(I wrote this essay in 2018. It came to mind this week as I, with the rest of my state and nation, have had many troubled thoughts and feelings about the horrific evil perpetrated in Uvalde, Texas. We’ve observed people with strong opinions very quickly jump in and insist on sharing their anger, blame, or political slant in the public arena. This hurts my heart for the people most directly impacted. Can we give the traumatized a minute to simply grieve and get past their shock before getting political or blaming others? If we have a possible solution to propose, wonderful. But even then, we have to wait for the right moment. In Job’s case, as you’ll see, his friends did many things well to support Job in his deep grief. Then they started talking….)
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 finally, 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. They interceded in prayer.
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 faith and his integrity, and to “curse God and die” (2:9). We must excuse her, because she had 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.
Job’s friends 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 nights.
The lesson is clear. When we have friends who are experiencing great grief and loss, we are 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 and protect the space while they grieve.
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 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.