I had only been married for a few years when cancer tried to kill my mother-in-law. My wife and I spent lots of time with her in the hospital. And, to be honest, I found it extremely difficult to be there. I felt sad and helpless and bored and guilty about feeling bored.
Our visits with her often coincided with visits from Pastor Paul. He’s an excellent preacher and leader. But he also knows how to be present with someone during a hard time. His visits meant a lot to my mother-in-law and to us.
I wanted to know his secret. What was it that made Pastor Paul so good at being present with people in pain? One day I finally asked him. And over the years, I’ve taken what I learned from him into dorms and campus health centers, into hospitals and homes and hard times.
Here are seven tips that will help you be present with people who are experiencing difficult circumstances.
1. Pray for them.
Pastor Paul spent time praying for people before he did anything else with or for them. As I’ve done likewise, I’ve found that God often uses that time to calm and prepare me, to fill me with love for the people I’m going to be with, and even to give me insight into what’s going on in their lives and relationships.
I’ve also frequently had people tell me that God brings a sense of peace and calm into their hearts even before I show up. This makes me feel like I’m joining in with work that God’s already doing (which, of course, I am!).
2. Listen to them.
My temptation when I’m with people who are going through a hard time is to talk a lot: to give advice or tell jokes in an attempt to lighten the mood. But people in hard times need friends more than fixers or entertainers.
Pastor Paul didn’t have any jokes to tell, but he did ask my mother-in-law how she was feeling, what the doctors were saying, and how he could pray for her. He didn’t talk a lot. He just listened. And when he returned later, he remembered what she had said. This helped her see that he cared about her.
3. Pray with them.
Pastor Paul prayed simply and directly for my mother-in-law while he was with her. He didn’t pray showy or impressive prayers. He didn’t set her hard time in its full cosmic context. He just prayed for what she asked him to pray for, with hope and with a smile on his face (I kept my eyes open).
4. Let Scripture speak.
During his times of prayer, Pastor Paul would often have a verse or two from the Bible come to mind. Sometimes it would be something he’d memorized. Sometimes it was something he’d been reading recently. It never felt preachy or canned.
I’ve found people in hard times to be surprisingly receptive to the Bible, whether or not they agree with my views on it. A verse or two can be used by God to bring comfort and clarity.
5. Connect physically.
An arm around the shoulder, a held hand, and a hug can go a long way. People in hard times often feel isolated and alone. God can use physical connection to communicate care more than words ever can. Perhaps this is why he took on flesh and touched the sick to heal them.
Pastor Paul would ask if he could hold my mother-in-law’s hand or place a hand on her shoulder when he was praying with her. And when he greeted my wife and me, he would shake hands with us and make eye contact. He wasn’t just doing his duty. He was there.
6. Remember your place.
Unless you have the qualifications to prove it, you are not a nurse, doctor, therapist, lawyer, or financial advisor. And even if you’re one of those things, you’re not God. Don’t try to carry his burdens.
Pastor Paul had so much peace when he walked into the hospital. I wondered at it until I asked him about it. He said that he knew why he was there and he knew God was there too. He was free to be present.
7. Keep showing up.
Day after day, week after week, Pastor Paul showed up. He didn’t wait to be invited. He didn’t wait until he had something profound to say. He didn’t wait for the situation to escalate. He just showed up.
What God Chose
In this Advent season, we remember the ultimate story of God choosing to be present with people in pain. The God Christians worship isn’t a God who governs from a distance but is instead the God who was born in a manger, who had friends, who wrapped his arms around people, who wept. God knows how to be present in hard times.
Our world is full of people who are hurting. Often they feel alone. And it’s into this world and those lives that God sends us. Will you be present with others this month, and beyond?
Steve Tamayo serves as the Associate Director of Strategy for LaFe, InterVarsity’s Latino Fellowship, and as a Digital Media Specialist for InterVarsity's Multiethnic Initiatives. He’s married to Amy and together they have four children and lots of adventures. You can find him on Twitter at @yostevetamayo.