Part of Job’s suffering came from the way his friends sought to “comfort” him. Their words and attitude gave Job more grief than comfort. However, Job is in need of a godly reminder, which Elihu delivers, and God backs up. What lessons can we learn from Job’s friends about effective and ineffective responses to someone who is suffering?
1. Suffering Alongside a Friend
When Job’s three friends first hear of his suffering, they each come from their own place to mourn with and comfort him.
“Now when Job’s three friends heard of all the adversity that had come upon him, each one came from his own place – Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. For they had made an appointment together to come and mourn with him, and to comfort him. And when they raised their eyes from afar, and did not recognise him, they lifted their voices and wept; and each one tore his robe and sprinkled dust on his head toward heaven. So they sat down with him on the ground seven days and seven nights and no-one spoke a word to him, because they saw that his grief was very great.” – [Job 2:11-13]
It is interesting to look at where Job and his three friends came from. I’m not an expert in matching up the geography but I gathered the following things from a bit of reading.
- Job, in the land of Uz
- Uz was a descendent of Shem, the son of Abraham. The land of Uz is thought to be in Arabia of Petrae, part of the land of Edom. It was surrounded by Kedar, Teman and Midan.
- Eliphaz the Temanite
- He was a descendant of Teman, and this land was also part of Edom.
- Bildad the Shuhite
- Shuhite is derived from the name “Shuah”. Shuah was one was Abraham’s sons, born by Keturah. It is a Canaanite name meaning “depression”. It is not the same as “Shua”, another Biblical name which means “wealth”. Bildad, the Shuhite was thought to be from the South of Babylon, near the border of Arabia, neighboring Uz.
- Zophar the Naamathite
- Zephar is thought to have come from Naamah, though this was a common place-name. His origin is not agreed upon, but some people think he likely came from a town near the border of Judah and Edom.
Basically, the story of Job took place in Edom (a land usually mentioned in the context of their inhabitants being at war with God’s people, and one which has few blessings mentioned for it). Job’s friends were geographical neighbours. I find it quite interesting that the whole story of Job took place in Edom, a land I wouldn’t usually associate with God’s blessing or righteousness. I have found a couple of maps on the net which help visualise where Job and his friends may have come from.
Moving on from their homelands, what did Job’s friends initially do to comfort him? When Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar arrive and see Job from afar, they see that his suffering is great. In response to this, they lift up their voices, weep, each one tears his own robe, and they sprinkle dust upon themselves towards heaven. This was commonly done in the context of mourning – Mordecai and the Jews did this when they heard the plan to exterminate the Jews, Tamar did this after her brother raped her, the messenger who brought Eli news of his sons’ deaths did this, the Israelites did this when mourning for the dead, and Job’s friends do this as they mourn with him in suffering.
These symbols of mourning were an expression of sorrow, and of being humbled. It was also a reminder to come to God in such a time, though not everyone did this. Esther, Mordecai and the Jews, however, are an example of a people fasting, mourning and petitioning God in the middle of a crisis. It is not mentioned that Job’s friends intercede for him, but they certainly come alongside him in his suffering. They also sit with him on the ground for 7 days and 7 nights in silence. They sit with him as he endures his suffering and at this point, they offer no advice, and no solution. They are simply there with him.
Galatians 6:1-5 speaks about bearing one another’s burdens.
“Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks himself to be something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. But let each one examine his own work, and then he will have rejoicing in himself alone, and not in another. For each shall bear his own load.”
This passage offers a few pieces of advice on coming alongside someone in suffering:
- If the man has been overtaken by sin, he can be restored in a spirit of gentleness by another person. However, there are a few aspects to consider which we see Job’s friends neglect when they speak later on. (1) If a man is overtaken in trespass – implies being first being able to discern sin that is burdening another person. (2) The person to restore him must first be spiritual, meaning that they have invested themselves in intimate relationship with God. (3) This must be done in a spirit of gentleness, not with self-righteousness or presumption.
- We are called bear each other’s burdens but the focus is not on the other person. The focus is God first, and our own relationship with God. If we neglect this, how can we help anyone else. We also examine our own work, and do not become envious of others or Lord it over them. God will give to each as he deserves, and we should find rejoicing in our own journey with the Lord.
When we suffer with one another, it is with the attitude that we are of one body, and is it out of love for one another. When we see a neighbour in need, or a neighbour who is suffering, we can do the following.
- Come from where we are to where they are. In other words, see their situation, and understand their suffering.
- Mourn with them and lift up our voice in prayer with them.
- Do not presume to know the cause of their suffering. It is ok to be silent.
- Comfort them in God without accusation, focusing on gentle restoration and hope in God’s faithfulness.
In the next section, we will see how presumption and bad advice can be destructive instead of comforting.
