What to Say When You Don’t Have the Whole Story

What to Say When You Don't Have the Whole Story

Recently, I got an email from a casual acquaintance. Among other things, he mentioned that he had recently been terminated from his position with a Christian ministry.

From such a distance—both location and relationship—it was impossible for me to understand the issues which contributed to his situation. Was he wrongly terminated? Or was he the guilty one? I simply could not know.

And yet, our correspondence required me to reply, and I could hardly ignore what was obviously an important and life-changing matter for him. What could I say?

Frequently, in Christian ministry, we are told about a situation and are invited to make a response. And often we know only one small part of the whole story.

A person gives what seems to be an extended (and possibly biased) list of wrongs someone else has done. Another person only tells part of the story to avoid exposing someone else’s sin.

Proverbs warns against making a quick judgment without information:

“The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.” (Prov. 18:17)

“If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.” (Prov. 18:13)

Sometimes, we are able to pursue the subject. If both parties are within our circles, we can get more information, assist them to pursue biblical conflict resolution, and offer help to everyone involved. But, as with my out-of-work acquaintance, some situations and relationships will never disclose the full story.

So what can you say—over email or coffee or Sunday’s fellowship lunch—when you cannot have the whole story?

I’m sorry. 

Sin makes us sorrowful. And if there is sin in a situation, no matter whose sin it is, you can truthfully say you are sorry. A church member loses his job because his Christian convictions are distasteful to his employer? Then, “I’m sorry to hear that.” A church member loses his job because he failed to show up three shifts in a row? Then, too, “I’m sorry to hear that.”

Thank you. 

Maybe, as in the case of the email I received, the best reply is “thank you for your years of service.” Maybe it’s “thank you for being such a good friend to her in this hard time” or “thank you for being concerned.” Sometimes, all you can say is “thank you for being here.”

Let’s pray. 

Our Lord knows the whole story even when we do not, and we can pray with humility and confidence for him to work. Together, we can ask him to vindicate the righteous, convict the sinning, reconcile the estranged and exalt his Son. Prayer is also a great equalizer—forcing each of us to admit our limitations and to cry out in dependence on our sovereign God. When we don’t know the whole story, we can together ask for help.

And that’s something to which we can all say, “Amen.”

This article originally appeared here.

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Megan Hill
Megan Hill is a pastor’s wife and writer living in Massachusetts. Her new book is Praying Together: The Priority and Privilege of Prayer in Our Homes, Communities, and Churches.