In these opening weeks of my “Wisdom & Poetic Literature of the Old Testament” class we’ve been assigned to read through the book of Job and also a couple of chapters of commentary in different books. Although I’ve read the book of Job many times before, the Word of God is so rich and powerful.
THE main thing I have been gleaning from this study of the book of Job is how to (or rather, how NOT to) counsel someone through their darkest trials in life.
Job’s friends came and sat with him for 7 days, and then opened their mouths and spoke to him. Though their intentions may have been seemingly right, to correct their friend or “defend” Yahweh, the real result was that they “misrepresented God and injured their friend,”* causing Job to say, “How long will you torment me and break me in pieces with words?” (19:2) Not only that, but their counsel was condemned by God as sinful (42:7) and He demanded that they sacrifice 7 bulls and 7 rams for their sin.
As I’ve been reading through Job and several studies of it, I have been making mental note of things about counseling or comforting a friend in crisis…here are a few of my thoughts:
- Always counsel with compassion. Job’s friends tended to stay in the realm of cold deductive logic and reason, leaving little margin for sympathy. An ounce of compassion and some concern for his terrible losses would have gone a long way. Instead they seemed intent on proving their point and imparting their superior wisdom to their friend Job, whom they assumed must be in sin based on their rigid retributive theology. When I have a friend going through a painful situation, I need to enter in first with understanding, compassion and love – intent on comforting and loving and then challenging or confronting if necessary. In hard times, many people just need company, not a rational argument for why they are going through what they are.
- Be humble. God’s response to Job (beginning in chapter 38) makes it clear that He alone is infinite in knowledge and wisdom. Although the reader is aware of Satan’s conversation with God and God’s acceptance of his challenge, Job and his friends are never informed about this. In our own lives, we must realize that we see only one perspective, and a limited one at that. This should lead us to offer counsel in humility, lest we “darken counsel by words without knowledge.” (38:2, seemingly addressed to Job). Acknowledge that human wisdom is finite. Acknowledge that God may be accomplishing His purposes that are higher than our understanding.
- Seek God’s counsel, not just the conventional wisdom of man. Job 28 is a beautiful interlude that shows how only God knows the way to wisdom. (28:23) When we seek to understand our world and our lives based on the wisdom of man, we fall short. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Thankfully, modern day Christians can rely upon the Holy Spirit in counseling and comforting their friends. In this regard we have an advantage that Job’s friends did not enjoy, though they certainly could have prayed for wisdom from God to answer Job and it seems they did not make that a priority. Before opening our mouths to answer a friend (or, I would add, before commenting on their Facebook status?), we ought to seek the Lord’s wisdom and not rely upon our own.
- Speaking “from experience” can be weak. Your experience may be different, may be mis-interpreted, and just may not be helpful in comforting another (of course, in the proper setting, it may be encouraging to know that another has gone before, so again – reliance upon the Holy Spirit is essential!). This was the error of Eliphaz. “Even as I have seen…”
- Suffering may indicate presence of sin in a life, but does not necessarily prove it. The righteous do not always prosper, and the wicked are not always punished swiftly. Although generally these things are true (as the book of Proverbs teaches) and in the end all will be set right, God does not always act in a prescribed manner and to the praise of His glory, He acts as He will on the earth now and “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and unjust.” (Matthew 5:45) Suffering is an opportunity for people to search their hearts and lives, making sure they are pure before the Lord. And yet if we assume that a friend who is suffering must have some hidden, grievous sin, we do them a disservice and add to their burden. In doing this, Job’s friends set themselves at odds with Job rather than proving themselves to be loyal companions.
- Even real truth can be misapplied. Many of the things that Job’s friends said were true. And yet, that truth was misapplied, misinterpreted and misconstrued. This is the main tactic of our adversary, the devil, is it not? He is the accuser of the brethren, and Job’s friends act in the same vein by taking truths about God and twisting them in talking with Job, accusing him of idiocy (11:12 for one example). The Lord’s anger burned against Eliphaz and his two friends (42:7) because “you have not spoken of me what is right.” We must be careful not to misrepresent God’s truths!
- Always encourage faith in God. Job’s wife said, “Curse God and die!” and was “speaking as one of the foolish women.” Eventually God vindicated Job, proved His innocence and returned him to a state of incredible blessing. Even more wonderfully, He entered into conversation with Job and showed His love for Him. Job said “I had heard of you with the ear, but now my eye sees you.” There is much hope in knowing that we may come through trials with a deeper relationship with God. As a friend of a suffering person, we may not understand the “whys and wherefores” but we do know that God is good and His steadfast love endures forever! (Psalm 118) This is a promise to hold on to when our outlook is otherwise bleak.
The over-arching theme of Job is not the resolution of good and evil. Rather, it is a return to focus on Yahweh – awe of Him, fear of Him and trust of Him to rule His creation (and our own lives) well. In our counseling, comforting and living, we should return to this focus on Him, even as we try to make sense of our circumstances.
What about you? What kind of friend are you? Are you a godly counselor? How have friends comforted you or counseled you through difficult times? Have you read the book of Job lately? What did you learn from it?
P.S.: I know there are hundreds of books that merit the reading and only so many hours in a day to dedicate to that, but these are great:
Handbook on the Wisdom Books and Psalms by Daniel J. Estes
*Old Testament Wisdom Literature: An Introduction by Craig G. Bartholomew & Ryan P. O’Dowd