Helping an Unbelieving Friend Who’s in the Valley of Suffering

It wasn’t a normal after-practice conversation. Her questions had nothing to do with jerseys, jump shots, or defense. My player had something else entirely in mind. Slowly a few details came out: her friend’s family (of unbelievers) had very suddenly and unexpectedly entered a very deep valley. To them it probably felt more like falling off a cliff. The teenager who approached me after basketball practice wasn’t merely informing me of the situation. She was asking a very serious question: “What do I say?”

Perhaps you’ve had the same query. 

  • “What do I tell my unbelieving coworker about the trial she’s going through?” 
  • “How do I help my unsaved friend grieve the death of a loved one?”
  • “How can I minister to my lost neighbor who just got devastating news?” 

When I got this question, my mind went into overdrive, and my tongue went into stammer-mode. I may have rambled, but the Spirit brought several things to mind that might help her friend. I hope they’ll be of some help to you. 

Listen, Listen, Listen

The first rule in any counseling situation (which is what you’re in if someone is asking for your help) is to listen to the other person. If your friend or neighbor or family member or coworker feels comfortable talking to you, listen. And by listening I don’t mean sitting there quietly while mentally making a shopping list or planning your weekend. Listening requires engagement with what is being said. Ask pertinent questions. Get more information as seems appropriate. Participate in the story while patiently allowing it to unfold. Let your friend unload what he or she is thinking or feeling without you parachuting in with your shotgun loaded with Scripture shells and ready to fire. First, listen. And then listen some more. And after you’ve done that, take some more time to listen. There will be a time to speak, but do not overlook this first thing. If a person is willing to talk to you, love them enough to listen to their story and feelings. 

Pray Like Crazy

If you allow your brain to do anything besides listening as your acquaintance shares their heart, let it be this: pray. Pray while you listen. Pray while you speak. Pray with your friend (if they allow you to). Pray when you leave. Pray now. Pray later. Pray. 

You might not go any farther than these two steps. Hopefully you’ll have an opportunity to share truth with this person. But your time has not been wasted if “all” you do is listen and pray. James assures us that fervent prayers accomplish a lot (5:16), so you’re not letting your friend down by “merely” praying for them. As a believer, you have an audience with the omnipotent Ruler of the entire universe who promises to hear and answer your prayers. If you do nothing else on this list, you must pray! 

Point to the Character of God

There’s certainly no one-size-fits-all answer for every situation that you may encounter. However, regardless of the specific details of your friend’s trial, you can always go back to the character of God. I haven’t forgotten, though, that you’re dealing with an unbeliever—someone who, by their own admission, most likely doesn’t know God. So hitting them with, “Just remember God is good” may seem empty. Instead, try to demonstrate the character of God within the story. While the details will no doubt be wrought with tears, God’s goodness, grace, love, and mercy will surely appear. Help your friend find those threads. Help them consider how God’s sovereignty and providence come into the situation. God rules all things. Even in a dark circumstance, He will still show that He has not lost control. Help your friend see that Someone is holding the pieces together. 

Give Biblical Hope

For some reason, platitudes and fortune-cookie slogans tend to come to our mind when it’s our turn to “give hope.” Often these clichés aren’t even Scriptural at all. They just sound good. Telling your friend, “Everything is going to be okay” is not biblical hope. It might be true (hopefully it is!), but it might not. The truth is, things might turn out very un-okay. Whatever hope you offer, let it be guided by the truth of Scripture. This doesn’t mean that you will give a chapter and verse for everything that you say. It’s possible to give biblical, Scripture-saturated, gospel-driven hope without ever mentioning the Bible specifically. 

For the lost soul, no hope is more necessary or urgent than the gospel itself. I don’t mean to say that once you hear your friend’s story you should launch into the “four spiritual laws” or start spouting the “Romans road.” That’s probably not the compassionate or loving approach. Instead, look for an area in the person’s story on which you could press to help open a door to a piece of the gospel—the desire for eternal life or the sinfulness of man or the fallenness of the world or the mercy of God. Any one of these topics may lead to other conversations. Trust the living, powerful Word of God to do the work. Our task is to give hope from Scripture. 

Encourage Outside Help

Depending on the situation, you may need to encourage your friend to get help from a pastor or a trained biblical counselor. If you’re hearing a story that is beyond what you feel equipped to handle, reach out to a trained soul-care provider. Offer to accompany your friend. If they won’t go with you, ask for permission to share their story (or parts of it) with a pastor to get his perspective that you can in turn share with your friend. Don’t be afraid to lean on the body of Christ for help in these situations.1

Serve in Tangible Ways 

I grew up in Wyoming, where you see a lot of cowboy hats and cowboy boots. But that doesn’t mean that everyone who looks the part actually does any farming or ranching or has ever even ridden a horse. Some people just like to wear the uniform. My mom says that such people are “all hat and no cattle.” 

I’m afraid that we Christians can often be all hat and no cattle when it comes to ministering to a suffering friend. A conversation doesn’t cost us much. Elbow grease, rides to the doctor, hours watching kids, time spent in the kitchen—these all require our time and resources. Please offer these gifts to your friend as well. Don’t send them away with just an “I’m praying for you.” Yes, your prayers reach the very ears of God. By all means, don’t neglect to pray. But don’t stop there. Put some skin on the gospel you’re trying to share. How can you live out the good news and demonstrate the compassion and love of Jesus to your suffering friend? 

Being entrusted with another person’s story of suffering is a weighty burden. But may it be one we bear gladly and steward well. 

In today’s post, Cindy encouraged us to listen to the story of our fellow sufferer, because stories are powerful. They’re a part of who we are. You’re a part of the gospel story God is writing, and Revive Our Hearts is a part of your story too. Become a monthly Revive Partner today to be a part of the next chapter. Learn more at

There may be some rare cases in which breaching privacy may actually be in the best interest of your friend—suicidal inclinations, for example. In such a situation, please speak with your pastor and get his perspective. If a friend is in immediate danger, involve someone else. 

About the Author

Cindy Matson

Cindy Matson

Cindy Matson lives in a small Minnesota town with her husband, son and daughter, and ridiculous black dog. She enjoys reading books, drinking coffee, and coaching basketball. You can read more of her musings about God's Word at

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