2. Bad Advice? No Advice?
Throughout his discourses, Job gets more frustrated and angry with the advice he is given. His friends do not seem to be listening to him, or to God, and Job feels falsely accused, and struck down. The discussions result in his friends ceasing to answer Job since “he was righteous in his own eyes.” Elihu’s wrath is then ignited as God gives him vision to see how Job justified himself, rather than God, and Job’s three friends “had found no answer, and yet had condemned Job.” [Job 32:1-4] We can be quick to offer advice and re-tell our own testimonies of how to deal with certain situation. However, it is wise to wait and ask God about situations, as the wrong advice can be destructive and bear major consequences.
It is to Job’s integrity that he tests the advice given to him, and focuses not on the words of others, but on God’s word to him. Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar, however, received a little reminder that knowledge is not the same as knowing God. God says to Eliphaz – “My wrath is aroused against you and your two friends, for you have not spoken of Me what is right, as my servant Job has.” [Job 42:7] Here are some other passages from the Bible that remind us that we have a responsibility to our brothers in sisters in Christ.
- [Mark 9:42] – “But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea.”
- [1 Corinthians 8:9 -12] – “But beware lest somehow this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to those who are weak. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will not the conscience of him who is weak be emboldened to eat those things offered to idols? And because of your knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died? But when you thus sin against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ.”
- [Jeremiah 23:2] – “Therefore thus says the Lord of Israel against the shepherds who feed My people: ‘You have scattered My flock, driven them away, and not attended to them. Behold, I will attend to you for the evil of your doings,’ says the Lord.”
In bringing these passages to light, we know that God is merciful, and that even in our own stumbling He restores us. Yet these passages also show how strongly God feels about the way we support one another. We need to seek God first when we minister to one another, and to know His will for the situation.
While giving speaking the wrong thing can stumble someone, saying nothing at all can also stumble them. Consider Eli, whose sons did not walk in the ways of the Lord. He did not restrain them and so, not only did judgment fall on his wicked sons, but God also admonished Eli saying to Samuel, “For I have told him that I will judge his house forever for the iniquity which he knows; because his sons made themselves vile, and he did not restrain them.” [1Samuel 3:13]
How then should we advise each other?
Two Things to Understand:
- God wants us to support one another.
- “Two are better than one, Because they have a good reward for their labour, For if they fall, one will lift up his companion. But woe to him who is alone when he falls, For he has no one to help him up. Again, if two lie down together, they will keep warm; But how can one be warm alone? Though one may be overpowered by another, two can withstand him. And a threefold cord is not quickly broken.” [Ecclesiastes 4:9-12]
- God wants us to support one another IN HIM.
- “Therefore do not be unwise, but understand what the will of God is. And do not be drunk with wine in which is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another in the fear of God.” [Ephesians 5:17-21]
Three Things to Practice
- Don’t give up on God, and don’t encourage someone else to do so.
- Job’s wife lost faith, and encouraged her husband to also give up on God.
- Don’t let knowledge cloud discernment of God’s voice.
- Job’s friends all had good knowledge but their knowledge was not useful because they did not discern what God wanted to say of Himself and of the situation.
- DO seek God first in ministering to another person.
- This does not necessarily mean we spent an hour in prayer before meeting anyone, but it does mean we are committed to a lifestyle of seeking God, and that we are aware of His voice speaking, that we can obey Him.
3. Remember God, not verses
While all of Job’s friends acknowledge God, and tell Job to look to God in his suffering, Elihu is the only one who seems to have any success. In fact, God backs up what Elihu says and builds on it when He answers Job. The way Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar mention God, is different from how Elihu describes Him to Job. Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar place the emphasis on Job needing to confront sin, or repent, whereas Elihu does not speak with condemnation, but simply proclaims the character of God. Elihu explains exactly where Job is not righteous, but he also tells Job that he desires to justify him. He was patient and waited to speak. Job’s other friends point out areas of sin and keep encouraging Job to repent. Job responds to Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar defensively, but God answers Job after Elihu speaks.
2 Thessalonians mentions how we might comfort each other through the trials of life on earth. These passages are in the context of preparing for the day of the Lord, which is what we should all be doing as we live our lives here – that we hope for and believe in Jesus’ return.
- [2 Thessalonians 4:13-18] – “But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus. For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words.”
- [2 Thessalonians 5:8-11] – “But let us who are of the day be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet the hope of salvation. For God did not appoint us to wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, that whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with Him. Therefore comfort each other and edify one another, just as you also are doing.”
The focus is not on picking out sin, but on keeping each other focused on Christ and His coming hope. In suffering, it can be hard to lose sight of this hope, but a good friend can encourage us in it. Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar quoted verses to Job, but Elihu quoted God’s living word – he had the right focus to encourage his friend – that is, to remember who God is.
In seeking to comfort a suffering friend, we can fall into many traps. Often, we may rely on our own knowledge and experience, rather than seeking God’s thoughts for the friend. God wants us to encourage one another IN HIM, to continue trusting Him even in difficult situations, and to discern His voice in the matter. When we comfort one another, we do so out of love and we try to see the situation as it is affecting them. We should speak, not with a spirit of condemnation, but with a spirit that continues to hope in God.