In my daily reading, I am currently making my way through the book of Job. Most people, even those who know little of the Bible, have heard of Job, and connect his name to great loss and suffering. He’s the poster child for the apologetic question of why God allows bad things to happen to good people. But that is not my focus here.
My focus is how Job’s three friends attended to him when they heard of his overwhelming losses. Job’s friends are famous in the story for being “miserable comforters” (16:2), but they didn’t start out that way. These friends are given a bad rap. I want to give them credit for what they did well and encourage us to follow that example. Then of course, there needs to be a word of caution about how and when they stopped being helpful.
Job lost everything but his wife and his life. He suddenly lost all ten of his children, all of his servants, all of his livestock, all of his assets, and even his health. He began to curse the day he was born.
Job’s three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, heard of the calamity that had befallen him. These men “made an appointment together to come to show him sympathy and comfort him” (2:11). This is the first thing they did right. They came. They traveled some distance, leaving their own families and businesses to bring love and comfort to their friend. It appears their intentions were right and good.
When they saw him from far off, they didn’t even recognize him. That’s how devastated he was, sitting in the ashes and scraping with a shard of pottery the “loathsome sores” (2:7) covering his entire body. Their response was the second right thing they did: “They raised their voices and wept, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads toward heaven” (2:12). Job’s friends didn’t stand at a distance feeling sorry for him. They joined him in his grief. They took it upon themselves.
The third thing they did is the most beautiful and praiseworthy, in my opinion. “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” (2:13). They sat in the ashes with him. How many of us have done that? I’ve never put all else aside, forsaking all other concerns, keeping silent for an entire week to be fully present with a grieving friend. Have you?
Contrast that with Job’s wife. Her counsel to her husband was to let go of his integrity, and to “curse God and die” (2:9). We must excuse her, because she lost everything too. She clearly was incapable of bringing any comfort. The text doesn’t say, but I hope some friends showed up for her as well. As for Job, his friends stepped in, and with their silent presence, they waited and grieved together.
When did these friends start to go wrong? As soon as they started talking. They started explaining things. They lectured Job in theology. They impugned Job’s integrity. They condescended in self-righteous indignation. They rebuked him as he cried out to God, desperately trying make sense of things for himself. They accused him of presumption and arrogance. Worst of all, they made him feel alone and forsaken. These friends, with their many words, undid the beautiful ministry they had practiced sacrificially for those seven days and seven nights.
The lesson is obvious. When we have friends who are experiencing great grief and loss, we are called and commanded in Scripture to go to them, to suffer with them, to uphold them and help them carry their heavy burdens (Gal 6:2; Rom 12:15). We quietly pray and cry out to God with them. We simply stay present.
We wait to speak until we know we have a word from God that will speak truth in the right way and at the right time. We are exceedingly gentle and patient. We put their needs ahead of our own.
This may mean that we have to keep our mouths shut and our opinions to ourselves for a very long time. There is a time for theological arguments, but this is not it.
Grieving friends need our loving presence. They need for us to be willing to sit in the ashes with them, so they know they are not alone.