what seems to help in the midst of pain

pain is a treasure rumi quote

“when we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. the friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.” – henri nouwen

this month’s synchroblog is centered on pain & how to love & care for others who are in pain.  i laughed this morning because today’s my birthday and it’s a little ironic that somehow even on this day  i ended up talking about pain!  there’s an awful lot of grief & loss & hard stuff in this world and for some reason it feels like it keeps ramping up. so many hard things every direction. what is our responsibility in it?  what should we say or not say? what helps & what hurts?

in our human DNA is a deep desire to avoid pain, either in our own life or in the lives of others.

it’s hard to hurt.  and it’s hard to be around other people who are hurting.

at the refuge, our little faith community, there’s a high degree of pain. but i always tell everyone that really, we are no different from almost any other church or group (except that others might have health insurance & live in bigger houses). we just have a culture of raw honesty, where what’s on the inside is freer to come out on the outside. we are trying to be people who welcome pain to the table instead of run from it.  most humans share many of the same troubles & woes, but many don’t have a safe place to express it out loud.

pain and struggle often create shame. i remember when i first started sharing more of my real story; every part of me wanted to run for the hills, move away, do anything i could to not have to live with relationships where all my stuff was out on the table, exposed.

i’m always learning, too, but here are a few ideas that seem to help in the midst of pain:

1. less words, more presence.  i have a theory that we often have an unconscious hope that if we could  say the right words in the exact right way, it would radically help another person. most people aren’t one sentence away from feeling better when they are in pain.  presence seems to matter more than words.  long-haul-ness goes the furthest for those in pain. many people are eager to help and support at the beginning of pain eruptions, but over time many people drop off and quit wondering how we’re doing. safe people don’t do drive-by pain relief.  they are in it for the long haul, which i keep realizing is sometimes the hardest thing of all.

2. less statements, more questions.  along with the one-sentence-away-from-changing-everything theory, it’s a natural default to talk instead of listen. i don’t mean interrogation (although i can be guilty of asking too many hard questions in one sitting, ha ha), but questions usually save us from advice giving and fixing. they help people process out loud and take a lot of pressure off us coming up with the right words that can’t be found anyway.

3. less anxiety, more trust.  pain creates so much anxiety in us.  this is why when people are hurting, we have an instinct to “fix it” or do-something-anything that will help the hurting person feel better in that moment. i feel it all the time. it’s a weird innate control thing and in so many ways, it’s about us playing God and taking on more responsibility than we need to. it’s why i have a love-hate thing with 12 step groups. i  love that there’s no cross-talk, advice giving and fixing, but inside i sometimes feel a little crazy that we just thank people for sharing and go on to the next person.  however, it models something we need to learn–we can’t fix anyone else.  the best thing we can do is listen, honor the pain ,and trust the long healing path.

4. less perfection, more grace.  relational dynamics like hanging-in-the-thick-of-pain-with-people is not formulaic.  we will screw it up, we will say lame things, we will fail people.  recently i gave unsolicited advice to a hurting friend.  yikes, as soon as the words tumbled out of my mouth, i knew they would hurt instead of help. i was reminded, yet again, how we need grace as friends, as leaders, as people. we’re imperfect people trying to stay present in hard places; we won’t be able to master every moment.  this is messy and sometimes we will have to apologize & ask for grace (and give it to our friends), too.

maybe the best thing we can do to hold the space for others’ pain is to learn to hold the space for ours.  if we are people who push our own pain away, we usually will do the same for others.  if we are hard on ourselves for feeling certain feelings, we will usually be hard on others, too.  i love what the apostle paul says in 2 corinthians 1:3-4, that we comfort others with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.  it’s why i don’t think most people need another Bible study or church service; there are plenty of those.

we need places to practice getting in touch with our story.

i’m going to quote henri nouwen twice in one post because it’s a great reminder: “the christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self.” 

yeah, our biggest strength is our weakness, our pain. 

in the end, that’s all we’ve got.


other bloggers writing about pain this month:


Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar is dedicated to creating safe and brave spaces for transformation and healing in real life, online, and outside. She co-pastors at The Refuge, a hub for healing community, social action, and creative collaboration in North Denver, co-directs #communityheals, a non-profit organization dedicated to making spaces for transformation accessible for all, and is the author of Practicing: Changing Yourself to Change the World, Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.


