How many friends do you have? It's a surprisingly difficult question. After all, the categories of friendships are many: friends from childhood, college, work, church, online friends, even tweeting. While the number of friends listed on our social media accounts may be many, our true friends are actually very few.
How many of your friends know the real you? How many would know if you were struggling, really struggling? And to be honest, how many of them would you tell?
For many years, I went through seasons of depression all on my own. I wandered in the darkness, feeling isolated, helpless, and in complete despair. I often stood among the crowd at my church each Sunday, watching everyone fellowship, and feeling utterly alone. Hiding my thoughts and feelings inside, I felt great shame and guilt about the battle going on in my mind. Because if people really knew the horrible, dark, and frightening thoughts I had, they would surely reject me.
But then God brought a few friends in my life with whom I could be real, honest, and transparent. I told them my story, revealing the depths of pain I had endured. God used those friends to encourage and support me. They pointed me to the hope of the gospel. Over time, our relationship has become mutual. We share our burdens with one another, point each other to Christ, and walk alongside each other during the difficult trials of life.
The sad truth is, not everyone has such friends in their church body. There are many hearts crying out in silent pain within the church. As we sit in our pews each Sunday, surrounded by painted-on smiles and neatly pressed clothes, inside many are weeping. The issues may vary—grief, worry, shame, depression, fear, even severe mental illness—but each one needs the love and encouragement of others in the body of Christ. God uses us in the body to build up, spur on, encourage, and bless one another (Romans 12, Hebrews 3:13, 10:24-25, 13:1). In fact, the church body ought to be a place where people find help and healing, not where we simply voice our social media status face to face, providing updates on where we had lunch that week and the funny thing our child did the other day.
It is important that we recognize the fact that there are hurting people sitting next to us in our pews. We need to look beneath the masks and casual statements to see the hearts of each other. Because we are related to one another through the blood of Christ, each of us has the Spirit living within us. When we go beneath the surface and speak life-affirming words to the heart of another, it stirs the Spirit within them. It triggers hope within their soul. The love and encouragement from one believer to another is not the same as the world gives, for it is empowered by the Spirit himself.
May our churches be a place where the definition of friendship means something more than what it does online. May God open our eyes and hearts to see those among us who are hurting. And perhaps you already know of someone who needs help. Maybe you've wanted to reach out and help but don't know how. While by no means complete, this list provides a few ways you can love and encourage them.
1. Reach out: It may take time, but be intentional in letting that person know you care. Trust is something that has to be earned, but over time, they will open up and begin to share their burdens. Be sincere, genuine, and real.
2. Listen: Listen with ears of grace. Don't be like Job's friends who assumed they knew why Job was suffering. Enter their pain with them and listen. Don't try to come up with solutions to their problems. You are not responsible to take away their pain or make their life better. You are there to encourage and point them to the One who does take away all pain and sorrow.
3. Pray: Don't say, "I'm praying for you," and then not do it. Ask how you can pray for them and then commit to doing it. Consider writing a gospel-centered prayer and send it to them. I've received written prayers from friends, and it gave me great encouragement. Pray and ask God to give you wisdom and grace to encourage them.
4. Speak the gospel: You won't be able to solve their crisis or change their circumstances, but you can speak the hope of the gospel to their heart. We find true healing in the truths of the gospel. Remind them of who they are in Christ. Remind them of their standing before God, their inheritance, and what Christ has accomplished for them. Point them to the love their heavenly Father has for them, the very same love he has for the Son. And point them to the power of the Holy Spirit to work in and through them to live for Christ, despite their weakness. These gospel truths stand secure, no matter how strong the storm.
5. Check in: For some, the journey through pain is long and tedious. Stick it out with them. Check in often, even if they don't respond. Send a card, an email, a text. Leave encouraging messages to let them know you care and are praying for them. God will use your efforts. You may not see immediate fruit, but God is at work and will use your attempts to reach out to them, for their good and his glory.