When Friends Try to Comfort

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : Job 2:11-13

Now when Job’s three friends heard of all this evil that had come upon him, they came each from his own place, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They made an appointment together to come to condole with him and comfort him. And when they saw him from afar, they did not recognize him; and they raised their voices and wept; and they rent their robes and sprinkled dust upon their heads toward heaven. And they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.

Job 2:11-13 rsv

We’ve been thinking about one of history’s most famous sufferers, the man named Job. Job’s troubles didn’t end with the loss of his possessions, his children and his health. After all that he had been through, the people closest to him actually made his suffering worse. His wife, called to be his “helpmeet,” completely misread her husband and became a hindrance to him rather than a help. Her best wisdom was that he should abandon his integrity, curse God and die. Hardly a recipe for making things better! Job, destroy yourself, blaspheme the Lord, and die a miserable death. How’s that for wifely advice?

FRIENDS?

And then there were his friends. Maybe they were the ones who got the old saying started, “With friends like these, who needs enemies?” Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite (sometimes humorously known as the world’s shortest man), and Zophar the Naamathite – these were the trio of friends who came from far away to condole with Job and to comfort him. If ever an undertaking was a failure, this one was – mission unaccomplished! They probably meant well, as most comforters do, but they didn’t succeed in helping their friend. God Himself said about them at the end of the story that they had not spoken of Him as they ought. They needed Job to forgive them and pray for them, which this patient, gracious sufferer finally did. Let’s read about their coming to comfort Job. I’m reading from Chapter 2 of that book, at verse 11:

Now when Job’s three friends heard of all this evil that had come upon him, they came each from his own place, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They made an appointment together to come to condole with him and comfort him. And when they saw him from afar, they did not recognize him; and they raised their voices and wept; and they rent their robes and sprinkled dust upon their heads toward heaven. And they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.

Now let’s not be too hard on these men. Let’s give them their due. They cared enough to come from quite a distance to be with Job. They wept, tore their clothes, threw dust on their heads. They mourned. And they gave to him the gift of presence. They sat beside him there on the ground. Again, they were sensitive enough to be quiet at the outset. For seven days and nights, they just sat there, saying nothing. They gave Job the gift of silence. We read also how they saw that his suffering was very great. They gave him at least a measure of the gift of sympathy. So far, so good.

Then Job broke the silence and began to speak out of his inner anguish. It wasn’t a pleasant speech to hear. He cursed the day he had been born. He demanded to know why he hadn’t perished at birth so that now he could be at rest in his grave. Why should he have been born to go through such suffering, to find life so bitter?

Job poured out a volley of complaints. There was nothing for him, he said, but sighing and groaning. His worst fears in life had all been realized. He had no peace, found no rest, nothing but trouble.

TALKING TOO MUCH

That’s when the friends badly blew it. They began to make speeches. They overwhelmed the suffering Job with windy words. Their first blunder was simply that – they talked too much.

When people are hurting desperately, they don’t need long discourses, do they? How marvelous if the friends could have done some reflective listening here: “Job, you’re really feeling down, aren’t you? You’re wondering why you were ever born. It must seem like everything has gone against you.”

I think Job would have appreciated something like that, don’t you? It would have made him feel, “Hey, my friends have heard me. They understand what I’m going through. They know something of what I’m feeling now.” That might have given him a measure of comfort.

But instead, these speeches, monologues, even tirades. No wonder Job lost patience. Listen to him, “If only you would be silent, and let silence be your wisdom . . . be silent, leave me to speak my mind” (see Job 33:33). He needed desperately for his friends to listen to him, to hear him out, not to drown him with their verbiage.

But I can’t judge these men too harshly. Like many another preacher, I have to say, “mea culpa” on this one. “I’m to blame.” So often I’ve talked too much when I should have been listening to someone else’s anguished heart. Maybe you’ve sometimes done the same.

KNOWING TOO MUCH

The second problem with these three was that they knew too much, or at least they thought they did. For Eliphaz and Bildad and Zophar, there were apparently no great mysteries in life, no baffling paradoxes, no happenings that made no sense. They had everything figured out. They had an explanation for why each thing happened, including their friend’s tragic losses.

Have you ever met people like that? They’ll tell you just why your loved one got cancer, just why your neighbor next door died, just what caused you to have the accident you went through. They will disclose to you exactly what God had in mind when He allowed some devastating thing to come into your life.

If you’re the one suffering, all of that can be a weariness and a vexation. You listen to it and your blood begins to boil. How in the world can this person pretend to know all this? Who made him or her an expert interpreter of providence, God’s appointed mind-reader? You’re ready to say, as Job did, with heavy irony, “No doubt you are intelligent people and when you die, wisdom will perish!” (see Job 12:2).

How much better it would have been had they stood with Job in his confusion and distress, acknowledging that they had no answers, not even a clue about the reason for all these catastrophes. That honest humility and solidarity with him would have been a significant comfort.

I can wish as I look back on my ministry that I hadn’t pretended at times to know more than I did, that I wasn’t more willing to say from time to time, “I don’t know.” I think I would have been more helpful to other people that way.

