When someone is hurting, they may say things that put you in a quandry as how to respond. Read this article and see if you can run a conversation or two in your head as to how you might have ready responses to negative assumptions.

When hurting people reveal unhelpful assumptions, what should you say?

April 6, 2017 by Sam Hodges


“God doesn’t care about me.”

“There’s no hope.”

“If she would just stop nagging me, I’d be happy.”

As pastors, we regularly hear those kinds of statements from people. And they reveal that people may not be factoring God and/or spiritual truths into their interpretation of their situations.

But responding to those kinds of statements can be tricky.

If you share biblical truth with a person he may recoil, revealing that he knew that, but that he was just getting something off his chest. He may walk away feeling that you aren’t a safe person to talk to.

But if you don’t say anything, your silence could lead the person to believe that you agree with his assessment of his circumstances.

I asked Christian psychologist Dr. Susan Zonnebelt-Smeenge about this, and she had some helpful suggestions on how to respond. Dr. Smeenge is a featured expert in our GriefShare program and a friend of our ministry. Here are her three suggestions:

Normalize and set up a time to discuss later

The first of Dr. Smeenge’s three strategies involves letting the person know his experience is normal, but helping him realize that he won’t be in this place forever. Here’s how she goes about communicating this:

  • What I usually say is, “I hear you. I get what you’re thinking and how you’re feeling. And that’s very normal.” Or, “I get that.” 

    Then I might say, “Grieving is a journey. And there is movement. So you won’t always feel this way or think this way. You will evolve. And as you evolve, that’s a subject I’d really like to talk more about with you.”

Ask questions to learn more about what the person thinks of the situation

Assuming that the person’s inaccurate statement reflects everything he believes about the situation is unwise. That’s why follow-up questions can help you understand better how to respond. Dr. Smeenge explains how she uses leading questions to accomplish this:

  • I might ask, “Do you ever have any other thoughts about that? Do you think you’ll always feel this way? Or, “I know you’re saying that right now, but does your thinking ever go beyond that?”

Plant seeds of hope

Dr. Smeenge’s last suggestion? Plant seeds of hope. Here’s how she does this:

  • If a person says something that’s off base and he seems like he doesn’t have any hope, I will even say, “I know you’re telling me you don’t feel very hopeful right now, and I understand that, and it’s not abnormal. But I want you to know that I do definitely have hope that you will continue moving and feel or think differently about that, or see a little bit more to it.” 

    I might even ask, “I’m just wondering if maybe you’re thinking some about what you may have heard [during our counseling session, small group, or worship service] that can happen for you.” I might also say, “I’m just wondering if your faith might change the way you’re seeing things and be a comfort to you.”

    Or I may just say, “Are you finding your religious upbringing, your biblical readings and knowledge helpful? Or is that not helpful right now?” And there are a lot of people who would say, “I can’t read the Bible. I can’t pray right now.” So I would say, “I get that. It’s not so abnormal, but God’s still there. God’s walking every step with you, whether you want to acknowledge it right now or not. But I really do believe this will eventually change. That you’ll work it through.

    “So, it’s kind of like planting a seed.”

I was talking to Jeff Forrey, our senior writer, about this post. He reminded me that Jude 22tells us to “have mercy on those who doubt.” I appreciated Dr. Smeenge’s thoughts on this issue because they give us practical ways to apply that instruction. Her suggestions can keep us from overreacting before we have enough information, and give us subtle ways of encouraging people to trust God in the midst of their circumstances—and challenge their unhelpful thinking.

Editor’s note:

Dr. Susan J. Zonnebelt-Smeenge is a featured expert in the GriefShare video curriculum. She is the co author of numerous books on death and loss, including: Getting to the Other Side of GriefTraveling Through GriefFrom Me to We, and Living Fully in the Shadow of Death.

Sam Hodges
Sam Hodges
Managing Editor

Sam leads the CareLeader team. As a seminary-trained, ordained pastor, Sam knows firsthand a pastor’s desire to provide effective care to hurting people in the church and community. He directs and oversees CareLeader’s content, making sure the articles and videos equip pastors with information and ideas that are strategic, do-able, and consistent with Christ-centered, biblical care principles.

Sam also leads Church Initiative’s editorial team and has written and produced a number of Church Initiative’s video-based small group curriculums. They include GriefShare second and third editions (2006, 2014), DivorceCare third edition (2012), and Single & Parenting (2011). Sam is also coauthor of Grieving with Hope: Finding Comfort as You Journey Through Loss.

Sam graduated from Howard University with a bachelor of arts in communications. After that he received a master of divinity degree from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary with an emphasis in Christian education. Sam has also served on staff as a discipleship pastor at Infinity Church in Laurel, MD.