One afternoon, a number of years ago, I went to pick up our sons from school. It was a bright sunny day, and their dispositions appeared to match the weather as they came bouncing out to meet me with smiles and exuberance. They chattered incessantly all the way home. Then, as we pulled into our garage, an unexpected small, sad voice from the backseat said to me, “Mom, I might be smiling on the outside, but I’m not smiling on the inside.”
Wow. Raise your hand if you’ve ever been guilty of pasting on a smile to hide the depths of emotion churning below the surface!
And, turned around, have you ever been in the position of missing all the cues others may have given that all is not well, assuming that behind every smile is a heart that is whole? Have you been clued in to someone’s difficulties but later realized you had failed to grasp the depth of the situation? Or have you sensed the weary and tired spirit in another person but simply felt inadequately equipped to assist?
Chances are that your answers to these questions are yes, yes and yes.
With perspective from both sides of this, including needing nurturing myself for many years, I’d like to share a few basic principles on helping those among us who are weary. My hope is that we’ll be better equipped as a collective body to strengthen one another with understanding and love.
Consider how the apostle Paul described his approach toward other members of God’s Church: “But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us” (1 Thessalonians 2:7-8, English Standard Version, emphasis added throughout).
Nurture with physical assistance and gentleness
Shortly after being involved in one of the most fiery, dramatic events of the Bible (1 Kings 18:39-40), which resulted in a very visible moral victory, the prophet Elijah ran in fear for his life for roughly 100 miles. In utter despair, he then went in solitude another day’s journey into the desert before plopping himself down under a tree. Elijah then asked God to put him out of his misery: “It is enough! Now, Lord, take my life” (1 Kings 19:1-4).
Sometimes very good people can feel inadequate to handle the challenges facing them and are unable to cope with the drain of dealing with nonstop difficulties.
What was God’s response? He nurtured His prophet by nourishing him. Not once but twice, as Elijah slept, God sent an angel with food and drink to encourage and restore him physically. Then Elijah went on to meet the Lord at Mount Horeb, another name for Mount Sinai. This place was well-known in Israelite history. It was where the nation entered into covenant with God and where Moses had been in God’s immediate presence.
There was a reminder here of God’s special relationship with His people and their responsibility toward Him. Perhaps God understood the connection Elijah would feel with Him in this place and that it would assist in bringing emotional restoration to his spirit. Whatever the case, once there, the Lord ministered to Elijah in a very personal and gentle manner—with “a still small voice” (verse 12). After this encounter, Elijah emerged ready to continue in his service to God.
What lessons can we glean from this? Judging a weary person for where he or she is emotionally is not helpful (the story of Job comes to mind!), and sometimes it isn’t words that are needed. But identifying the most basic of needs—which a weary person can often overlook—and offering them up on a plate of gentleness and care is the very support that’s needed most. Weary people simply need to know they are not alone and that they are not as isolated as they may feel—that others are indeed looking out for them!
Practical ways to help
After conferring with numerous individuals who are in the midst of ongoing and life-altering difficulties, a short list of practical ways to assist others with physical restoration includes things like:
• Helping to transport their children to school or assisting with other transportation needs.
• Sending a care package or a restaurant gift card.
• Mailing a card with a personally written message inside.
• Bringing over a home-cooked meal to share together if they are unable make it to your home.
• Dropping off some encouraging reading material.
• Giving them a call.
• Mowing their lawn and pruning their rosebushes or other plants.
• Thoughtfully offering to save them a seat in the back row at church services if you know that crowds feel overwhelming to them.
• Spending a Sabbath morning with them over a cup of coffee or tea.
• Delivering a planter of flowers for their patio.
• Arranging with several mutual friends to pray regularly and specifically for them.
Nurture with prayer
When people are weary and struggling, it’s easy for them to lose perspective and feel abandoned, making it difficult for them to remember God’s promises. Helen Keller, a remarkable woman who happens to be one of my favorite inspirational historical figures, said, “The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision.”
In low moments our enemy often strikes, preying on a weary person’s weakness of spirit and body—and it’s easy to lose proper perspective. Many of us are familiar with Paul’s words in Ephesians 6:10-18 about putting on the spiritual armor of God in our Christian struggle to live God’s way. It’s interesting that he finishes the passage with this: “Praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end, keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints” (ESV).
Have you ever considered that, in addition to arming ourselves, we can in prayer ask God to arm others too? There may be days when our brothers and sisters in Christ need our specific prayers and encouraging help, such as:
• Your assistance in buckling their belt of truth. Why? Because sometimes their own thoughts take them captive and lie to them. Our own thoughts all too often lead us astray. But Jesus Christ promised that God’s Holy Spirit “will guide you into all truth” (John 16:13).
• Your hands to properly center their breastplate of righteousness. Why? Because they need His protection during their time of vulnerability, and faith that His righteousness will fill their emptiness. As Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled” (Matthew 5:6).
