The Physical Comfort of Words
Hi, my name is Alasdair Groves and I’m the host of Where Life and Scripture Meet, a podcast of CCEF, the Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation, where our mission is to restore Christ to counseling, and counseling to the church.
Have you ever gone through an experience where you were trying to be helpful and encouraging to someone, and you feel like your words just don’t have a lot of impact? You’re trying to say words that offer encouragement and hope, you want to help somebody who is suffering, to give them some kind of hope to hang onto. But when you try to speak the words that bring comfort, hope, or encouragement, nothing seems to result. They don’t seem encouraged. I want to speak into that experience. This is something I’ve been thinking about myself lately, but I want to encourage you by helping you realize that perhaps there are bigger and broader ways God can use your comfort to others than you might have thought. When you walk alongside of people who are suffering, weary, weighed down but your words don’t seem to make any difference or headway—don’t discount your care too quickly. God may be using it in ways you don’t expect. So in today’s episode, I’m going to focus on one narrow slice of this… and I want to think with you about how God can use your comfort to actually physically impact another person for good.
In other words, when you offer normal, mundane, simple, best-you-can-do words of love and encouragement to somebody in their struggles, there is actually a physical, a physiological impact you are having on that other person. When you offer words of comfort, you are literally changing something about their body. Now that shouldn’t be surprising to us because we have verses like Proverbs 14:30: “A tranquil heart gives life to the flesh, but envy makes the bone rot.” Or Proverbs 17:22: “A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.”
Let me explain what I mean. Think about this. When you show compassion for someone who is hurting or suffering in some way, the experience they are having of another person, a human being caring for them, you can see on the face of this person who’s listening to you as you’re pouring out your story that they actually care. You can see in their body language, you can hear in their questions even just as they say, oh, or, hmm, wow really, or whatever. As it’s clear they are with you, there’s a level at which being understood brings a certain inescapable kind of relief. It doesn’t make everything all better, but your heart rate actually slows as you experience being understood. There’s less cortisol or epinephrine or norepinephrine that’s being pumped out by your system because there is a certain edge being taken off of your experience. Think about someone putting a hand on your shoulder when you’re in significant distress or giving a hug as you’re just feeling crumpled with emotion. Having a shoulder to cry on, it gives you a literal physical experience of your body getting to collapse. You are literally getting to put your weight on someone else, so when you offer a hug, when you offer a hand on the shoulder, you are literally sending a physical message to them and even yes, to their body that they are not alone, that they don’t have to hold themselves up, that they can rest some of their weight on you, that they can lean into you. There’s an incredible invitation and freedom that allows a certain physical even release for them in that. Of course, it’s not always going to be appropriate to touch or hug in every context, but when and as you can, you’re offering something powerful to them even physically.
Think about words of encouragement, right? There is a way in which when you speak words that try to reorient or redirect or speak to the power of the hope that someone has, or when you speak about the Lord in a way that reminds someone of what they already knew but they had lost track of in that moment or whatever the case might be, you are allowing their shoulders to unclench a little bit as the reminder that God is actually here, that God actually does care for them, that there is hope in this situation. You’re actually unclenching their shoulders. You’re helping brain pathways in the neurons of their brain to be altered or reinforced, however minutely in ways that actually make it more plausible for them to hold onto the memory or the sense that, okay, God is good. He can be up to good things here. I think about Proverbs 16:24, gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body. Gracious words, what are gracious words? Well, words that give grace and one of the greatest graces a person in suffering can receive is the reminder of God’s presence, of his goodness, that you and your suffering are not forgotten, that this isn’t a trite, oh, I know exactly why this is happening. Or if you would just do these 10 things, your life would be better, right? There’s something about compassion that connects your genuine honest struggles to the real living God and his true deep promises that are not trite little fix it alls, that brings grace. It is sweetness not just to your soul, but even health to your body. You are literally offering words in a way that touch down not just in the mind, but in the shoulders, in the neural pathways.
