“With Friends Like These”
A Series on Job
Job 2:11-3:1; 4:1-8
The Reverend Tasha Blackburn
October 15, 2017
They dropped everything and set out with one thought: I must help my friend. They came from three different cities to sit on the ground with him. They tore their clothes and held their tongues. For seven days and seven nights, they sat there together. I don’t know that any of us could ask for better friends than these three. Then, after the week of silence has passed, Job finally feels an opening to speak and his first words are a primal scream: “Perish the day I was born!” he shouts. “My groans have become my food; and my roars pour out like water.”
At this, something breaks open. Seven days of silence explode into 34 chapters of debate. Job cries out and his friends try to comfort him. But their comfort does not soothe. It only adds to Job’s suffering. Eliphaz speaks first and you heard some of his words. Perhaps the deepest cut comes when he asks Job:, “Think! What innocent person has ever perished? When have those who do the right thing been destroyed?” Ten children Job lost: ten. And his friend says this to him? Who would do that?
Ask anyone who has suffered a great loss and they will tell you this kind of comfort is common. People might not say exactly what Eliphaz said but they do say things like: “God needed her more than you did.” Or, “You’re young, you will find someone else.” Even when we are thoughtful about what we say, we can still get caught. Sometimes it is because we don’t know what to say. And sometimes it is because we think that it is up to us to change the other person’s emotions.
Early in my ministry, I was assigned to shadow a pastor at the church I was serving. Diane was her name and her focus was pastoral care. So I to went to the hospitals with her to learn how best to comfort someone. As we parked, she told me a little about the man we were going to visit. She said he had been given a very difficult diagnosis and he was depressed about it. When we walked in the man’s room the lights were off and the blinds were closed. I wondered, How were we to bring comfort to this? I was soon to find out. Diane marched in, flipping on lights and pulling open the blinds as she chirped, “Good morning Jim! We don’t need all this gloom in here! You need to brighten things up!”
It is the difference between two very similar words, one of which we don’t often use anymore. The words are “console” and “condole.” Condoling is what Job’s friends do for the first seven days. Condoling is being in grief with someone. It is joining them in their sadness. Consoling is different than this. Consoling is trying to comfort someone. Now Diane’s version of consoling was pretty extreme but think about it: comforting someone means, by its very definition, trying to change that person: lift their spirits, get them back to who they were before, convince them to have hope. It is what Diane was attempting. It is what Job’s friends attempt for 34 chapters. It is quite different from condoling.
We can all point to times when we have done both of these things. We have condoled. We have consoled. But why do we do the second one? Why do we feel we should try to change our friend? Our child? Our neighbor? Why don’t we just join them in their grief and not attempt to get them back to who they were before or convince them of something in their suffering?
There are lots of reasons. Sometimes it is out of love. We want so much better for the one we care about and so we try to get them to snap out of their pain or move on. But sometimes, we do not console out of love. We console because we are afraid. We are afraid of what has happened to the person and, sometimes, we are even afraid of them. How many times have you witnessed the changes that come upon someone who has suffered greatly? They can seem to live in some other realm now as if they have turned themselves to the deepest parts of existence that we don’t often want to fathom. That scares us. Their pain scares us. And if they are angry, that really scares us.
Job is angry. Later in their debates, in Chapter 13, he tells his friends that he demands a hearing with God to plead his case. He berates his friends saying, “Why do you feel you have to make God’s case for him?” It’s a good question. Because we can catch ourselves doing that. Something terrible happens and our friend wants to question God’s plan or God’s presence in his life and we jump right in. “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” we say. What that says to our friend: either what happened wasn’t really so bad or you must deserve it somehow.
In the face of a friend’s pain, we don’t have to make it all make sense for them. That question that looms over our lives: why do bad things happen in this world? When it all comes down to it, it is not a question to answer but a question to live with. When we try to answer it, we start hurting the very people we wanted to comfort.
This is not a problem to solve. We do not need to plead God’s case for him. When we hurry to limit the pain of someone’s grief or the power of their anger, that’s what we are doing. We are saying we have to protect God, shield his honor. We can do this without thinking. We can do it because it feels like the only faithful thing to do.
Which is why we need Job so much.
Because he sits in his ash heap and demands that we see him and hear him. He wants to know, “How weak do you think God is? Don’t you think God can handle my grief? Don’t you think he can endure my anger and my hurt?”
Well, don’t we? God is not weak. He is strong. When bad things happen, we do not need to justify God to anyone. We simply need to do what he did: in Jesus, the Man of Sorrows—and join them in their grief.
The author Stephanie Paulsell tells the story of when she was frozen with depression, unable to work, unable to even think. The year before, her friend Kay had left everything behind to spend a year in prayer. One day Stephanie phoned Kay and said, “I am so depressed that I can’t even pray. I try to pray, but I can’t.” Stephanie writes what happened next: “A few days later, a package arrived from Kay. It contained a simple beige dress and a note that read, ‘I have prayed in this dress every day for a year. You don’t have to pray. Just wear it. It is full of prayers.’”
What a different response this is from pastor Diane! When we face suffering, when we join in someone else’s suffering, there is no answer to be given, no problem to be solved. It is not unfaithful to acknowledge that! If we try to make it all make sense, we will mess it up every time. It really is enough, even when we are afraid it isn’t; it really is enough to sit in silence together. No answers needed; no defense required. I promise you: God can take it. Amen.