What do you say

when people ask you how you are?


It is so easy to put on an ‘I’m alright’ expression
as we face or try to avoid answering this question
when in fact we may be anything but okay.
How can we be sensitive in asking,
and replying to people when we meet them?

What do you say when people ask. “How are you?”

What do you say when someone asks you – ‘How are you?’

We’ve all done it – breezed up casually to people before or after church and asked them, how they are – and then wondered why they reacted as they did. We’ve all been on the receiving end of such well-meaning questions, too, when we are in too much grief to know how to respond.

‘How are you?’ I suspect there have been times when that is exactly the question you did NOT want to hear. It may even have made you want to avoid that person altogether! The way we ask such questions, and the leeway we give them not to answer the question directly, calls for etiquette, wisdom and discernment.

Many put on a, habitual ‘I’m fine thank you’ sort of face effectively cuts the conversation dead. By contrast, regular ‘gushers’ need only the slightest of invitations to pour out a jet stream of their uncertainties, troubles and complaints. On the one hand, along the lines of ‘Better out than in.’

But too much spouting may cause too much ‘spray’ and make people less willing to ask such questions another time!

In the split second between someone asking us the question and our needing to make a reply, we have to make numerous assessments. Has the person concerned the capacity to bear the load we are about to dump on them? It would be unwise to dump a ten-ton load on a bridge designed to withstand far less!

Perhaps we can pray something along these lines: ‘Lord, help me not to gush inappropriately, lest I overwhelm the person I am sharing with!’

We must be careful whom we share our deepest heart with. Human nature being what it is, sharing our weaknesses with certain types of people may incline them to feel superior to us. They begin to define us as “having the problem that we have shared with them”.

When someone enjoys being strong when others are weak and vulnerable, or puts on a holier than thou or a ‘counselling’ tone of voice, true authenticity is lost.

Just as the Lord reserves the recounting for the things that distress Him with those who draw closes to Him, so it is wise to make oneself vulnerable only with those who have the maturity to cope with it.

It is not wrong to be somewhat cautious, therefore, how we answer this seemingly simple question. To be discreet is not at all the same thing as being a hypocrite! We can be sure that Jesus would have shared certain issues with Peter, James and John that He would not have mentioned to the seventy two disciples, let alone to people He met and ministered to in the street.

We are perfectly within our rights to say that ‘there are problems’ or ‘we are going through a tough time’ without feeling any need or pressure to reveal what those problems are to all and sundry. Jesus “knew what was in a man and therefore He did not trust Himself to them.” (John 2:24-25)

Sharing that releases others

We have often found that sharing the difficulties that we are going through helps others to speak of their own difficulties. Nearly a decade ago we took a calculated decision to share in as much detail as was appropriate about a prolonged season of extreme pressures that Ros was going through at work. We were taken by surprise by the number of people who got in contact to share dreadful experiences they too had had of severe intimidation in the work place – and the appalling toll it had taken on them. We would almost certainly have remained in the dark concerning these people’s sufferings unless we had ‘made ourselves vulnerable’ and shared up in the way that they did.

When people are going through difficult times, and I sometimes adopt the tactic doctors often when they can see a patient skirting round the real issue and move as if to draw the session to a close. It is amazing how often person then says, ‘Oh, by the way . . .’ and proceeds to share the matter that is really troubling them!

When you can share your problems openly it draws others into your pilgrimage. So often we give testimonies when a situation is nearly wrapped up and concluded. “I had a problem . . .. but God sorted it out.” By contrast, sharing it with others when you are actually working it through together can do wonders to develop your relationship with that person.

As surely as sharing our difficulties in such ways often turns out to be ‘prophetic wisdom in action,’ there is also the risk of intruding further than people are ready to go. Two years after Ros’s painful experiences, she was well aware that the bulk of her grief was still locked up inside her, as it were in a vault.

When some friends came round to dinner, I made the mistake of trying too hard to flush some of this hurt out into the open, thinking they would be an ideal couple to pray with. It turned out to be entirely the wrong time, and it hurt her. A few days later, when some other friends came round, and we were praying, the Lord Jesus met with Ros in a beautiful way. As His presence increased, He drew the sting of the grief out as it were in one oiled sweep. What my insensitive probing had failed to do, the presence of God did beautifully.

We do not need to apologise for not opening up fully, therefore, no matter how hard people push: ‘No, how are you really?’ With practice we learn to tell the difference between self-appointed counsellors ‘trawling for business’, gossips who are out for some tasty titbits and those who love and care for us enough to ask the very same question from a heart full of concern for our well-being.

As we have hinted, this is a matter for discernment. We also to consider their ability, discretion and trustworthiness – though to some extent, we may only really discover this by trial and error. More than anything else, it comes down to the condition of their heart. Suppose you choose to make yourself vulnerable and reply, ‘Actually, I’m having real difficulty trusting the Lord about . . .’ The person looks down on you from their supposedly more spiritual standpoint and unthinkingly responds, ‘all you need to do is to trust the Lord, brother!’ The effect is to make you feel as though they have kicked you hard on the shins!

But then you go to another person and share precisely the same thing, and they reply, perhaps after a moment’s reflection, outwardly in exactly the same way: to the same effect, ‘Hmm – just trust the Lord, Robert!’ This time, instead of being made to feel small (which is liable to make you cross and less inclined to open up, you find your trust levels beginning to rise again.

The difference does not consist of them speaking in a more sympathetic and soothing voice: you sense that this person has one ear on the Lord and one ear on you. Without knowing all the ins and outs of our situation, you are confident that they have taken the matter to the Lord, and gained His reassurance that they can reassure you that He is in charge! Such reassurance is priceless.

Reflect and Pray

God bless your conversations in the church foyer,
on the phone,
or wherever you are
when people ask you how you are –
and likewise when the roles are reversed!
May the Lord make you trustworthy listeners,
knowing when to reach out
and when just to silently love, pray and embrace.