But it is far less messy to stand over people in pain than it is to enter their worlds and risk feeling pain ourselves.
I once heard a ministry colleague say: “I’m going to be with a person in the hospital tonight. Time to speak some truth.” This idea prevails in many Christian circles, that preaching is the healing balm for suffering. Whether it’s sickness or divorce or job loss, a crisis calls for some sound Biblical exhortation. I have a number of issues with this. First, it assumes that the hurting person does not believe the right things or believe with enough fervency. They may end up receiving the message that their faith is not strong enough for them to see their situation rightly, or that something is wrong with them because they are struggling. Second, preaching to people in pain preys on the vulnerable. It’s stabbing the sword of truth into their wound, or doing surgery without anesthesia. Unwelcome truth is never healing. Third, “speaking truth” into situations of pain is distancing. You get to stand behind your pulpit, or your intercessory prayer that sounds a lot like a sermon, and the other person is a captive audience, trapped in the pew of your anxious truth. Suffering inevitably makes a person feel small and isolated, and preaching to them only makes them feel smaller and more alone, like a scolded child.
Dr. Seuss wrote some classic stories, but he also gave some classically bad advice: “Don’t cry that it’s over. Smile that it happened.” Your role as a listener is, by all means, to let them cry that it’s over. Don’t be the Grinch who stole grief. Be a witness to their tears. Each falling tear carries pain and it’s the only way to get it out.
A hurting person is in a storm. They are cold, wet, shivering, and scared. Preaching, platitudes, and advice will not get them out of the storm. Don’t tell someone in a storm that it’s a sunny day. There will likely come a day when the clouds part, but it is not today. It’s not your job to pull them out of the storm. It’s your job to get wet with them.
The listener’s job is to enter in. The apostle Paul nails it with these verses:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God. For just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is abundant through Christ. If we are being afflicted, it is for your consolation and salvation; if we are being consoled, it is for your consolation, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we are also suffering. Our hope for you is unshaken; for we know that as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our consolation. (2 Cor 1.3-7)
There is no getting around the fact that a Christian community is one that suffers. The pioneer of our faith suffered, the main symbol of our tradition is one of agony and death, and there is no use trying to remove the cruciform marks from the hands and feet of the church. The mark of the gospel is not health and wealth, but nails and blood. The good news is that a Christian community is one that suffers together. We partake in one another’s sufferings, an unsavory meal that is made sweeter when we patiently endure with one another. Consolation is not necessarily rescue from suffering, but consolation is what comes as we suffer together. This does not at all mean that the church ignores injustice, poverty, and oppression or that we do not seek to relieve suffering when we have the ability to do so. We rail against pain and rage at death, because we know things are not as they ought to be. But there are many times in life when we just don’t have the ability to relieve someone’s suffering, as much as we wish we did. You’re not going to magically remove someone’s grief when a loved one dies, or snap away their depression when a dream fails. The grief and depression are essential parts of their healing. The church is a community of people who acknowledge suffering, treat it as real, and enter into one another’s pain, because our Lord knows our afflictions. Jesus offers his presence in suffering, and so should we.
We are eager to offer up premature consolation though, aren’t we? I call it preemptive assurance. If we can strike first with our assurances and answer some questions that haven’t been asked, maybe we can protect ourselves from discomfort. We start hearing ourselves say things like:
“Everything will be okay.”
“Hang in there.”
“God is good.”
“This will pass.”
“Soon you will be glad this happened.”
“God is in control.”
“This will make you stronger.”
“God won’t test you beyond what you are able to handle.”
“God works all things for good.”
I know that when my language takes on a particularly religious slant, I am probably dispensing some preemptive assurance. Pain is too serious for pat answers and glib God-talk. When I was a starting out as a chaplain, I had an itchy prayer trigger finger.
My first question for a patient was “How are you feeling?” and my second question was “Can I pray for you?” That way I could maintain control and let my carefully rehearsed prayers drown out their pain. I would move on to the next hospital room thinking I had done my job. I hadn’t.
Listening to people in pain is about giving them room to grieve and weep and rage and doubt. We’re not there to spiritualize their pain or theologize their experience. Our religious talk, preemptive assurance, and breezy conversation take space, when we want to give space. Otherwise we are subject to Job’s rebuke: “I have heard many such things; miserable comforters are you all. Have windy words no limit? Or what provokes you that you keep on talking?” (Job 16.2-3). Bonhoeffer said it almost as strongly: “It must be a decisive rule of every Christian fellowship that each individual is prohibited from saying much that occurs to him.” In other words, listening and silence are not necessarily the same thing, but silence is a really good start. Some situations are so heavy that only silence can support their weight.