  • That is a very interesting quote Kathy about a leader to be irrelivent. I recall something simlar. “When the best leader’s work is done the people say, ‘We did it ourselves.'” – Lao Tzu That sounds not unlike what Jesus said about leaders having to be servants of everyone.

    It is a tmeptation as a leader to want to be seen as knowledgable, put on a pedestal, to take the place of Jesus effectively. And for followers to have a sense of belonging, with that to come alongside and look to leaders for approval. The best leaders will act as the angel did when they were bowed down to and say not to worship them, as they are a fellow sevant. The best followers will be ones that defer to leaders and at the same time look to Jesus’ approval ultimatly.

    Yes it is hard to hurt, experince pain and be with others in thier hurt and pain. We all naturally want to be happy don’t we? Sometimes being a presence is frustrating when we want things to be fixed, or maybe that is just me. But then that is not always holding Christ as central. Someone who is wise, knows when to take action and knows when to just “be”.

    • thanks adam, yeah, i don’t think it’s just you in that tendency to want things to be “fixed”. it’s somehow innate, that desire to resolve tension. it’s amazing what people will discover on their own, though, or how when they want feedback they will ask for it, and how that is so much different than us interjecting ours just because we can’t stand the dissonance. God help us, living in pain alongside each other is hard stuff!

      • Yeah I hear ya. I was hoping to get to chat with you about a video I have seen recently about unconditional love. The fear that love engenders and the desire. The difference between a worldly love and a heavenly love. Of worldly power and heavenly power. And the pain that personal armour keeps in versus the godly armour that enables healing but is also more risky – requiring courage. And wanting to be fixed, to be happy here and now, avoid pain. Being in touch with pain being about grieving and letting people in – self control. And revenge being about avoiding such pain and keeping people out, controlling others.

        Yes there is that innate desire to resolve tension because of our own pain through interjecting our feedback rather than enduring pain. I agree with you what people will discover on their own. I remember my comedy tutor and how I said what she did was wonderful. What she did was point out a talent in me and believe in me as I discovered things and tried them out for myself. Amazing indeed. I remember also spending some time with someone and giving myself over to them, seeing the process over about an hour or so in time with the Lord of seeing her tears of pain turn to tears of joy – beautiful and powerful:).

  • love this. “most humans share many of the same troubles & woes, but many don’t have a safe place to express it out loud.” presence. trust. listening. YES!

  • This is just …. Beyond. Profound. Pastoral. And oh so helpful. Such an affirmation to offer “withness” rather than so-called answers …

  • This is so good, and can connect with it so much. There have been *so* many shifts 🙂 for me over time in how I view this topic. Early on I thought that it was all about finding the right verses and phrases to plug into the dam of pain. And then when my mom died in 2001, the reality of what I thought would help other people failed miserably on me. It has so been in doing my own work that I am able to hold the space for others…

    There were two different sessions that I had today that I reflected on how different handling their pain in the stories that came up would have looked… More like managing it, and wanting them to feel all better and think I am so great for making it better, and have it all wrapped up in a bow cute enough for Pinterest. However, today, it looked more like breathing, keeping eye contact, and encouraging that it is not going to hurt forever, and that there is hope. Words fall short.

    And, can SO relate with the idea of running away from relationships feeling exposed. Every time that I do, it stops and makes me sigh and resound with Simon Peter, “where else would we go?” For it has been through dealing with pain and reality and shame and authenticity that I have discovered life. Damnit.

    • thanks for sharing, yeah, so much pain, so much goodness & life all mixed together. is there ever a response to you where i don’t say paradox? ha ha.

  • That’ a great suggestion Kathy about creating space for our own pain, which then enables others to have room for thiers. And the thing about that being unnatural.

    I’m not sure what the quote you have about the leader being irrelevant has to do wiht a calling. Seems to me that leaders need to be relevent to be of service. But i think the sentiment if I understand the intention rightly is in keeping with something I have heard elsewhere that, with the best of leaders, when it is all said and done the people will say “we did it ourselves”.

    I’m not sure if I would be entirely in the same camp as you with leaving it at that. I recall in pastoral work I have been involved with, that there was the expectation to just listen and “be” with others. At the time, I deferred to leadership which required that of me, but it didn’t sit quite right. I can’t marry being vulnerable as a leader, offering self and creating space for ones own pain as being sufficient. God loves us so much as not to leave us in the same place we are. I see challenge and lordship in Jesus as well as vulnerabliy and the offering of himself.

