You probably know about Job, a godly man who lived in the age of the patriarchs. Job was hit by an avalanche of sudden, tragic losses: his flocks and herds, his servants, his children, his health (Job 1-2). In the blink of an eye, this once-prosperous man was reduced to sitting in the ashes in pain and grief.
Do you know about Job’s three friends? Their names were Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. They heard about Job’s calamity and came to visit him (Job 2:11). Most of the book of Job is focused on their interactions with him—and those interactions can be instructive for us. As we try to “bear one another’s burdens, and thus fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2), as we try to help people in our own lives who are suffering, we can profit from thinking about what Job’s friends did.
What They Did Right
We don’t know exactly how far they traveled or how long it took, but Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar put their lives on hold, left their homes, and went to the aid of their hurting friend. Upon arriving, they were overwhelmed by Job’s pitiful appearance, and they mourned and wept with him. They were so affected by his misery that for a week they sat with him in silence. But they were there.
When someone you know is suffering, you may feel uneasy and uncertain about what to do. Let me offer a simple suggestion: be there for them. Do what Job’s friends did and go spend some time with that person, even if it’s just for a few moments.
“But I don’t know what to say.” Well, there have been times when I didn’t know what to say, either. Sometimes about the only thing I knew to do was to sit down and cry with the person. But even if we don’t have just the right words to ease someone’s pain, we can still be there. In truth, that may be what they need most. We can offer support, even if that only means a shoulder to cry on.
People who have been through a major crisis may remember little of what people said to them in that time. But they usually remember who was there to offer help. (And even if the person doesn’t remember, does that make your presence or actions any less important?) “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity” (Proverbs 17:17).
What They Did Wrong
Job and his friends finally broke their silence. In the conversations that make up most of the book, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar all put on their “fix-it” hats and took turns advising Job. Each one believed that he could explain Job’s problems and offer the solution. And, while each man made different observations, all three reached pretty much the same conclusion: since Job was suffering greatly, he must have sinned greatly. “Who ever perished being innocent? Or where were the upright destroyed?” (4:7). They urged Job to repent, even guessing at what sins he must have committed (see 11:13-19; 22:5-11).
Job’s friends had good intentions. They thought they were offering wise counsel. They were sure they knew all about God’s dealings with men in general and Job’s situation in particular. But they were wrong. They spoke ignorantly—a fact that God Himself soon made clear (see 42:7-8). And so, instead of helping their friend, their misguided pronouncements only added to his frustration. “You are all miserable comforters,” Job told them. “Is there no end to your empty words?…If you were in my place I could also talk like you. I could string words together against you and shake my head at you” (Job 16:2-4, HCSB).
Could we sometimes be “miserable comforters,” too? When someone hurts, we want so badly to help. We want to offer them explanations, solutions, relief. The problem is that there may be little we can offer. Yet sometimes we still grasp for something to say, and we end up speaking words that are as ignorant and unhelpful as those of Job’s friends.
Some of the most reckless remarks I’ve ever heard came from well-meaning souls who were trying to comfort someone in pain. I’ve heard funeral speakers try to ease the heartache by “preaching into heaven” someone who had lived in open and unrepentant sin. I’ve heard others just make things up (e.g., one insisted that a girl killed in a car accident never felt any pain because God “took her spirit” before the impact). Sometimes folks will try to plumb the depths of why some terrible thing has happened in a person’s life. Often somebody will say, “You know, everything happens for a reason”—ignoring that the reason may be nothing more than the “time and chance” that happen to all (Ecclesiastes 9:11-12), or that it may be as inexplicable to us as Job’s suffering was to him.
In short, in our efforts to soothe someone’s pain, we can jump into speculation instead of relying on God’s revelation—precisely the mistake of Job’s three friends. In doing so, we may actually make things worse. Be careful. And if you find that you have nothing useful to say, then don’t say it.
Job, of course, desperately wanted to know the reason behind the disasters in his life. God’s answer? He was infinitely greater than Job (as evidenced by the wonders and mysteries of the universe He created), therefore He was worthy of Job’s trust (chapters 38-41). And that was that. Job never got an explanation for his suffering. What he learned was that he didn’t need one. What he was going through and why were less important than Who could sustain him through it.
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1). “Cast all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7). When you and I talk with those who are hurting, we could hardly offer better counsel than that.