We are on the wrong track when we diminish the emotions that people are feeling. You don’t tell them how to feel; you let them feel however they are feeling, in the presence of another. Don’t catch what I call “at-least syndrome.” At least you have your health. At least you got to have her in your life for a little while. At least it’s not as bad as what this other person is experiencing. At-least statements diminish pain. Let people have their pain. In some situations, it’s all they have.
It’s a scary prospect, especially if you are uncomfortable with raw emotion, but you need to let people feel their hurt. This is especially challenging when you have done something to hurt someone. You might find yourself whipping out the “quick on the draw” apology. The faster I can apologize, the less I have to listen to their pain and the less guilty I can feel! The quick apology is not for them, but for you. If you can’t hear the pain that you played a role in inflicting, there will not be full reconciliation.
Sometimes you not only encourage people to express their pain but you even help them to feel what they are feeling more intensely. As a hospice chaplain, I was surprised to discover that my role was often not to reassure, but to remind people just how agonizing their situation was. They would take a step toward describing their pain, then take a step back and offer a cliché like “But that’s the circle of life for you.” That’s when I would step in and say “Yeah, but the circle of life sucks, doesn’t it?” Sometimes you have to say the blunt thing to open the floodgates. Too much tiptoeing and nothing significant ever gets uncovered. I gave them permission to grieve, and to express their pain in the simplest, rawest way possible, which is the language of deep emotion.
The Mortal Enemy of Listening: Anxiety
Neurological research has discovered that when a person near us expresses sadness, our bodies involuntarily respond to them. Our brains contain “mirror neurons,” which automatically mimic what we see in the facial expressions and body language of another person. If a person wears a frown, then our mouths, on a micro-level, will start to frown without any conscious decision on our part, and those undetectable movements will actually produce similar feelings in us. If someone is sad, our mouths curl downwards, our tear ducts are activated, and we start to feel sad. The primal compassionate response is built into us. Our bodies want to feel the pain of others.
It’s when we voluntarily open those mouths that have involuntarily responded with compassion that we screw things up. Our bodies may want to feel their pain but the rest of us doesn’t. It is an axiom of human nature that we avoid pain, and to that end, we avoid other people who are in pain. If we can’t physically avoid them, we emotionally avoid them. We try to fix, solve, rescue, give advice, or make the pain go away, which usually makes things worse.
Anxiety is the mortal enemy of listening to people in pain. When people are struggling with pain, sickness, loss, doubt, inner conflict, or broken relationships it inevitably stirs up our own anxiety. We hear our lives and vulnerability in theirs. The closer we are to a person, and the more our lives are interwoven with theirs, the lower our anxiety threshold. When they question the direction of their life, they question the direction of our life. When they hurt, it disrupts our sense of well-being too.
We have the hardest time listening when things become personal for us. When something upsets us, whether in a close relationship or in a situation we are more removed from, it is usually because it hits close to home in some way. The reason why we have a hard time hearing the doubts and faith questions of others is because it provokes our own unacknowledged doubts. We have a hard time holding together the tension of our God’s goodness and our world’s brokenness, and our anxiety makes us rush to simplistic answers. We are unable to sit in mystery with others because it brings us face to face with our own pain, our own questions, our own faith struggles.
For 6 months I volunteered as a counselor at a food bank affiliated with my church. Clients would come in a few nights a week and talk with us before going home with their donated food and clothes. We were in the throes of the worst recession of most of our lifetimes. Our client logs were at a record high. Their stories were heartbreaking. One man was a homeless Vietnam vet. An older woman was taking care of her disabled son and living on food stamps. A young mother came in with her two young daughters the Tuesday before Thanksgiving.
I myself was unemployed, laid off six months before I started volunteering. I had applied for dozens of jobs, in several different industries, but the competition in a recession was stiff. Low-paying jobs would have 100 applicants. I started volunteering at the food bank partly because I needed something to do. The circumstances of the clients I saw every week were much bleaker than mine, but I couldn’t help but see myself in their situations. Our conversations provoked some of my deepest fears about the future and my deepest doubts about God. I would go home and lie on the couch in the fetal position. And truth be told, even with all my training, I practiced some of my worst listening with our clients. I know that when I start doing things quickly, my anxiety is speaking for me. I would end conversations quickly, pray quickly, and refer people to other agencies quickly. Good listening is slow; anxiety moves fast.
Join the Conversation
What helps you to listen to those in pain?
Adam helpfully points out that when we’re moving quickly in a conversation with someone, we’re usually motivated by anxiety. Does this resonate with you? What helps you to slow down?
Christian community suffers together—where have you seen that play out in your story?
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
Adam S. McHugh (ThM, Princeton Theological Seminary) is an ordained Presbyterian minister and spiritual director. He has served at two Presbyterian churches, as a hospice chaplain and as campus staff with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. He is the author of The Listening Life and Introverts in the Church and lives in Santa Barbara, California.