Sometimes, it just happens that we say the wrong thing at the wrong time. I once officiated a funeral for a really unique, funny lady. In the course of my remarks I said she was quite a character, which was true, and everyone knew she was. But then, without meaning to, I blurted out she was a real character, and in this family that’s really saying something. I don’t know why I said that, but I’ve always been grateful that the family laughed and agreed with me!
Sometimes we say the wrong thing because we’ve turned off the filter in our brain, sometimes we say the wrong thing because we don’t know better, but sometimes we just inexplicably say the wrong thing. And sometimes when we say the wrong thing it doesn’t matter, and it can even be funny. But at other times, saying the wrong thing can be very hurtful to others.
As we continue our study of the book of Job – Real Life, Real Faith – this week we consider Being A Friend to Those Who Suffer. Last week we began our study on Job by examining the first twelve verses of the book. In that brief section Job’s life turns from blessed to tragic. Mos of the remainder of the book consists of the conversation between Job and his three friends – Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. Reading through the book of Job we find these three men were not very compassionate friends, and not only were they lacking in compassion, they were accusatory to Job, so much so that it might be better to change their names to Larry, Curly, and Moe.
Job’s friends come to him, I assume, with the intent to comfort him, but they are anything but helpful. In chapter after chapter we follow the story like a debate – one by one, each of the friends brings an accusation to Job and then Job responds. This pattern continues for three cycles and after reading through the entire conversation it’s easy to think that what Job really needed was some new friends.
There’s nothing like having friends, is there? Friends are wonderful. Who doesn’t want a lot of friends? But sometimes, as friends, we don’t know what to say or what to do when someone is struggling. I attended a funeral visitation the other day for someone who had lost two members of his family. I kept thinking what am I going to say? What do you say? I’m sorry for your loss? I’m thinking of you and praying for you. And then what? Then it can get awkward, and we struggle for something to say and that’s the moment when we can say the wrong thing.
This morning I have two words of advice to offer, based on Job’s experience with his three friends.
1. Learn to listen.
One of the things I don’t like about modern communication is that it allows us to believe we can multitask while communicating. A lot of people have video on their phones but never use it to talk to others. You probably have Skype of FaceTime installed on your phones. You probably don’t use, and do you know why? Because you don’t want the other person to know what they you’re doing while on the phone. We don’t actively listen. We’re paying bills or watching TV or cleaning the house or doing any number of other things. Isn’t that true? You know that it is. And while we’re not paying attention we suddenly notice the other person has grown quiet and it occurs to us that we are supposed to respond. Except you don’t know how to respond because you weren’t listening. Did they ask a question or simply finish a sentence and are awaiting our reply. So we drop our phone, pick it up and say I’m sorry, I dropped my phone. What did you say? So not only are we poor listeners but now we struggle with being honest!
In this loud, busy world, where everyone is moving so quickly, do you ever want to throw up your hands and shout listen to me!
One of the failures of Job’s friends was that they weren’t really listening to him. They were so busy listening to themselves and tossing accusations at Job that they could not – or would not – hear what Job had to say about his innocence. There is a time to talk to a person who is suffering and there is a time to be still and listen. I’m always surprised at how often, when people come to talk to me, they say wow, I feel so much better. Thanks for the help. And I haven’t said anything!
People need to be heard. I was riding with someone years ago and he told me about seeing a counselor, and the counselor was charging $125 an hour. This was in the early 80s, so that was a lot of money to pay a counselor. I remarked that I hope you’re getting some really good advice for that kind of money, and he said oh, she doesn’t say anything. I’m willing to pay that much money just to have someone who will listen to me.
The bottom line is that Job’s friends did far too much talking. Instead of debating with Job they should have been quiet and listened to him. Their words were certainly not helpful to Job, but a kind and compassionate ear would have been of great help to him.
2. Don’t be judgmental.
Job’s friends made some assumptions about Job. They assumed he had done something wrong. Surely no one would suffer unless they had committed some grave offense against God. But Job protests that he is innocent and has done nothing against God. His friends, though, will have nothing of it, and continue to push Job to admit to his offenses.
At first, Job’s friends are somewhat gentle in their accusations, but as Job continues to protest his innocence they grow more accusatory and sharper in what they have to say, claiming he is too prideful and even saying that God had punished him more lightly than he deserved – now there’s an encouraging word from a supposed friend!
