One of the reasons that the Book of Job is in the Bible (not the primary reason, but an important reason nonetheless) is to explore the question of how we should relate to friends and loved ones who are hurting.
The first two chapters of the Book of Job provide the narrative detail that serves as the context for the rest of the discussion that follows. Job is presented as a righteous man, blameless in all of his ways. Nevertheless, for reasons that are never fully explained to him, he suffers a series of financial and personal disasters. His flocks are destroyed, his camels are stolen, his children are killed in a windstorm and his skin is covered with boils.
Job’s theology struggles to make sense of his experience.
He is defeated and dejected but he has not given up on God.
At the end of chapter 2 Job is visited by his three friends. We often hear these friends described as “miserable counselors” but this is an unfair and overly simplistic description. Francis Andersen says more reasonably:
They were true friends, bringing to Job’s lonely ash-heap the compassion of a silent presence.
Indeed that seems to be part of the first lesson we are supposed to learn about giving friendship to people who are suffering:
Silent presence is a precious gift to people in terrible pain
The text says:
Now when Job’s three friends heard of all this evil that had come upon him, they came each from his own place, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They made an appointment together to come to show him sympathy and comfort him. And when they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him. And they raised their voices and wept, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads toward heaven. And 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 2:11–13 ESV)
What an extravagant and costly offering! They came from a long way away and they sat with Job – with no one saying a single word – for seven days.
They tore their robes.
They entered into his experience.
And they said nothing.
Again it is common to hear people say that they ought to have quit while they were ahead, but a careful reader notices that it was Job who initially broke the silence. Job 3:1 records:
After this Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth. (Job 3:1 ESV)
The friends sat quietly until Job decided that he was ready to talk. Again, there is much that we can learn from their example.
The second thing we learn in this story, in terms of how to be a friend to a hurting person is that:
Talking to a hurting person is an extremely hazardous undertaking
Calvin’s summary of the dialogue that makes up the heart of the Book of Job is worth repeating. He says that:
in the whole dispute Job maintains a good case, and his adversary maintains a poor one. Now there is more, that Job maintaining a good case pleads it poorly, and the others bringing a poor case plead it well. When we shall have understood this, it will be to us as it were a key to open to us the whole book.
What Calvin means here is that Job is essentially correct. Job argues that there is no direct connection between his suffering and any particular sin that he has committed. This is true. We know this because the narrator tells us this on multiple occasions:
There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job, and that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil. (Job 1:1 ESV)
Even after experiencing several devastating calamities the narrator is careful to inform us:
In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong. (Job 1:22 ESV)
Clearly whatever is happening to Job, it has no direct connection to any particular sin or misconduct on his part.
Job is right – and yet, as Calvin says, he makes his case poorly.
He exaggerates. He attacks his friends. He overstates their argument. He comes very close to accusing God of cruelty or indifference.
In short, he behaves as we might expect a terribly wounded person to behave.
Hurt people hurt people.
Hurt people are irrational.
Hurt people are immoderate.
Hurt people are inconsistent.
Because they are hurt people.
You need to know that if you are going to try and be a friend to someone who is suffering. You will be injured; you will get bloody, because love is a contact sport; particularly when dealing with terribly broken people.
The more theologically illiterate you are the more dangerous you are as a counselor
The long dialogue that makes up the core of this book ruthlessly exposes the inadequate theological framework of Job’s friends. They have a proverbial view of the world. They believe that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. They appear to underestimate the effect and extent of sin and they seem completely ignorant of the mysteries of Providence. They don’t seem to know that the world is fallen and under a curse and they don’t seem to expect God to be doing much of anything about it.
As a result they end of giving terrible – though well-meaning advice.
They tell Job that he must have hidden and unconfessed sin in his life.
They tell Job that God doesn’t make mistakes.
They tell Job that people always reap what they sow.
And they imply that Job is responsible for the death of his children and the loss of his own health and fortune.
Can you even imagine how devastating that must have been for Job to hear?
Jesus explicitly warned his disciples about making these kinds of hurtful connections. In John 9 the disciples saw a man who had been born blind and they couldn’t help but theorize about the reason for his personal calamity.
“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2 ESV)
They could imagine only two options for explaining this man’s terrible suffering. Either he was a great sinner or his parents were.
No wonder hurting people often run away from the church! If the first answer out of our mouths is some version of “This has to be your fault – or maybe that of your parents” then they are right to keep away.
Jesus immediately set the disciples straight. He said:
It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him. (John 9:3 ESV)
Neither of your options is correct – not by a long shot! God is working purposes of redemption. Purposes you cannot see, understand or contribute to so you really ought to keep your speculations to yourself.
Careless speculation about sin and suffering only heaps additional burden upon people already experiencing horrific pain. The Book of Job reminds us that theologically illiterate communities are unsafe places for people to process brokenness and suffering.
The less you know, the more dangerous you are to people in pain.
Job’s friends simply didn’t know enough to offer intelligent comfort. They didn’t understand sin, they didn’t understand Providence and they didn’t understand redemption. To a certain extent, their ignorance is understandable, but ours; living as we do on the other side of the cross, the empty tomb and Pentecost, is certainly not. There is no excuse for that kind of ignorance in a Spirit-filled, Bible believing church. Therefore, if you love people, you should pray and study the Word of God so that you can say true and helpful things to people who are hurting.
There is no perfect answer to the problem of human suffering apart from the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ
In a sense, the Book of Job gives us the middle section of an on-going conversation in Holy Scripture. It disqualifies a lot of inadequate theories and it anticipates further developments in redemptive history – but it doesn’t tell us everything we’d like to know about innocent suffering.
For that we have to wait for Jesus Christ.
Jesus is the only true innocent sufferer.
Jesus is the true friend and counselor to all those who suffer pain.
Job has a faint hope that such a person might exist somewhere in the universe. He says in chapter:
Even now, behold, my witness is in heaven, and he who testifies for me is on high…. he would argue the case of a man with God, as a son of man does with his neighbor. (Job 16:19–21 ESV)
In chapter 19 he again speaks, probably even better than he knows. He says:
For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. (Job 19:25–27 ESV)
When Job fails to find comfort in the presence and counsel of his friends he is helped by God to see a friend in the court of heaven who would argue his case, as a son of man might do for his neighbour; even more than that, he is helped to see his Redeemer.
But Job’s friends know nothing of what he speaks and as a result they are never able to help him make sense of his horrible suffering.
That, perhaps more than anything, ought to be the practical take away for all those who want to minister to hurting people: there is no lasting comfort apart from the person and work of Jesus Christ. There is no satisfying answer to innocent suffering until we see the only innocent Son of God rejected and despised upon the cross. There is no hope of restoration until we behold the empty tomb. No certainty of eternal rest and reward until we receive the promised seal of the Holy Spirit.
Apart from those things, we are all miserable counselors indeed.
The Book of Job presents those hopes and comforts as shadows only – but in the better light of the New Testament, these treasures are opened up to all of us to behold, to enjoy and to distribute.
Jesus is the answer to innocent suffering.
Jesus is comfort for the brokenhearted.
Jesus is our hope of resurrection.
And Jesus is the Word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God!
Pastor Paul Carter
To listen to Pastor Paul’s Into The Word devotional podcast walking verse by verse and chapter by chapter through the whole Book of Job see here. You can also find it on iTunes.
 Francis I. Andersen, Job: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 14 of Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. IVP/Accordance electronic ed. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1976), 142.
 John Calvin, Sermons From Job translated by Leroy Nixon (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1952), 5.