    Courageous Chrisitian leadership surely doen’t hold back from challenging others to obedience in Christ out of say fear of being disliked or disapproved of?

    With the pastoral placement I talk of – I left feeling I had overcompromised myself and taken away form the potency in Christ that could have otherwise been offered and served others better than what was expected by me of leadership.

    Stereotypically women make better nurturers and men fighters. Althoguth there are some women who are great fighters and men that are great nurtureres. I think there is a place for fighting and being willing to sacrifice, even die in the battle against dark forces in the world and evil forces in the heavenlty reams.

    I don’t see why this can’t be embaraced every much as being vulnerable and offering self. And I see a desperate need for this in the church, particularly by way of creating an environment that is attractive to men.

    • leadership is a very tricky thing and we all have our different theories of what makes a good one, but i do know this for me: the safest & best ones i have been around are the most honest ones.

      • I would be with you on that with honesty – that being a good starting point. Of course we will have different ideas about what makes a good one, according to out own tastes. There are some things at the same time that are scriptural requirements for leaders which can’t be ignored. For example not being someone who is young in the faith, someone of godly character, of good standing in the community, who is not given easily to a hot temper etc.

  • Great post, Kathy! I loved the Nouwen quotes (always do).

    Adam – I’d just say that Jesus is by definition the best possible example of a leader… ever. And he made himself nothing, he emptied himself. It was the only way he could come to live amongst us in our mess and pain. Only in emptiness and irrelevance can I come to where people are and sit with them in their pain and loss. The biggest problem with Job’s friends was that were not empty enough, irrelevant enough, to just sit on the ash heap beside him in true sympathy.

    It’s hard to see Christ as irrelevant. In many ways he is the most relevant person in the universe. Yet he had to become empty and irrelevant and lost to come alongside us, a man of sorrows, unlovely, wrecked, disfigured and executed. And only after that
    could we begin to see his relevance, his glorious nature. Many at the time failed to see. Even the disciples struggled to see and one of them betrayed him, another denied him, and most felt he had failed. But then he astonished them by returning alive!

    • thanks for sharing, chris, i really appreciate your thoughts. i love this line “the biggest problem with Job’s friends was that they were not empty enough, irrelevant enough, to just sit on the ash heap beside him in true sympathy.”

    • Chris,

      I hear your point about Jesus being the best example of that being a leader, and the emptiness. i hear echoes of what CS Lewis said about loving meing being being vulnerable in what you say, and the only place ot be safe from the dangers of love being hell. The point you make about Job’s comforters is helpful in the light of what has been discussed elsewhere here with the sentiment about fixing thing and making them better. It’s not that easy though is it?

      Yes – I’m learning more about the thing about what you say with sitting with people in their pain and loss in that by challenging my own tendency to avoid pain and want to move onto the next thing that feels good whatever that is. We never stop learnign do we?

      I want at the same time to get past this portrayal of Jesus as being only the gentle Jesus meek and mild. He was that and I woudn’t want to dumb that side down of him. At the same time he is warrior, king, Lord. He turned over tables, he subverted powers, he offended, he had power and might. He put the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God to heavenly use on earth.

      It is stereotypical to perceive women as nurtureres and comforters and men as risk takers and up for a fight. There are many that don’t fit such sterotype and it often isn’t helpful to perceive male and female nature as such.

      At the same time, given that church statistics where I am show 2/3 attendance are women, I wonder, would this have had an influence on the portrayal of the gentle, meek mild Jesus. And might a protrayal of him as more of a warrior etc migh be a better representation of him and might address the gender imbalance in church attendance.

      • You’re quite right Adam, we need to see Jesus as he is in his full nature. Gentle but strong, coming alongside out of supreme authority, King of Glory and Prince of Peace. He is the Lion and the Lamb.

        I’d suggest that if he’s only portrayed as meek and mild in a particular place, tough guy types may just pass him by and not recognise him or find him interesting. So I’m not sure which is cause and which is effect!

        But women need strength, authority and power just as much as men. And men need gentleness, nurture and caring just as much as women. We are, in a very real sense, two sides of the Almighty’s nature. We are incomplete without one another. He wants to build us together into his body.

