They started out so well.
Job’s friends (Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar– henceforth collectively referred to as ZEB) heard about the unspeakable tragedy that Job had suffered and their first response was to get to their friend. They dropped everything, most likely at great personal cost– Job’s story was, after all, set in an agrarian context in which if you didn’t work you most likely didn’t eat– and
They sat down on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights with no one speaking a word to him, for they saw that his pain was very great. -Job 2:13
Then they opened their mouths and things went downhill. Much of the remainder of the book of Job gives us a glimpse at what happens when well meaning friends attempt to force their understanding of why God permits someone to suffer on said sufferer.
Spoiler alert: it doesn’t go well.
Interestingly, ZEB’s theological formulations all appear very orthodox. They don’t seem to say anything that we would construe as false. Conversely, Job’s whining and insistence on having an audience with God so that he can be declared innocent seems presumptuous and somewhat prideful. Yet when God finally does speak it is Job who is vindicated and ZEB that are condemned:
the Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite: “My anger burns against you and your two friends, for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” -Job 42:7
God condemned ZEB’s arguments and answered Job while also not answering Job. Nowhere in God’s response to Job does God offer up any reason why Job was permitted to suffer to the extent that he did even though his innocence was affirmed. God’s response to Job is essentially summed up in the question, “Who do you think you are?” a very unsatisfying response for those of us on the edge of our seat waiting for a glimpse into God’s motivations for allowing Job, and in a sense ourselves, to suffer at all.
While we sometimes find ourselves in the position of Job in that we personally encounter suffering, more often we find ourselves in the position of Job’s friends in that someone we know and care about is enduring some form of evil. Just in the last 6 months I have friends who have dealt with the death of a 5 year old to cancer, the sexual abuse of a teenager by a trusted authority figure, and the depths of clinical depression.
I have students regularly come to me to inform me of a tragedy a friend or classmate is experiencing. More often than not they come around to some form of the statement, “And I just don’t know what to say.” My advice is the same: don’t.
If ZEB can teach us anything positive it’s that, when their friend experienced a crushing, personal blow they came, sat, and let him feel his pain. When they opened their mouths is when they got into trouble.
When someone you know experiences acute pain the last thing he/she wants is for you to justify God for allowing them to experience it. Personally, when I have experienced my most painful moments, the folks who attempt to rationalize God’s sovereignty over my circumstances and purposes in my pain are the people that I avoid at best and desire to punch at worst. I’ve observed similar feelings in close friends who have endured suffering as well.
So how do you respond to someone in the dregs of suffering and evil? Here are 4 tips:
- Listen– You’ve heard the old maxim, “God gave you two ears and one mouth for a reason.” Applying this insight when dealing with suffering is incredibly wise.
- Be gracious– The sufferer is probably going to say some pretty awful things about life, God, and the possibility of knowing anything at all. Allow them to while not saying anything. God can handle our expressions of pain even when they are voiced as complaints about His goodness, plans, or grace.
- Empathize– Don’t compare! Empathy, re: “That must be really difficult/painful,” is different than “I know what you’re going through.” In the midst of suffering, people rarely care if you’ve experienced something similar. They want an acknowledgement of their present reality, not a comparison of trial.
- Be long-suffering– Be content with the fact that you will, most likely, not bring someone all the way from being hurt by their present circumstance to gaining perspective in one conversation. This is a psychological process that several stages and takes time. Be ok with that.