Courtney woke up to the smell of stale weed.
Laying still, she closed her eyes and remembered the cold blade against her skin and the weight of him on top of her.
Her focus fell on the thin, hot pain that spread three inches across the front of her neck.
Snapping back, she slammed her phone into the docking station and started her Disney playlist.
She grabbed a trash can and tried to erase the evidence of the downward spiral that had taken place over the past two weeks: liquor bottles, cigarette butts and used condoms.
Today has to be better. Today is the day I’m talking about it.
“I just don’t understand how this could happen again.”
As I sat across from Courtney in a coffee shop, I started to think about the other patrons sipping their steaming beverages. I shouldn’t have let my mind wander, but I couldn’t help but realize that none of these people had any idea what she was going through.
Courtney is a master of disguise. Here, she was presenting anger; incredulous that someone would even consider hurting her. She seemed in charge and the matter seemed petty.
But I knew Courtney and I knew how to read between the lines.
I could see the deep, enduring, cutting, bottomless pain.
In the public setting, she was being vague with details, but I knew exactly what she was talking about.
Last time, with the football player who forced her. This time, with a knife to her neck.
Then she asked the question: “Why does this stuff happen to me? Why do I have to go through this again?”
What would you tell Courtney? The question of pain and suffering is one we face a lot in youth ministry.
What’s our best response?
Everything happens for a reason?
Sorry your life sucks right now?
When life gives you lemons…?
As someone who works primarily with the high-risk population, I’ve seen a lot of teens who are in deep pain. I don’t always get it right, but I have learned a few things along the way. Let me suggest six guidelines for engaging the hurting teen.
1. Join them in their pain
We once had a student who was going through opiate withdrawal. The violent part was over, but he wasn’t quite himself yet emotionally. We were unaware of his situation when he decided to attend a guy’s overnight event we were holding.
About half way through the night, he couldn’t hold himself together anymore. One of our staff members sat with him on a hard floor for over an hour, with an arm around his shoulder, in silence. The boy just sat and wept. Later, he identified that as the moment he knew he was loved.
Even if the pain is self-inflicted, or the result of their own sin, we have to lead with empathy. Sit and listen. Ask questions. Put an arm around their shoulder. Take the time to really be there with them.
2. Keep Perspective
One of my ministry mentors has said that if a student’s life is a train crash, we can’t be the man on the ground, trying to help from there. We have to be the man in the helicopter, looking down on the chaos with a unique perspective, offering guidance from above.
As we join a teen in their pain, we have to be careful not to lose perspective. We have to remain enough outside the situation that we can guide and direct, but inside enough for the teen to know they’re not alone and that their pain matters.
This can be a tricky balancing act and some self-reflection is key to doing it well.
We all fall on a spectrum of natural empathy. Some of my colleagues find it easy to feel what a hurting teen is feeling. They join teens in their pain without giving it a second thought.
I, on the other hand, fall on the opposite end of the spectrum. I once took a test that ranked natural abilities. Out of a list of 25, empathy came in dead last on my results. For me, keeping perspective is very easy. I don’t feel the natural pull to experience a teen’s emotions with them. I have to work at joining teens in their pain.
For my empathy-inclined colleagues, they have to work at keeping perspective to maintain their effectiveness. Understanding your natural leaning on the empathy spectrum will help you become a more effective minister to teens in pain.
3. Say I don’t know
We are human and the human perspective is finite. If we try to parse out a cosmic explanation, boiling down the reason for someone’s pain into a simple answer, we will inevitably get it wrong.
It’s OK to say I don’t know.
I don’t know why this happened again, but I do know I’m here for you.
I don’t know why God allows the person who hurt you to flourish, but I do know God is here with you now.
I don’t know why they had to die, but I do know we’re going to help you get through this.
It may seem counter intuitive, but to someone who is in the midst of a painful circumstance, I don’t know can be a lot more soothing than the mental gymnastics required to answer life’s most difficult questions. Down the road, you may get to the point where you can have a conversation about free will and God’s sovereignty and Satan’s schemes, but at first, I don’t know usually works just fine.
4. Don’t Promise that God Will Fix it Now
I want God to take everyone’s pain away. I want God to heal every ailment. I want an easy, pain-free life for my students. But that’s not how life in a fallen world works. One day, yes, God promises that he will wipe every tear from our eyes. But Jesus sweat blood, his disciples were murdered, and our students feel pain. This side of eternity, the tears still flow.
Like every other believer, I want to live in victory. I want to teach teens that God is powerful and can heal any wound. But I also don’t want to make a promise on behalf of God that God doesn’t make for himself—and God doesn’t promise a pain-free life.
He doesn’t promise that our emotional wounds won’t turn into emotional scars.
He doesn’t promise that our loved ones won’t die.
He doesn’t promise that we won’t battle mental illness.
But he does promise that he will be there with us. He promises that he will comfort and help us.
I don’t know why, but God doesn’t withhold pain from our lives. But he doesn’t abandon us in our pain either.
5. Tell Them That Hurt Hurts
I know it seems obvious, but pain hurts. It’s supposed to.
A few years ago, my mom passed away from pancreatic cancer. It was awful. I was in counseling at the time, and my counselor reminded me that it was supposed to hurt. If it didn’t hurt, there might be a problem. But I didn’t want the pain to hurt. I wanted to run from it. To numb it.
Reminding a student that their hurt is legitimate and legitimately painful will help them feel heard and cared for. It also opens a door to begin talking about some of the unhealthy ways that they might be tempted to numb their pain.
6. Remind them that Jesus Suffered Too
One of the most powerful truths that we can teach teens who are questioning God in the midst of a struggle is that God suffered too.
Loss of loved ones, homelessness, betrayal, torture and death were all part of the path that Jesus chose for himself. Jesus is a man of ultimate empathy. He’s been there. He walked through the trials and felt the pain.
And he’s with our teens right now—present in their pain.
Point your teens toward him. Let them feel his embrace. Let them learn to trust him as they trudge through mire we call pain.
Ash SanFilippo has done youth ministry from the streets of Chicago to a small church on a secluded island, to the suburbs of Minneapolis. He currently works for TreeHouse, leading a team that creates online training content aimed at helping people minister to at-risk teens. Ash lives in Minneapolis with his wife and 1-year-old son. Check out TreeHouse at TREEHOUSEYOUTH.ORG.