The book of Job in the Old Testament is the story of a man who lost almost everything – his children, his house, his possessions and his health. Early in the book, we read about three friends who came to support him. If you re-imagine the scene, it could be a small cell group, or a spiritual direction group or our pastors’ weekly meeting. Any one of us might be Job at a given time, and any one of us might be one of his friends struggling to help – and failing.
Before we get to the failing, notice what the friends did right. They were intentional. They went to some effort just to show up. They managed to sit with Job for seven days and seven nights, without saying a word (Job 2:13). Some commentators say they were just respectfully “sitting shiva” in mourning for Job’s loss. Others see those silent days as an amazing act of restraint that most of us would have interrupted in some way, like, “I know I shouldn’t be talking, but let me just say…” Regardless, these are good friends coming alongside their friend in his distress.
Eliphaz: “Listen. Here is what I think”
Eliphaz was the first friend who spoke after the seven days. “If one ventures a word with you,” he said to Job, “will you be offended? / But who can keep from speaking?” He apparently had been given enough time to think and could no longer contain himself. He goes on to “comfort” Job with his observations, which he is sure will relieve his suffering.
- As I have seen… (Job 4:8)
- Now a word came…to me…(Job 4:12)
- I have seen…(Job 5:3)
- As for me, I would…(Job 5:8)
He capped it off with “See, we have searched this out, it is true / Hear, and know it for yourself” (Job 5:27). In other words, “Here is our message. Apply what we think to your situation.” Sounds a bit like a sermon, both formal and informal.
Last week I had a reason to talk to almost all our staff in the course of a few hours about a particular project I was concerned about. Maybe I was not looking like I was sitting on a dung-heap enough, but almost everyone spoke from their own experience to solve my problem and a couple actually argued about what I said before they even understood where I was coming from. There was much truth in what they told me, but their comments didn’t always speak to where I was at the time. It was an educational couple of hours, since I am often unrestrained myself, when among my intimates, and offer my perspective on someone else’s experience before it is asked or required. Listening long enough to respond well is quite an art form!
Bildad: “What did you do to deserve this?”
It is possible that Bildad blew any chance he had to be helpful as soon as he opened his mouth. “How long will you say such things? / Your words are a blustering wind” (Job 8:2). It is never great to be blamed for your problems. Bildad was sure that if Job shaped up, God would relent and reward him: “If you are pure and upright, / surely then [God] will rouse himself for you / and restore your rightful place” (Job 8:6).
Most of us probably don’t come right out and say such things, but it wouldn’t be surprising if we looked over someone’s sufferings and counted the many ways they are to blame for them. If only they hadn’t done something or would get busy and do something else, all would be well. We’re all set up for such a reaction, since most of us feel totally responsible to avoid pain and have all sorts of strategies to do just that. We apply our strategies, no matter what they cost us!
If we hope to actually listen to someone, we need to start with compassion, not judgment (and that includes listening to our own inner dialogue!). We must acknowledge both the pain and mystery of human suffering. And we must support people as they seek to believe there is some grace in the midst of their trouble. “My grace,” God said, ‘is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). It is so hard for anyone to hear that, we may need to sit a long time with them. We certainly don’t want to derail the process with condemnation – exercising ours or solidifying theirs.
In a group session I recall, a man was particularly angry and some members were becoming tired of him lashing out. He even criticized them for being uncaring while they were, in fact, caring for him at that very moment! He eventually talked about the disrespect he felt. He talked long enough to discover that he had always carried this feeling and it came from a deep, family-rooted place. His problems were not solved that day, but they were not heightened by getting blamed back when he blamed. He had friends who would listen.
Zophar: “Cheer up, I can tell you what God wants”
Job’s third friend continues on the track laid out by the others. He pontificates on the mysteries of God and then says if Job devotes himself to God he will soon forget his troubles: “Your life will be brighter than noonday; / its darkness will be like the morning” (Job 11:17). In other words, “I know what God is thinking, and I predict that if you think like me, things will improve.”
A long time ago, a great number of Christians gave up following Jesus for getting Christianity right. Part of the “rightness” was to never suffer, since, the logic goes, if you are suffering, you must not be right, or right with God. When I lived in the homeland of such “entire sanctification” thinking, I would greet my bishop with “How are you today?” And he would invariably say, “I’m on top of the world.” Now that I am as old as he was then, I find that even harder to believe, since he must have at least awakened with a few aches and pains. But he was living a Zophar life, denying his troubles and presenting a faithful life brighter than noonday.
Once we were in a meeting together and I did not resist questioning this theology, since I could not get Jesus, the Suffering Servant, out of my mind. One fellow pastor was quite upset at my lack of orthodoxy. As I kept arguing my point (probably not too gently) he got angrier and louder. I finally said, “You are angry, aren’t you?” He got my point, but I did not get his friendship. Arguing someone out of their spiritual bypass rarely works. Like God, we need to stick with them in their suffering, supporting the, and perhaps finding a way to challenge them, until they get over their impossible task of being on top of the world.
Job finally got fed up with his friends. “All of you are worthless physicians. / If you would only keep silent, / that would be your wisdom!” (Job 13:5) In chapter 21 he says, “Listen carefully to my words; / let this be the consolation you give me.”
Don’t we all feel like this quite often? We will ask when we need answers. Most of us will ask when we want help. But before we get to either of those places, we mostly want someone to listen to us. Being heard, even more, understood, is like a balm for our wounds. Listening breeds trust and intimacy.
When I first moved to Philadelphia, I had a spiritual director who was not quite my father’s age, but he was old enough to feel parental. He listened to a lot of my father issues. I can still remember the few times he offered some advice on how I could address them. But I was never ready to take his advice and it would not have been good to do so; I knew that. But mostly he listened; even more, he was just there as a fatherly figure who cared about me. His listening presence was what I really needed.
“Just listen! When you’re tired of listening, listen deeper.” At least that is what I need to keep telling myself. I make the mistakes of all of Job’s friends, even when I feel like Job himself! We all have a lot to learn about grace, and how the silent attentiveness of God is the basis of most of the healing we need. God is best known in love, the words can come later.