Let me give just one more. Think about what it’s like in distress to be prayed for. Think about the way that hearing someone else speak to the Lord on your behalf, speak what they hope for you because of how they’ve been formed by scripture. Think about the way that just has a calming effect. Again, does it make you totally calm? Of course not, but is there’s an inevitable, calming, comforting effect that actually will tend to slow down your breathing rate. Certainly if someone is praying for you, it’s very, very likely that you yourself will stop speaking. You’ll stop scrambling for words. You’ll stop gesturing with your hands. Most people that I’ve ever prayed with will even close their eyes, and there’s a way that when I am praying for someone when they’re in distress and they’re being prayed for, there’s actually a gift of they don’t have to come up with words in that moment. They’re allowed to be physically silent, to be physically still. They may be shaking with sobs, but they don’t have to keep coming up with more words and keep trying to get this point across and just to be prayed for it. It stops the expenditure of desperate energy in a way that is a gift. And think about this, there may actually be a way in which being prayed for can help to stop and dry your tears. I have seen that many times when someone has prayed for me or I’ve been praying for someone else, and there’s something about just hearing those words, hearing those things offered to the Lord on your behalf, that the tears begin to subside as you know that your heart and your situation and your case has been brought before the Lord.
Or on the flip side, I’ve had plenty of situations where I have a conversation and I’m praying for someone, or again, someone’s praying for me, and it actually starts the tears. You were able to sort of hold it together as you were speaking and as you were trying to get something sorted out or explain what you mean, and there’s something about just being passive and being prayed for and someone else speaking for you and hearing the words of the request and the entreaty that are being made on your behalf that actually you finally have space to be moved and to let go and to release tears.
And both those kinds of tears and the stopping and the subsiding of tears. Both of those are physical gifts to a person that happen when you’re praying for them, and again, whether or not someone’s at the point of tears or actually crying or not, there’s a relief and a release that comes and hearing those words be offered to the Lord. And that maybe takes me to something that’s the coolest of all when I think about being prayed for, which is when you pray for someone, when they are in distress and you’re praying for them in that moment, their literal physical ears are hearing literal physical words—sounds— that are the very words that are being heard in heaven. In that moment, when you are praying for someone, you are literally—you and they together—are literally hearing what is happening in the throne room of heaven itself at that moment. What a profound gift to pray for someone is to open their earthly, physical, tangible ears in this world, in this moment to the reality of heaven in a way that is incredibly direct and incredibly rich.
I’ll conclude by just saying this, there gets to be a physical impact on you as a helper too. When your words feel like they’re falling flat, I hope that it’s encouraging and helpful to remember that you’re actually having an impact. Your words are mattering right now, even in this moment, even if all the benefit of that won’t be seen for some time, and even if the benefit itself is a lot smaller than you might want. But there’s a physical impact of you on getting to be in that interaction as well. If you weep with those who weep, those tears you are shedding are a physical expression of the love that God has put on your heart for that person. When you clench, as you’re trying so hard to speak carefully and thoughtfully in words that will be helpful, that clench in your shoulders, there’s a way in which you are literally bearing the other person’s burdens. Galatians 6, right? You are physically helping them in making sounds come out of your mouth or in listening hard, you don’t want to miss a word and you want to understand, and you want them to know you’re along there along with them in that.
I find counseling to be enormously physically exhausting, and it’s for this reason: I’m so physically tensely engaged in what is being said, and that’s right, and it means that any relief that you find of having handed this person’s troubles to the Lord in prayer, any relief that you find in seeing them have any impact, any relief that you find in having heard a podcast that talks about how your words are helpful, even when it doesn’t feel like it at all in the moment, that relief is a physical blessing to your muscles, to your tendons, to your brain chemistry.
Our God has given us literal physiological medicine that we get to give each other simply by walking in his path and loving each other with our words, with our listening, and with our prayers. I don’t mean that it’s a cure. I don’t mean that we fix all problems by loving each other well. I don’t even mean that other physical things aren’t important too, like nutrition and sleep and exercise and actual medicine that you can get from a doctor. Physical help. It isn’t everything. It’s not even the main thing, but what a sweet gift that our words, our simple, basic Christian loving kindness to another person gets to have even a physical impact on their body. What a clear picture from God. What a sweet reminder to us that care and love are never wasted. That if we keep sowing, if we keep not giving up, we will reap the blessings and the benefits of the work of the spirit tenderly caring for those we love far beyond what we could ever hope to accomplish on our own.