Job’s friends often receive bad press. When we hear the term it conjures up a picture of well meaning people who in their desire to help actually cause more hurt.
To their credit, Job’s friends sat with him for seven days before venturing to speak (Job 2:13). And their motives were pure. They wanted “to go and condole with (Job) and comfort him” (REB). Nevertheless, they did end up doing more harm than good to a man already undergoing horrendous suffering. In response to their well meaning advice, Job would say: “How long will you grieve me and crush me with words? You have insulted me now a dozen times and shamelessly wronged me.”(Job 19:1-3)
What happened? Just this. Job’s friends were absolutely sure they knew what was Job’s problems. And therefore they were absolutely sure what was the solution. Their reasoning probably went like this: “God had made it clear that if we disobey Him we would suffer calamity. Job was undergoing calamity. Therefore Job had disobeyed God. To help Job they had to help Job see the error of his ways. If only Job would confess his sins things might be ok again.”
There was only one thing wrong with their logic. It assumed that all human tragedy was a direct consequence of sin. Indeed, sin against a holy God would bring down divine punishment. But it does not then follow that all suffering is directly caused by sin. Indeed the scriptures tell us that Job was “a man of blameless and upright life…who feared God and set his face against wrongdoing” (Job 1:1). Job’s friends got it wrong. As a result their attempts to help Job actually added to his pain.
What can we learn from all this? Firstly, we should commend Job’s friends for their compassion and their commitment to help their hurting friend. There are so many hurting people around us. Whatever we learn from Job’s friends, it is not that we should stop helping hurting people in case we fumble and do more harm than good.
However, Job’s friends do teach us one vital lesson in helping: that we should not be too quick to assume we understand a person’s problems. People are complex. Life in a fallen world is complex. Many problems have multiple causes. Or causes that lie below the obvious.
Helpers must be sensitive. Helpers must be patient. Helpers must take the time to try to understand what is actually happening. Helpers must be “quick to listen, slow to speak.” And there will be times when we will not know why a person is hurting. And so we can give no advice. All we can do is “weep with those who weep.”
There is so much pain and brokenness all around us. The choice is not between hiding our heads in the sand, or, assuming the role of all-knowing rescuers. Rather, the call is for us to embrace the painful reality that we are all broken people waiting for the eschaton. And in humble compassion be living reminders to each other of the presence of the Living God, who knows all, and who will deliver, in His perfect time, in His perfect way