How to be a Miserable Comforter
What do we do when confronted with grief? When a friend or acquaintance or a total stranger lets go with apparently uncontrollable outbursts of tears, screams, complaints, rage, sometimes even tirades against God?
Don’t you feel you’ve just got to say something?
“It’s God’s will.”
“The Lord moves in mysterious ways.”
“There’s a reason.”
“Whom the Lord loves, He chastens.”
“You’ve got to be strong.”
Or perhaps quote some Bible verse that has the answer.
Here are a few things that I have actually been told, when I was going through “the slough of despond:
“You’re too negative. You’ve got to change your attitude!”
“When are you going to learn what God is trying to teach you, so that He can let up?”
“Perhaps you could tell us what you did wrong so that we can learn from your failures.”
Job’s friends were like that, it seems. They sat quietly with him until he spilled his guts. Then they felt they had to speak! The greater part of the material in the book of Job is in the form of a dialog of sorts – perhaps it could be called a debate – between Job and his three friends. It’s not clear whether the speeches were totally extemporaneous; some think they may have been previously prepared, even written down. The speakers often seem to ignore things previously said by the others, thought sometimes they do respond, even quoting (or misquoting). Perhaps we could say that each speaker had an idea of what he wanted to say before he arrived, then modified his speech as he perceived the need.
It seems reasonable to assume that whatever amount of previous preparation went into the friends’ speeches, they had some agenda agreed on before they arrived. They knew before they arrived what the problem was. Job’s rant in chapter 3 only confirmed their views. Job had sinned! That’s all there was to it! There could be no other explanation for his horrible sufferings. At least none that meshed with their theology. Perhaps we could state the views of Eliphaz and the other two in the form of a syllogism:
God only punishes sinners.
God is punishing Job.
Therefore: Job is a sinner.
Of course, we the readers, who have been let in on the heavenly bet, know better. We know that the minor premise is false, which leads to a false conclusion. However, we may attempt to explain Job’s suffering, God is not punishing Job.
Eliphaz, probably the oldest and apparently the wisest of the three, was the principle speaker, with three long (winded) speeches. Bildad also had three, Zophar only two. Between each of the friends’ speeches was Job’s reply.
Eliphaz tears into Job first. He says a few kind words, then dives into his thesis (4:7, 8).
“Remember now, what innocent man ever perished?
Or where were the upright destroyed?
As I have seen, those who plow iniquity
And those who sow evil, harvest it!”
He continues by telling Job that man can’t be right with God (4:17), that the fool and his family are cursed (5:2-4). This must have been extremely painful to a man who had just lost 10 children. Then he advises Job to submit to God.
The irony is that Job is right with God, that he has been in submission to Him – at least till these three came along!
In his second and third speeches, after Job has made some radically audacious statements, Eliphaz directly accuses Job of all sorts of sins, none of which he has any evidence for.
“Is not your wickedness great?
And is there no end to your iniquities?
You take pledges from your brothers with no reason
And take clothes from the naked.
You’ve refused water to the thirsty
And deny bread to the hungry
You’ve sent widows away empty
And broken the arms of orphans” (22:5-7, 9).
Though the whole book is filled with irony, probably the greatest irony is in Eliphaz’ third speech where he barrages Job with a series of sarcastic rhetorical questions, each of which in Eliphaz’ mind, would have a negative answer (22:2-4).
“Can a man be of use to God?
Or a wise man benefit Him?
Is there pleasure to the Almighty if you are righteous?
Or does He profit if your way is blameless?
Is it because of your piety (fear) that He arraigns you?
That He enters into judgment with you?”
We, the readers, know that the answer to all of the above is yes; God does take pleasure in Job’s righteousness. It is because of Job’s piety that he is suffering. Job’s blamelessness is a benefit to God (God wins the bet!). Eliphaz, of course, could never concede, even comprehend this because his view of God is too small. Is Job beginning to understand?
There is, of course, some truth in Eliphaz’ speeches: sometimes suffering is due to a simple cause/effect sequence which is recognizable to all. Most times it is not! And usually we can’t tell the difference. We’d like to. We like to categorize matters – put them in little boxes or baby food jars so that they are easily located. But human experiences and emotions are not like that.
In John 9:1, 2, Jesus and His disciples see a man who was blind from birth. They ask Jesus what appear to be valid questions, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
But Jesus’ answer in verse 3 throws a wrench into all speculations – theirs and ours-- “Neither this man sinned or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him!”
We just don’t know. But Jesus does. And He cares. The requirement for us is to “weep with those who weep” whatever the cause of their sufferings.