BLAMING TOO MUCH

Now for the worst part. These would-be comforters not only talked too much and knew too much, but they kept telling Job it was all his fault. Imagine it! This was the most heartless part of all: they blamed too much.

Their theory was this: there is always an exact retribution in this world. Do well and you will prosper. Do evil and you will suffer. There’s obviously truth in that, for which these three men could have given you chapter and verse. But it isn’t the only principle in God’s dealing with people. Otherwise, there could be no good news for sinners. And this life, we learn, doesn’t see all the books balanced, anyway. That’s why there are so many mysteries. That’s why there’s a final judgment day coming.

The three friends, however, thought that their theory explained everything. So, if you experienced prosperity and blessing, there had to be virtue behind it. If you went through suffering and misery, some evil in your life must have caused it all. And since Job had obviously suffered more than anyone, he had to be, in their eyes, the very worst of sinners. Now mind you, they didn’t have any real evidence that he had done wrong. It was simply a deduction they drew from the miseries that had crushed him.

As you can imagine, this cut Job to the heart. Think of hearing your friends say things like this: “Has any innocent person ever perished? God will not spurn the blameless man.” They told Job that he had no fear of God. Zophar, the worst of the three, had the gall to say to Job, “God exacts from you less than your sins deserve” (Job 11:6). And friend Eliphaz could say, “Your wickedness is so great, your depravity surpasses all bounds” (see Job 22:5). Some comfort, huh?

It’s hard to conceive of anything more painful for persons in deep grief than to be told that they are responsible for it, that they have brought it on themselves. Think of those who suffer with terrible afflictions being told that these would all go away if they, the victims, simply had more faith. And so, to the already terrible weight of sorrow and suffering is added the burden of guilt.

Friends, let’s never do that. Troubled people need our acceptance, not our blame. These three friends did not speak rightly of God and neither do we when we follow their bad example.

PROTESTING TOO MUCH

One more thing about them. They protested too much. Job said some rash things. In the heat of bitterness, he made reckless charges against God. He gave way at times to despair. He complained, raged and screamed in pain. These friends always felt they had to straighten him out then, to scold and correct him.

I know how they felt. The second great heartbreak in our lives as a family after Billy’s illness and his death eighteen years later was what happened then to our second son, Dave. When Billy died, Dave seemed to go to pieces, mentally and emotionally.

Apparently, he, unbeknownst to us, had been afraid for years that he as a five-year-old had somehow caused his big brother’s illness. Billy’s sudden death at 24 brought all those feelings up in a storm. Dave began to hear voices, ran away and was lost for days. Then followed repeated hospitalizations. He went through great inner torment, and we suffered along with him. Physical handicaps are difficult to contend with. Mental illness in a loved one causes even more excruciating pain. It tears at the heart of a family.

As Dave was recovering, he would often express his anguish and anger at what had happened to him. He would rage against God and against us and express the bitterest despair. How hard that was for us to hear!

My tendency has always been to try to cheer people up, to make everything okay. When we’re dealing with the deeply troubled, that simply doesn’t work. Our superficial efforts to talk them out of their misery are felt as an insult. When Dave would say something against God or against the Christian faith, something in me had to protest, to leap to the defense, like these friends did. But that didn’t help Dave at all. He became more angry or depressed, more frenzied, more extreme. Gradually I learned to let him get it all out, to listen, to wait. Strangely and wonderfully, that seemed to help. I got out of the way. It began to dawn on me that I didn’t need to defend God and righteousness every time my son had some pained outburst. When I let him ventilate, he calmed down. And as time went on, the wounds began to heal and Dave got better. I wish you could see what a warm and devout Christian he is today. When I stopped protesting too much, he began to find comfort.

REAL COMFORT

The greatest word I know about comfort is this one:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. [2 Cor. 1:3-4]

Do you see that beautiful cycle? We suffer as Christians and find comfort from the Lord in our trials. Then we’re ready to pass it on to others. And when that happens, we usually don’t talk a lot or explain a lot or blame or protest. We simply share what we’ve been given.

Let me tell you what happened the day Billy died. It was sudden. I went to wake him up, to go to his job at a sheltered workshop, but he had just died. We called the emergency unit and a young friend worked over Billy tenderly, but there was no heartbeat left.

Friends came by, some to pray, some to weep, some to hug and sit by us. One friend went in our kitchen and made us an omelet. Two others put through phone calls for us. It was beautiful. A lot of these people had suffered also.

During Dave’s illness later, it was hard to find anyone to talk to about it. Many find mental illness somewhat threatening. They withdraw. But one dear couple invited us to their home for a whole evening, just listening to our pain, feeling with us. What rich comfort they gave us!

One more thing. Do you know what’s happened to Dave? He’s become a kind of wounded healer. He’s the facilitator now in a group of people recovering, as he is, from mental illness. He has them over to his house. He’s like a pastor to them. He’s passing on the comfort he found. He listens to them, bears with them, loves them.

I’d like to be able to learn from the mistakes of Job’s three friends and from my own, to learn from the example of my friends and Dave, so as to be a better comforter for those who suffer greatly. I’d like to learn from the Lord His gracious comfort, tasting it and passing it on. What about you? Let’s pray for help to do that.