What to Say to Someone Suffering like Job
How to Speak to Job
The book of Job does not directly tell us how to address Job-like suffering. But I think we can sketch what a helpful answer would be, if we take an approach exactly opposite from his friends. Our two compass points here are the note of condemnation that rings through almost every line of the friends’ speeches and the attitude of self-righteous superiority. In contrast to this, what would it look like to address a suffering friend under the assumption of God’s unceasing love and approval (Job 1:8)? And without any assumption of moral superiority to him? That we are just as vulnerable to these inexplicable ordeals as anyone else?
Although doubtless our words will vary from person to person, the following can be helpful to keep in mind.
First, remember that your friend might be so shell-shocked in the early days of his ordeal that he can barely hear you. Lecture him, and all he’ll give you is a glassy stare. Remember as well that he is probably receiving “help” from other Christians that is distinctly unhelpful. If your friend does not respond as well as you would like, or does not respond at all, it may be because he is simply unable to.
Suffering Wisely and Well
In Suffering Wisely and Well, Eric Ortlund explores different types of trials throughout Scripture, particularly the story of Job, revealing the spiritual purpose for pain and reassuring readers with God’s promise of restoration.
Asking diagnostic questions about what kind of suffering this is (is there some sin God is bringing to light?) can be helpful, depending on the strength of your relationship, but should only be done slowly and cautiously. The main thing when speaking to a Job is neither to blame nor to suggest God is trying to teach a lesson.
Another helpful thing to remember is that people in pain say crazy things. We see that Job certainly does. When your friend starts saying things about God that are not theologically true, resist the urge to correct him. Your friend’s bad theology is only a symptom of a deeper trauma, so addressing the surface issue will do nothing to assuage his deeper pain. Your friend’s bad theology is also temporary. As God restores him, God will gently challenge those unworthy things your friend said about his divine friend. God will faithfully be at work to help him see what a perfect Savior he really is (42:5–6). Your job is not to fix your friend but to walk with him.
More positively, tell him no matter how much it might look like it, God’s heart is different toward him than he might think. Your friend might feel so hurt that God’s love is small comfort, at least at first; but as God is at work in your friend’s heart in the midst of his ordeal, the true heart of a Christian will become ever more apparent, which prizes friendship and rightness with God more than anything. Even if he cannot entirely believe it himself, it can be a deep comfort to hear from an outside voice the unchanging reality that God is utterly pleased, happy, and radiantly satisfied with him in Christ and will one day soon prove it by restoring him to fullness and life.
You can also tell your friend that you do not blame him for what he’s going through (he may be blaming himself!) and you are not expecting him to learn some lesson. And, odd as it might sound, it can be comforting to tell him that he will need to repeat these truths to you when your own suffering comes.
Perhaps most importantly, tell your friend that you will wait with him until God restores him.
Tell your friend that you will wait with him until God restores him.
What Have We Learned?
Do not blame the sufferer.
Just as suffering comes in different kinds, so we need to speak to it in different ways. Sometimes we suffer for our sins and need to be encouraged to repent; sometimes we need encouragement to persist in the hard training God is putting us through to grow us.
Do not blame.
We can speak to friends suffering in Job-like ways with the best of intentions, with pastoral tact, invoking theological ideas that have empirical and scriptural backing, and get it completely wrong in such a way that provokes God’s terrible anger at us (Job 42:7–8), tortures someone of whom God is incredibly happy, and advances the devil’s agenda for them.
You should be very suspicious of yourself—unceasingly so. The temptation to comfort ourselves is so sneaky that we must never stop asking ourselves, when talking with a suffering friend, “The thing I’m about to say—who am I trying to make feel better? My friend or myself?”
It is not until God speaks to Job that Job is satisfied, comforted, and reconciled to God and God’s way of running the world. In the same way, God will meet with your brother or sister who is living out Job’s story and comfort him or her as only he can. This means your role is not to fix or solve your friends or silence their protests or resolve their trauma. Only God can do that.
Resist the temptation to lecture your friends and correct some of the crazy things they say. God will see to that in his own time and gentle way.
Find ways to speak to your friends about how God does not hate them (no matter how much it might look like it) and that the ordeal they are going through will not last forever. However nightmarish their lives have become, God will restore them. Even if their wounds are so profound that they feel no possible turn of events will ever compensate their losses, God is an expert at restoring permanent tragedy. He has done so with his own Son. However long it takes, he will act. This means that the best thing you can say is, “Let me wait with you for God to restore you.”
This article is adapted from Suffering Wisely and Well: The Grief of Job and the Grace of God by Eric Ortlund.
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