In my family, we call it cocoa butter advice. It’s the advice that no one needs, but everyone offers. You know what I mean, right? It’s like when my sister suffered from a rare disorder called obstetric cholestasis which caused severe itching from the inside out. Some dear soul would hear she was pregnant and itching and would suggest, enlightened and eager, “Have you tried cocoa butter? That really soothed my itchy skin when I was pregnant.” My sister’s liver was malfunctioning and her obstetricians were consulting with specialists across the globe. It wasn’t cocoa butter that she needed.
Most of us have offered our share of this kind of not-so-helpful advice. We hear someone has a fever and we can hardly keep ourselves from reminding them to drink lots of water to avoid dehydration. Someone mentions computer problems and we ask way too quickly if they’ve tried restarting it. We mean well, bless our hearts, but this kind of advice is anything but helpful.
As the Body of Christ, we can easily become too generous with cocoa butter advice. It comes from a good place; we don’t want someone to suffer when we might suggest something that could alleviate their pain. So we jump in with solutions even before we have any idea what is truly needed.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because of my mother. You see, after years of unrelenting pain, Mother decided last fall to undergo a knee replacement. The risk of infection was minimal and extremely rare, but my mother fell into that dreaded one percent. The infection in her knee required a second surgery a year after the first. This surgery meant removing the first knee replacement and inserting an antibiotic prosthetic. After three or four months of immobility and daily IV antibiotics, she’ll have yet another knee replacement and hope to be in the 99% this time.
People, myself included, have had lots of suggestions for Mother. The thing is, she has done way more research on her particular situation than any of the rest of us. Plus, she is perfectly willing and capable of asking for information when she needs it. Unrequested advice is just not helpful right now. But those of us who love her want a quick fix. We want to offer some words of wisdom that will help her feel better faster.
As the Body of Christ, I think we are often guilty of over-advising. We love each other. We want to help. We want the pain to go away. But we don’t know how to do that, so we fill the gap with words of dubious relevance. One problem with this tendency is that too often we pronounce our advice and promptly absolve ourselves of responsibility. But instead of spewing out cocoa butter advice, what if we offered some real comfort?
Here are a few things we could try.
- “I’m sorry.” Whether the person is contending with physical, mental, or emotional pain, a simple, “I’m sorry,” offered with authentic concern, without judgmental overtones, can be the perfect thing to say. Then listen. They might just need to share their story. You don’t need to add your own personal anecdote or suggest solutions. Just listen and end the conversation as you began with a simple, “I’m sorry.” It may be the most comforting thing they’ve heard all day.
- “How can I help?” True, the person may not know what they need yet; so remember to check on them again. Oh and don’t bother saying, “Call me if you need me.” A person in need rarely calls. Think about it: if you were struggling, how likely would you be to reach out and ask for help? So check back.
- “What time can I bring dinner?” (Note: this is not the same as “Would you like for me to bring you dinner?”) You might also add, “Do you have any food allergies or particular preferences?” You don’t have to be a cook. Pick up something at your local deli or take-out restaurant. If you are handy in the kitchen, you might plan ahead and make two of everything you prepare for your own family. That way you can keep a meal on hand, ready to share.
Let’s commit to being more intentional in ministering to each other. Let’s listen with open hearts to each other’s stories. And let’s keep the cocoa butter advice to ourselves.
*This piece was first published on November 16, by Baptist News Global. I’m delighted to be associated with this great organization and am honored to be among the writers and thinkers featured there. Watch for my BNG column, appearing monthly at baptistnews.com.