Over the years I’ve had numerous opportunities to be on the giving and receiving end of counsel. Sometimes those encounters have been formal sit down-type appointments. At other times they are informal conversations that took place in the course of just hanging around with people.
Younger pastors may feel a bit overwhelmed when confronted with some of the struggles that people share with them. Life experience can be very helpful in dealing with those who hurt, but as younger men we usually lack those experiences. However, we have God’s Word and the Holy Spirit to guide us. We also have other people to give us advice about how to best handle situations. And of course there are books upon books that we can read.
Nevertheless, regardless of age, training, competence, or experience, I believe there at least four statements that should never be said to someone who comes seeking help. If you keep yourself far away from these four ways of responding to the the hurts and problems of your people, you will be a better pastor. Honest.
So here are the four things you don’t say:
Please don’t say, “I understand.” I’m not talking about saying, “I understand what you are saying.” That’s fine. But don’t say, “I understand what you’re going through.” While you might understand what someone is going through, you probably don’t.
Telling people that you understand can unintentionally come across as if you were looking at a math problem and then saying, “I know how to solve this.” It isn’t the best response. Now if you’ve had similar life experiences, you can certainly share them in an appropriate way. But avoiding this statement is best. Bury it.
Second, please don’t say, “It will get better.” Why? Because you don’t know if it will get better. Sometimes things don’t get better. Sometimes they actually get worse!
Saying “It will get better” may sound assuring, but it can also come off as being a bit dismissive. You can say, “I will pray that things will get better,” or “Let’s take a moment right now and ask God to bring change to this situation.” Those are fine responses when people tell you of their hurts and fears. But unless you have the ability to predict the future, put “It will get better” or any similar phrase far away from your lips.
Third, don’t say, “Remember (insert Scripture reference). Please don’t misunderstand me. Use Scripture! But don’t toss out chapter and verse references. One I’ve heard often is “Remember Romans 8:28!” Well meaning, but it sounds like a quarterback calling a play.
By all means apply the salve of God’s Word by explaining how Scripture speaks to someone’s circumstances. But don’t be glib. Don’t assume that people are able to make the connection between your reference and their need. If you went to a doctor who listened as you told him that you were not feeling well and said, “Here’s a pill” and walked off, what would you think? Would you think that he cared? Not at all! Sadly, I’ve been responded to, and have heard people respond using this spiritual quick-shot and it doesn’t cut it.
Fourth, please don’t ever, ever say “At least you don’t have it as bad as . . .”
Never say this. Ever. If you start to hear the words “At least” come from your mouth, take off your shoe, remove your sock, and put it in your mouth. Run away. Do something to prevent yourself from uttering those words.
I have heard the“at least” response more times than I can remember. It’s been said to me, I’ve heard it said to others, and despite the speaker’s intentions, it’s just wrong.
When we pull out the “at least you don’t have it as bad as” line, what are we telling people? Like it or not, we’re telling them that their pain is somehow not all that legitimate, not that serious, that they really don’t have a reason for their angst because someone has it worse.
It may be true that somewhere out there someone else hurts worse, has greater pain, bears more substantial disappointment, or has experience more intense than the person sitting in your office or standing by you over coffee after church. But so what? How have we helped people by pointing out that there are others who are more troubled in this world?
Proverbs 23:11 (CSB) says: A word spoken at the right time is like gold apples in silver settings. When words are appropriate and helpful, it is beautiful. The implication is that inappropriate words are not particular pleasing. The above are examples of words that are not helpful and actually may cause more hurt. And they are more common than we realize.
I’m hardly an expert when it comes to counseling, but I believe that all of us – younger, older, pastor, non-pastor – can minister more effectively if we do our best to avoid these well-meaning but unhelpful responses.