        That’s how I see it, anyway. I wouldn’t say seeing Jesus as a warrior is a ‘better’ representation. Different, for sure. In essence, he’s portrayed more by his life in each of his people than in any other way. We all (men and women) need to get embedded in society deeply so that people begin to see him in and through us. That is far better than trying to attract people out of the world into a ‘holy place’ of some kind.

        Look at Jesus’ own life. He hung out with the dregs of society and accepted their invitations to parties. We want to be like him – so how should we live?

        • Perhps you have misunderstood or I have not communicated well Chris. I am not putting forward the case for it being better for Jesus to be prtrayed as a warrior, but to tease more of that side out in the interest of the fullness of Christ being represented.

          As a knock on effect, I would hope that would attract more men to church where there is a disproportion that would be a suggestion i would make for consideration in the light of church attendance statistics.

          In all other points you have made, you are quite right. I would be interested in any thoughts you woudl have in adressing the abscence of men in church gatherings as described.

  • I love the Nouwen quotes, and the “less/more” suggestions, but this is what I’m going to take with me: ” we are trying to be people who welcome pain to the table.” What I see is a place where it’s okay to cry, rant, question, laugh, sing, and be real, and I want to be at that table.

    • thanks carol, i look forward to reading all the posts when i have a little space later this week. i want to be at that table, too…

  • Wow. “Most people aren’t one sentence away from feeling better when they are in pain.”

    And the grace is so important too. I sometimes hear people talk about showing others too much grace, but I am beginning to think that there is no such thing as too much grace. Maybe I’m wrong on that, but I certainly seem to want God to show unlimited grace to me…

    • yeah, i hear that sometimes, too, and i keep thinking that unlimited grace doesn’t mean getting walked on, but it sure does mean passing on what we’ve received over and over and over again. i have a theory that one of the reasons we don’t want to pass on grace is we are jealous of people who get it, especially when we’re over here working so hard, following the rules, doing what we think needs to be done. i call it grace jealousy and i know i’ve been so guilty of it.

  • Well said, Kathy! I was just thinking how what Nouwen said flies in the face of so much “pastoral” training. It’s the idea of a loving fellow journeyer, rather than the hot shot leader or mystical guide.

    • thanks, glenn, i look forward to reading everyone’s posts later this week. nouwen rocks (and he’d probably hate that i said that, ha ha)

  • First of all, happy (belated) birthday! Secondly, thanks for this great post. I love the second quote from Nouwen. It seems to me to be particularly important to have (as you say) less words and more presence. It has pained me to see well-intentioned people try to explain with bad theology the pain others are feeling. Better would be to stay silent and just share the pain with them. Imho.

    • thanks bill, i am with you all the way. recently i was grieving at a memorial service, my 4th in less than 2 weeks, and at this point just pretty undone, and some of the theology in the service was so painful that i sincerely put my head down and prayed ‘God, protect me from these words, protect me from these words, protect me from these words.” it was nuts but really good for me, too, because it helped me remember that i’m not crazy. trying to make sense of things that can’t be made sense of is just really harmful.

  • Happy birthday my beautiful friend,

    I think we need to constantly be reminded of the last part of #3. We cannot fix the other person(so stop trying). Only God’s love can heal them, instead of fixing them, just expose them to as much of God’s love as we can.

    Pastor FedEx

  • So cool that n your birthday you gave all of us a gift Kathy!!!!! All you wrote as well as the Nouwen quotes so right on. For me the pain intensifies because of sensing a lack in me somehow because of what i interpret the Bible to say and seeing i fall far short. Like, s many places it says do not fear, so what to do if fear persists?? Just most prime example for me fear and shame go hand in hand in experiencing pain.

    Thank you for being a transparent pastor sojourner on this wld crazy life journey!!1

  • Ooh, I love that Henri Nouwen quote! I may just snatch it, Kathy. But there’s so much I resonate with in your words here, my new-found friend. I’m coming over from Linda’s place at Creekside Ministries. She knows how to highlight just the right people, because this is SO good! I’ll certainly be back! 🙂

  • I love that Nouwen quote as well. Well, I just love Nouwen, too!

    I’ve appreciated all the synchroblogs on the topic. It’s one that I’ve blogged about quite a bit the last couple of months, as well.

    I’m so glad people in and out of the church are starting to talk more honestly about pain, and, perhaps even more importantly, how to best walk alongside others in the midst of their pain instead of compounding it!

  • Thank you for your continual encouragement to us on how to love better. What love looks like, does, etc. It really does help, thank you! 🙂


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