In the last couple of years I have seen an abundance of articles about “What not to say to…” single people, a pregnant person, a childless couple, adoptive parents, a depressed person, the chronically ill etc. Some are actually quite helpful and enlightening. For the record, never ask a single person why they’re not married yet (they may be wondering the same thing themselves), or a couple when they’re going to start a family (it’s not our business, and if they’ve been trying without success such questions are extremely painful), or any lady when she’s due (unless you know she’s pregnant!) I remember when my husband and I were dating during college, whenever we’d come back from any kind of break, I”d hear remarks like, “Let me see that left hand!” or “Are you engaged yet?” I wanted to whimper, “We’re trying to figure it out. When we have news to share, you can be sure we’ll tell everyone we know.” We can easily make people feel hurt or pressured or frustrated by such questions. A friend shared on Facebook a chart of some of these common statements (or thoughts) to parents, and a lively discussion ensued of those on the receiving end of some of these comments:
Sometimes it’s not so much hurtful speech as thoughtless speech.Years ago friends with the last name of Fox had their first child, and when I saw them at church I smilingly quipped the verse about “little foxes spoiling the vine.” The husband looked at me and said wearily, “Everyone says that.” I instantly realized what a thoughtless, inane statement that was, and later was convicted that it was a horrible misuse of Scripture.
Sometimes people can rival Job’s “miserable comforters,” who meant well, sympathized (at least at first), and said many true things, but misapplied much of the truth they shared. We need to be especially careful about telling people why we think God allowed something to happen in their lives. We don’t really know, but we can comfort and encourage them in many others ways.
Ephesians 4:29b reminds us make our speech “that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers,” and Colossians 4:6 says, “Let your speech be alway with grace, seasoned with salt, that ye may know how ye ought to answer every man.” We need to be careful, thoughtful, prayerful, and edifying in what we say.
Yet not everyone is going to get the memo or read these kinds of articles. Eventually we’re all going to have someone say or ask something that hits us wrong. What’s the best way to react?
Avoid sarcastic retorts. Most times they don’t realize they’ve said something hurtful. Sending back a zinger will only escalate the incident.
Educate if needed. If they’ve never been in our situation, of course they are not going to understand. A friend with a child with severe life-threatening allergies has often had to shed light on common misconceptions, as have many others in different situations.
Appreciate their interest. At least they are interested in your life and they’re not ignoring you.
Give the benefit of the doubt. Most people truly do mean well. If they are trying to say hurtful things on purpose – then we need to have a different kind of conversation with them.
Realize sometimes we’re the problem. Sometimes something is meant well but we take it the wrong way.
View the opposite end of the spectrum. Sometimes, particularly when a person is in a very difficult situation like marital problems or illness or a death in the family, people are so afraid of saying the wrong thing that they say nothing and avoid them. We can foster that by too much complaining about the wrong things that have been said.
Give them grace, the same grace we would want people to extend to us if we said the wrong thing…because we likely will at some point. In fact, we probably have at some time without realizing it.
You may need to talk to them about why their comment hurt and try to resolve the issue. (Matthew 18:15: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.”)
Or you may decide just to overlook it (I Peter 4:8: “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins,” Proverbs 10:12: “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.”)
But we need to deal with it one way or the other and let it go. Don’t hold it against them, don’t carry a grudge, don’t let it fester, don’t avoid them afterward.
We need to forgive:
Matthew 6:14-15: “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
We need to forgive on the basis of the great wrongs we have been forgiven, not on the basis of whether or not they “deserve” it (See Matthew 18:20-35). We didn’t deserve God’s forgiveness, and He has forgiven us so much more than anything anyone has done or said to us.
We need to exercise patience and forbearance:
Colossians 3:12-13: “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”
Ephesians 4:1-3: “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
We need to be filled with and manifest the fruit of the Holy Spirit:
Galatians 5:22-23: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.“
Whether we’re the speakers or the receivers, we need to walk closely with the Lord, seek His guidance, and manifest His grace.
(Update: I’m not saying there is anything at all wrong with those “What not to say” type posts. Sometimes they are very informative and enlightening and usually help dispel our notions of stereotypes. There is nothing wrong with telling someone that something they’ve said is off-base or hurtful. But I’ve known people to carry around a personal bitterness because of something another person has said in ignorance about their situation, and that’s not healthy.)