Has the “comfort” of friends ever left you feeling worse than you did before? Have you ever felt criticized and judged when all you wanted was empathy and support?
I have, and I suspect most of you have as well.
Rereading Job recently, I was struck by the number of pages devoted to Job’s interactions with his “comforters.” Job’s losses and suffering are described in the first 2 chapters; the last 4 chapters are his interactions with the Lord; and 36 long chapters are devoted to Job and his friends.
Job’s friends start speaking after his lament in chapter 3. Job is raw and bitter. His initial response to suffering was to praise God, accepting everything as from the Lord’s hand, but when his suffering continued unabated, Job struggled. He needed his friends around him.
Job’s friends started off well. When they first heard of his suffering, “they made an appointment together to come and show him sympathy and comfort him.” (Job 2:11). They didn’t remain at a distance. “They raised their voices and wept” (Job 2:12) with him. They didn’t feel the need to speak. In fact, they sat for seven days and nights without saying a word. And if they had ended there, their comfort would have been immeasurably helpful.
But rather than remain silent, Job’s friends started talking. Incessantly. They made great pronouncements about God and human suffering, ostensibly to comfort Job, but really to comfort themselves. They wanted reassurance that tragedy wouldn’t strike them as it had Job. And to do that, they needed to fault Job for his calamities. What began as attempts at comfort and sympathy quickly deteriorated into false accusations and blame.
Feeling misunderstood and responsible for my pain has been one of the hardest parts of suffering. I always wonder what I’ve done wrong, and hearing others voice it as well adds to my insecurity. Sometimes, rather than sympathy, I have been peppered with questions about what I did and didn’t do.
When my infant son was diagnosed with a heart problem and later died, numerous people asked me if I had taken the wrong medication when I was pregnant. An acquaintance told me that if I had prayed before our son was born, he would’ve been born healthy. He had prayed – and all his children were healthy. Others claimed that if I truly believed in miracles, our son would have been healed instantly.
Those seemingly innocent comments felt like daggers, judging me for what had happened. Even if I were to blame, being bludgeoned was unnecessary. Thoughtless insinuations further amplified my grief, making the wound all the deeper.
And then with my divorce, there were more questions about what I did wrong. A woman I had counseled years earlier told me that my former advice was worthless since my marriage fell apart. After telling people I was divorced, I often felt the unspoken weight of judgment. What had I done? Why hadn’t I tried harder? Didn’t I know that divorce was wrong?
Yet behind most of the comments was a desire to make sense of my suffering. Everyone in their own way wanted reassurance that what happened to me wouldn’t happen to them. That’s what Job’s friends were doing too.
Here are five invaluable lessons I’ve learned from Job about comfort:
1. Stop talking; there isn’t that much to say. Job’s friends prattled relentlessly till Job exclaimed, “How long will you torment me and break me in pieces with words?” (Job 19:2). Often I have talked too much as well, hoping to bring comfort or conviction but ultimately bringing more frustration. I forget that presence, just being there in silence, is often the most caring response.
2. Don’t offer unsolicited advice; it is always perceived as criticism. When we offer uninvited counsel, we are implying we know best. Job’s friend, Eliphaz, advised, “Is not your evil abundant? There is no end to your iniquities… Agree with God and be at peace; thereby good will come to you.” (Job 22:5, 21).
Sound advice, even Scripture, offered at the wrong time can feel like judgment. While I love Romans 8:28 and it has shaped my theology, hearing it from a friend at my son’s funeral felt hollow and cruel. That day, I needed to grieve. I needed understanding. Empathy. Tears.
3. Don’t force your friends to cheer up and stop lamenting. Job wanted his friends to listen and acknowledge his pain. He cried, “Do you intend to reprove my words with a convincing argument, when the words of one in despair belong to the wind and go ignored?” (Job 6:26 AMP). Job knows his words are desperate; we often utter careless words in our anguish.
I remember screaming in front of my pastor and his wife, “Why does God hate me?” the week my husband left. Their unconditional acceptance and grace, letting me rant and not correcting my theology, was a tremendous gift. Being free to lament without judgment laid the groundwork for my healing.
4. Don’t blame your friends for their misfortune. Job’s friends assumed that Job was in anguish because he had done something wrong. They quipped, “Think back now. Name a single case where someone righteous met with disaster.” (Job 4:7 GNT) With that assumption, his friends spent most of the book accusing Job of wrongdoing. They were sure that Job’s calamity was a result of his sin.
It’s tempting to assume that people in difficult circumstances have done something to deserve their situation. The homeless, the bankrupt, the divorced, the depressed, and the disabled often bear others’ silent judgment. And the weight of those accusations, spoken or unspoken, can feel like a millstone around their neck.
5. Don’t assume you understand the ways of God. God’s ways are mysterious and beyond our understanding. No one knows the mind of God, and no one has been his counselor. Yet Job’s friends boldly asserted, “Know then that God exacts of you less than your guilt deserves.” (Job 11:6) and sarcastically asked, “Is it for your fear of him that he reproves you and enters into judgment with you?” (Job 22:4). Job’s friends assumed that because God was completely predictable, Job was suffering for his great sin. They wanted to explain God’s actions though they were inexplicable.
I have tried to explain God’s actions too. I have foolishly thought that if I couldn’t explain their suffering, people would walk away from faith. Yet trying to defend God likely draws more people away from faith than just sitting with them in silence. God needs no defender.
From Job, I’ve learned that when we are suffering, we all want friends who will listen without judgment. This does not mean we are never called to exhort our suffering friends. We are. But since conviction is the work of the Spirit, we must to be attuned to God’s call before we speak.
In every case, as the body of Christ, we are called to give comfort and consolation, empathy and encouragement. Sitting with our friends when they lament, offering our prayers and our presence, is an unspeakable gift. I’m sure Job would agree.