Eliphaz says in 4:7-8, Consider now: Who being innocent, has ever perished? Where were the upright ever destroyed? As I have observed, those who plow evil and those who sow trouble reap it. Eliphaz then gets very personal in 22:4-11, providing a list of things he believes Job has done to earn his own punishment –
4 Is it for your piety that he rebukes you and brings charges against you?
5 Is not your wickedness great? Are not your sins endless?
6 You demanded security from your brothers for no reason; you stripped men of their clothing, leaving them naked.
7 You gave no water to the weary and you withheld food from the hungry,
8 though you were a powerful man, owning land – an honored man, living on it.
9 And you sent widows away empty-handed and broke the strength of the fatherless.
10 That is why snares are all around you, why sudden peril terrifies you,
11 why it is so dark you cannot see, and why a flood of water covers you.
There are certainly times when we say the wrong thing, but Job’s friends didn’t misspeak. They didn’t stumble on their words. Job’s friends actually rub salt into his wounds by blaming him for his condition. Job’s friends instinctively responded to his suffering by blaming him for his situation. In accordance with the theology of the time they believed in a system of rewards and punishments – if a person was righteous, God rewarded him with a blessed life; if he was sinful, he was punished according to the severity of his deeds. Because Job was suffering in such a severe manner, the conclusion of Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar was that Job must have committed a very grievous sin.
But Job had done nothing wrong. He continues through the entire book to protest his innocence, and he is disappointed by the accusations of his friends. And, in an especially tragic turn, Job’s friends eventually make up stuff in order to accuse him more severely. There is a good deal of sadness in reading through the story of Job and listening to the accusations against this good man. He was suffering through no fault of his own, and when he needed the love and support of his friends he instead received condemnation and judgment.
It is important to remember that sometimes people do suffer because of their own actions, but not always. In this world in which we live there are plenty of reasons why people suffer, and sometimes they do suffer because of their actions. But there are plenty of times when people suffer through no fault of their own. The deck is stacked against a lot of people. If you are a person without many resources in this world your life is going to be difficult, not because you have done anything wrong but because our world favors people who have the blessing of resources.
Job challenges the idea of reward and punishment (which is an idea that still resonates today, unfortunately. If you are my age or older, you probably adhere to the old saying that people should just pull themselves up by their bootstraps. That was more possible in generations past. It was more likely that when one played by the rules – got a good education and worked hard – that life would go well for them. But that’s not nearly as true today. Our children and grandchildren are living in a very different world, and they will struggle in ways in which we did not, and we cannot blame them for the difficulties imposed upon them by this rapidly changing world). Just like Job’s friends, it is easy for us to blame someone’s suffering on their own actions, when they may be innocent and suffering unjustly. Compassion dictates that we use our ears more than our mouths, listening to what a hurting person has to say, knowing when to speak and when to hold our tongue.
I will say that Job’s friends did one thing right – they allowed Job the opportunity to vent his feelings. They didn’t listen to what he had to say, but they gave him the chance to speak. Allow people the opportunity to vent their feelings and emotions when they are hurting. It isn’t going to hurt God, but it may hurt them if they don’t express themselves. The Bible – especially the Old Testament – is remarkably open in presenting the challenges that people bring to God. It’s hard to imagine that the creator and God of this vast universe would be challenged or upset by something you or I would have to say.
Being compassionate to those who are suffering is one of our greatest, and most difficult callings.
One of my minister friends tells the story of visiting with one of the other ministers in the area of where we served together. The other minister had a very advanced case of cancer and his chance for survival was almost nonexistent. My friend offered to pray for him, and as he did, he gave one of those prayers where you feel hesitant to pray for healing. Do you know those kinds of prayers? You’re hesitant to pray for healing because you know it probably isn’t going to happen. Be careful of those kinds of prayers. I visited years ago with a man who was also suffering from cancer. The doctors had determined it was terminal and that he did not have much time left. No one had yet told him, but on the day I visited with him he told me he knew he was dying and that he didn’t have much time left. He said, do you know how I knew? No one has told me, but I know because people pray for me differently. They don’t ask for healing any longer; they ask for me to have strength and peace. You don’t pray that way for someone who is going to live. That’s the kind of prayer my friend offered. When he finished, the other minister was quite upset with him, and said if you can’t pray for my healing then I don’t want your prayers!
To be fair to ourselves, even though we know God always has the power to heal, healing doesn’t always come, at least not in this life. I believe in healing. The good news is that God always brings healing. The bad news is that healing doesn’t always come in this life, but it does come. That is part of the blessing of eternity – healing of all our ills, whether physical, emotional, or spiritual, is granted to us. But even if healing doesn’t come in this life, we can still be bold in our prayers, and it’s not offering false hope to do so.
But how we pray can be greatly informed by how well we listen to another person. Listen with not just your ears, but with your heart as well. And as you listen, don’t make judgments, but offer your love and compassion.