Job 2-23: How NOT to Respond to Suffering

Proper 23B/Ordinary 28B/Pentecost 20
October 14, 2012

Job 23: 1-17

Psalm 22: 1-15

Mark 10:7-31

A woman grieving from a miscarriage recently posted on a public forum:

I am so tired of unhelpful advice from well-meaning people in my life.  I am tired of hearing I need to count my blessings, or trust in God, or know things happen for a reason.  All so trite, and all so not applicable to the grieving process.   If someone’s live child had just died, it would be completely acceptable for them to collapse for months.  But a not-born child?  Nope.  Just get up and go to work the next day, make fun plans with your friends, and don’t forget your volunteer work and club meetings.  Paste on that smile and act as if it was nothing to you because it is uncomfortable for other people to acknowledge.

We’d all like to think that we would do things differently – our advice would be helpful!  But when people are grieving a great loss and we open our mouths thinking we’re going to help … things can go south in a hurry.

Job’s “Comforters” from “The Book of Job” by William Blake

The Book of Job understands this compulsion to give unhelpful advice all too well.  A large portion of the book is a lengthy, repetitive dialogue between Job – who has lost his entire family and flocks, and has been smitten with loathsome boils from head to toe – and three of his friends, known in the literature as the “false comforters”.  The “comforters” start out on the right foot, demonstrating compassion in its most literal sense (to “suffer with”): “… they did not recognize him, and they raised their voices and wept aloud; they tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their heads.  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” (Job 2:12-13).  As long as they grieve with Job in silence, all is well.

But then they have to open their mouths, and things go south in a hurry … for the next 21 chapters.  Here are some of the (cough) gems of comfort that the false comforters come up with:

Eliphaz the Temanite: “How happy is the one whom God reproves; therefore do not despise the discipline of the Almighty.” (Job 5:17)

Bildad the Shuhite: “Does God pervert justice? Or does the Almighty pervert the right?  If your children sinned against Him, He delivered them into the power of their transgression.” (8:3-4)

Zophar the Naamathite: “If you direct your heart rightly, you will stretch out your hands toward him … You will forget your misery; you will remember it as waters that have passed away.” (11:13, 16)

Finally, by the 23rd chapter (today’s reading), Job wishes that he could bring his argument directly to YHWH: “Oh, that I knew where I might find Him, that I might come even to His dwelling!  I would lay my case before Him, and fill my mouth with arguments.  I would learn what He would answer me, and understand what He would say to me” (23:3-5).  Job’s confidence in YHWH’s impartiality as judge of Job’s complaints is reminiscent of other Biblical instances where the ancient Hebrews are depicted as “Kvetching in Faith” to the Almighty.  In fact, the expression “the patience of Job” is a misnomer – Job is certainly not patient!  He gives the false comforters and YHWH an earful for 21 chapters!

So where does this leave us?  We like to believe that we would have more tact than the false comforters, but when have we not heard (or even said) some of these gems:

“It must be God’s will” (God must be a real bastard … )

“God just needed another angel.”  (And there was no other way for God to get one?)

“You know that when God closes a door, He opens a window” (Why?  So I can jump out of it?)

“Have you tried _____?” (I want to be listened to, not fixed, thank you.)

They are all well-meaning, but they serve more to bolster the false comforter’s idea of faith than they do to actually comfort someone in the teeth of horrible suffering.  Here are some alternate approaches to comfort the suffering:

A silent but loving presence.

“How can I help?”

“I’m right here”

“I’m not going anywhere”

Then, just let the sufferer do the talking.  Do not try to explain.  Do not try to fix.  Just be there and have faith that God is moving with this person through his or her suffering.  Now, of course, if the person voices an actual intent/plan to harm him or herself, he or she should be urged to call a professional or hospital and get help.  But short of that, silence is a remarkably healing tool.  Just your presence works wonders.  Use it.

One thought on “Job 2-23: How NOT to Respond to Suffering

  1. Pingback: The Trinity (a Satire) | Under the Rose

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