Beyond Good Intentions
When we consider how to approach those who are struggling, I believe most of us would agree that our disposition is of utmost importance. How many of us can look back with regret on a conversation we've had with someone grieving a lost loved one, bemoaning a challenging circumstance at work or home, or even struggling with a besetting sin and see where we were short, quick to speak and slow to listen, or simply uninterested in the person's suffering at the time? I believe we understand that loving a sufferer necessitates genuinely caring about his or her heartfelt struggle in times of difficulty. But is that enough?
Care expressed in kindness, gentleness, and genuine concern are all necessary qualities for truly ministering to someone in a time of suffering, but they are also insufficient. This reality is seen poignantly with the account of the life of Job. As many of us know, Job suffered immensely through a string of severe trials that God ordained in order to test his faith. And many of us are also aware that initially the only "comfort" Job received from his suffering came from three of his less-than-helpful friends. But what I want to consider is how Job's friends were unhelpful. What was it about their counsel to Job that ultimately served to increase, and not decrease, Job's misery?
If you're like me, at one point or another you may have concluded that the main problem with the counsel of Job's friends was their self-righteous approach towards Job, which led them to quickly conclude that Job's suffering was proportionate to the severity of his sins. I think many of us have a picture of Job's friends approaching him with a harsh predetermined agenda that sought to bring sharp rebuke in order to lead Job to repentance. And although there seems to be some element of truth to this, I think we can easily miss some important truths if we don't pay attention to the Bible's account.
In Job 2:11-13, the author of Job says this: "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 to come to show him sympathy and comfort him. And when they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him. And they raised their voices and wept, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their head 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" (emphasis added).
Contrary to how I've viewed Job's friends in the past, this passage describes these men as loyal, caring, compassionate, and sacrificially devoted to Job. For instance, it's been too easy for me to overlook the significance in the fact that they all travelled to meet with Job. Granted we don't know for sure the setting of Job, but in those days (likely around the time of the Old Testament patriarchs) traveling any distance was harsh. Frankly, whatever it looked like for them surely it costed them more than even our most lengthy phone conversation or well-crafted Facebook message.
Additionally, we read that each of Job's friends arranged to meet with Job to "show him sympathy and comfort him." The author here does not portray Job's friends as huddling together to come up with a strategy on how to convince Job of his guilt. No, at this point they seemed to be motivated by a genuine concern for Job's well-being. Which is why they could weep for Job. Yes, they wept for Job. I don't know about you, but I don't tend to weep for those who I feel self-righteously superior to, or those who I believe "had it coming." I weep and tear my clothes (figuratively) for those whom I genuinely care about, just as Job's friends did for him.
And lastly, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar do not seem to have been quick to speak, at least in comparison with our relational standards. At Redeemer Church, we aim to follow a relational pattern set forth by Paul Tripp in Instruments in the Redeemer's Hands where one seeks to display genuine love and understanding towards a person before ever opening his or her our mouth to speak. We call it "sitting with the sufferer." Job's friends sat silent with Job in his misery for seven days. I celebrate when we can do this at a community group meeting for seven minutes. It seems that the picture the author of Job is painting of Job's friends' initial approach towards Job is not the self-righteous, impatient, uncaring approach that I once thought.
But with this in mind, many of us know that in the end these three men received God's rebuke for their interaction with Job. Why? According to Job 42:7, "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" (emphasis added). The very stern indictment against Job's friends is that they did not communicate to Job truth about God. Their counsel was unhelpful (to say the least) not because they didn't approach Job with genuine care, but because they presumptuously communicated to Job that which was not true about God. Simply put, their good intentions and seemingly authentic kindness were not enough to help Job. What Job really needed was truth.
And what all of us ultimately need in our times of great distress is rock-solid, unwavering, transcendent truth about the living God. Don't get me wrong. I believe our approach to people who are suffering is of utmost importance. There are clear biblical injunctions about how we relate with one another, and we must take these very seriously (see Eph. 4:32). But what suffering people ultimately need is an assurance of the sovereign goodness of God in and through their trial. Let this serve as an admonition for us. We can (and should) approach one another with all of the sincere and genuine kindness and care that we can muster, but in the end our counsel will only be as helpful as our understanding and proclamation of God's character is. So let us seek to know God more in order that we may truly help those who are suffering.