• Your encouragement in having their feet shod with the gospel of peace. They need this to stand firm. Helen Keller put it this way: “I do not want the peace which passeth understanding, I want the understanding which bringeth peace.” The latter leads to the former. As Paul wrote, “Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong” (1 Corinthians 16:13, New International Version).
• Your help in lifting up their shield of faith. The darts the enemy hurls can pierce their heart with despair. We need the kind of faith expressed in Psalm 27:13: “I would have lost heart, unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.”
• Your gentle words reminding them to put on their helmet of salvation. Why? Because our mind and thoughts can be worn down with sadness. We see this expressed in Psalm 42:11: “Why am I discouraged? Why is my heart so sad? I will put my hope in God! I will praise him again—my Savior and my God!” (New Living Translation).
• Your strength and support, which picks up the sword of truth and places it into their hands. With this help they can move past the strongholds holding them back:
“For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:3-5, NIV).
Also notice Romans 15:1: “We then that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves.”
Nurture with patience
Here are some further thoughts to keep in balance.
• On one hand sufferers want to feel cared for; on the other hand they don’t want to be known and labeled by their trial.
• On one hand sufferers desperately need the support of their friends and family; on the other hand they tire of discussing their situation over and over again.
• On one hand the silence sufferers feel from others can be absolutely numbing; on the other hand there are times when fellowship can be completely overwhelming and unmanageable.
• On one hand sufferers sometimes need a friend to laugh with; on the other hand they often need a friend to cry with.
Does this sound like a conflicted, juxtaposed mess that leaves you unsure how to respond? Well, don’t worry. Those who are weary understand the conundrum because they live it on a daily, if not hourly, or sometimes even minute-by-minute basis. We have hope in eternity but also wrestle with despair; we live in faith but also struggle with depression; we believe in the hope of God’s promises but battle discouragement.
Paul spoke of the paradox of the Christian experience. In 2 Corinthians 6:10 he mentions being “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing,” and in Romans 7:15 He tells us: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (NIV). In 1 Thessalonians 5:14 he reminds us to “encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone” (NIV).
Nurture without assumptions
Never assume that someone will present on the outside what is really going on in the inside, or that someone who needs help and care will always reach out and tell you so. Discerning where a person is emotionally is crucial to being an effective community of caring brothers and sisters. How do we do that?
God’s Word can be a helpful, guiding map as we navigate through the layers and facades in each individual’s personal terrain. For example, if we are involved with and engaged in the life of others, observing and actively loving one another (John 13:34), being compassionate and kind to one another (Ephesians 4:32), and encouraging one another (Hebrews 3:13), it will become evident who in our midst needs our specific care, watchful eye and encouragement.
I especially love Hebrews 3:13, because the Greek word translated “exhort” or “encourage” here is parakaleo. This beautifully descriptive verb, which we are told here to do for each other daily, means to be called to another’s side to give support and comfort. This meaning is also conveyed when the noun form of this word is translated as “comforter” in John 14:16, 15:26 and 16:7.
As we strive to fulfill this directive, let us be sensitive to what those struggling through challenges would like for us to understand, what they need from us and would appreciate. Here is some of what they might want to convey.
Things your weary friends may want you to know
• Thank you for your forgiveness, because sometimes a weary person’s responses to others may not always represent the best version of themselves. This is not meant to excuse inadequacies that need to be overcome, but to explain that people who are in the middle of something very difficult and are hurting don’t always get it right. We are to be, “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love” (Ephesians 4:2, ESV).
• Thank you for listening, because sincerely wanting to fully comprehend a situation through the eyes of one in need, rather than your own, conveys heartfelt love and empathy. “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15).
And if a sufferer does share his or her struggle with you, realize that responses such as asking prying or probing questions, attempting to present all the solutions to the problems, or turning the conversation around to be about you are conversation busters. They are not especially helpful and succeed mostly in adding to the weariness being suffered. “To everything there is a season . . . a time to keep silence, and a time to speak” (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 7).
• Thank you for remembering us, because silence can be crushing. The path that led to weariness and its accompanying emotional strain is just plain hard. If ever the weary need their community of people to hold their arms up in support, it is now. “Everything we do, dear friends, is for your strengthening” (2 Corinthians 12:19, NIV). And, “Be devoted to one another in love” (Romans 12:10, NIV).
• Thank you for respecting our differences. Each of us is uniquely individual. And so is the way we each deal with trials. Not one of us will respond in exactly the same way. We appreciate your understanding that we are coping as best we can, and that it’s probably not the way you would cope—which is okay.
We are also each uniquely wired, which means we each share with others differently. For example, those who live more publicly will most likely handle their situation more publicly, while those who live more privately will most likely handle their situation more privately. Pausing to think about these differences will help us to be respectful and not offend.
And finally, consider that if someone shares a personal burden with you, first ask yourself if it is your story to tell before you share that conversation with others. If you’re unsure, it is always better to err on the side of discretion. Colossians 4:6 tells us, “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone” (NIV). And Romans 14:19 says, “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification” (NIV).
In the words of Helen Keller, “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.”