I regretted the words as soon as I spoke them.
The look on her face conveyed the pain I had unintentionally inflicted. In trying to offer encouragement, I had instead communicated she should be ashamed for feeling the way she did. I had wanted to offer hope by sharing a new perspective on the situation, but I had bypassed the need to acknowledge and sit for a while with her in her grief and feelings of loss. I had confused my attempts to comfort as a means of encouragement, and in so doing, provided neither comfort nor encouragement.
It was around this time that I was working my way through Pollock and Van Reken’s book, Third Culture Kids. That night, I read these words:
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines comfort as “consolation in time of trouble or worry.” Comfort doesn’t change the situation itself, nor can it take away the pain, but it relays the message that someone cares and understands. Comfort validates grief and gives permission for the grieving process to take place. For example, when a person walks up to a widow standing by her husband’s casket and puts an arm around her shoulder, that gesture, with or without words, is comforting. It can’t bring the husband back to life or stop the tears or the pain, but it lets the widow know her grief is accepted and understood. She’s not alone in her sorrow.
Unfortunately, in their very efforts to help another person “feel better,” people often confuse comfort with encouragement and end up giving neither. Encouragement is a person’s attempt to change the griever’s perspective. It may be a reminder to look at the bright side of a situation instead of the loss or to think about a past success and presume this present situation will turn out just as successfully.
Obviously there’s a time for both comfort and encouragement, but what happens if the two are confused? When the grieving widow is told that it’s a good thing her husband at least had a substantial life insurance policy, how does she feel? Neither comforted nor encouraged! When encouragement is given before comfort, the subtle or not so subtle message is “Buck up, you shouldn’t feel so low.” It becomes a shame message rather than encouragement.
Third Culture Kids by David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken, pg. 174-5
Wow! Those words couldn’t have been written more clearly to speak to me in this situation. It was just what I had done to my friend … confused encouragement and comfort.
My friend and I met again. I shared this quote with her and apologized. She graciously forgave me and gave me a second chance. I am thankful for that second chance. It set the stage for a new depth to our friendship that I have highly valued in the years that have followed.
To comfort another person, to say, “I understand,” is to admit there’s a reason for grieving. Pollock & Van Reken pg. 176
Just a few weeks ago I had the privilege of being on the receiving end of comfort offered, this time as true encouragement. I was private messaging with a friend on Facebook, our primary means of communication. We only had a few minutes to chat but I had wanted to share with her a difficult and challenging situation I was experiencing. As I shared my fears with her, her response was so kind and affirming. She acknowledged each and every one of my fears, some before I even articulated them to her.
I was repeatedly typing and sending the words, “You understand!” Our conversation ended all too soon, but how strengthened I felt from her words. She did not leave the conversation without giving me a word of hope and encouragement, but did so only after repeatedly affirming the reality of the situation – that yes, God would work it out, but that yes too, it was going to be tough.
What a comfort her words had been. I felt deeply understood after chatting with her.
Like apples of gold in settings of silver is a word spoken in right circumstances. Proverb 25:11 (NASB)
I long for my words to be as apples of gold; to be a friend who speaks words of comfort; to be the kind of friend who will ‘sit with’ in a friend’s time of distress. I know that is what I need and want from a friend.
I am thankful that Jesus is described as a man who was acquainted with grief (Isaiah 53:3). I am thankful for the words that remind us that He shared in the sorrow of losing a friend (Jesus wept – John 11:35).
He is a friend who understands, and in understanding brings comfort.
What’s been your experience with giving or receiving comfort instead of encouragement.