Jesus was drawn to suffering people. His was a mercy of ministry, and he focused his attention more on people in pain than people in who found themselves in the “sweet spot” of life. Jesus healed the sick, comforted the grieving, and raised the dead to life. He was deeply compassionate. But he was not merely compassionate. He was highly effective. He understood that his deportment and restraint were just as important as his words.
By way of contrast, the Bible offers Job’s friends as a lesson in “how not to minister” to people who are suffering. Job’s friends had the best of intentions, but their attempts to minister caused Job more pain. The minute they opened their mouths, they unintentionally squandered the opportunity to minister. Instead of providing a soothing balm for Job’s wound, they became a painful irritant.
Thus, we are wise to pay careful attention to the missteps of Job’s friends if we wish to be not only well-intentioned but highly effective ministers to people in pain. Indeed, the writer of Job foregrounded the reaction of the friends to Job’s suffering. His point is that the best of intentions can lead to the worse of outcomes.
Job’s Friends Were Good People with the Best of Intentions
Job was a wise man and Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zopahar were the friends he had chosen; thus, it stands to reason that they were good people with good intentions. When Job experienced cataclysmic suffering, they wanted to be helpful. But in fact, their “help” turned out to be the kind that hurts.
Towards the beginning of Job’s crisis, their actions were genuinely helpful. They writer of Job emphasizes their faithfulness and compassion. They visited Job, broke out in loud weeping over his suffering, and tried to comfort him. They sat with Job for 7 days without speaking because they recognized the depth of his pain.
Soon, however, the story takes a turn. After seven days of silence, Job finally spoke. He trusted his friends enough to pour his heart out to them, raw and unfiltered; he cursed the day of his birth and wished that God had made him stillborn. It is at this point that the friends “helped” in a way that hurt.
Job’s Friends Reveal Themselves as Amateurs in the School of Ministry
Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar responded to Job’s raw and unfiltered pain in ways that were simplistic, legalistic, and somewhat cold-hearted. Try as they did, they failed to help Job in his time of greatest need. Surely Job must have been bitterly disappointed when he realized that they didn’t have the capacity to understand him.
The friends began their extended dialogue with Job by speculating about the nature of God, and Job’s relationship with God. Their intention was to defend God and correct Job for his outbursts. The friends were shocked by Job’s speech. In their view, Job overstepped the line. Thus, they draw the conclusion that God is punishing Job, that Job is too defiant to receive the punishment receptively, and that Job needs to be rebuked. Sadly, their words reveal a largely impersonal and mechanical view of the universe and a warped version of the Bible’s teaching about human actions and their consequences.
The first friend, Eliphaz, argued that it was obvious that Job had lost God’s favor and thus Job must have done something wrong to earn God’s disfavor. In one passage, Eliphaz says to Job, “Can a mortal be more righteous than God? Can a man be more pure than his Maker?” (4:17). Later, he would say, “Is not your wickedness great?” (22:5). A more contemporary Christian friend might have said something such as, “Don’t you recognize that God is holy and you are not? Not only do you deserve everything that has happened to you, but you deserve even worse. You deserve condemnation.”
After Eliphaz’s speech, Job was severely disappointed and remarked that his friends were not being dependable (6:15). He suggested that they had not understood the outpouring of his heart. He wasn’t cursing God as they imagined; instead, he was expressing his feelings of being trapped. Job believed in God’s justice and love, but his current life experience seemed to contradict those attributes. In Chapter 7, Job draws the conclusion that life must be meaningless, and reminded himself that he was an insignificant human being over whom God would not make much of a fuss.
In Chapter 8, Bildad steps up to the mic. He was tone deaf to Job’s suffering too, tactlessly reminding Job of his children’s death and concluding that God had killed them off because of their sin (8:4). Like Eliphaz, Bildad assumed that all suffering was rooted in the sins of the person who was experiencing the pain. Surely, Bildad’s words must have felt like hammer blows to an already-traumatized Job.
Job responds to Bildad vehemently and in a borderline sarcastic tone. “I am certainly not guilty, and will maintain it even if it kills me” (9:21). Defending his innocence, he asked why the Creator could be so angry with him. “Remember that you molded me like clay; will you now turn me to dust again?” (10:9-12). Perhaps it is correct to summarize Job’s point of view as maintaining that he is innocent of any great sin, and thus his great suffering was wildly out of proportion to his character defects or flaws.
After Job’s response to Bildad, his third friend took the stage. Zophar accuses and demeans Job, calling him a “witless man [who] can no more become wise than a wild donkey’s colt can become a man” (11:12). In other words, Zophar called Job a religious fool. Later, Zophar would say, “Such is the fate God allots the wicked, the heritage appointed for them by God” (20:29). Yet, it seems Zophar meant well. He concludes his speech by trying to encourage Job that, in the future, Job’s “life will be brighter than the noon of days and darkness will become like morning” (11:17).
In response to Zophar, Job is quite forceful. His exchange with the three friends had reached an impasse. He makes clear to his friends that they had insulted his intelligence. “I have a mind as well as you, I am not inferior to you. Who does not know all these things” (12:3)? He already understood that he was a sinner and that suffering is often self-inflicted. But this is beside the point. His friends had become mockers, giving evidence that they did not have sufficient respect for the Creator or for his imager, Job.
Next, Job asks his friends to close their mouths so that he could speak to God, even if he would receive severe reprisal for his honesty (13:13). This statement reveals a weakness in Job’s faith, an imbalance in which he seems to emphasize God’s holiness and power at the expense of his love and favor. And yet, he still maintained the faith: “Though he slay me, yet I will hope in him” (13:15). Similarly, “I know I will be vindicated” (13:18).
After the three friends give their initial speeches and Job responds (chapters 4-14), the friends give a second round of speeches (chapters 15-21) that reveal even greater enmity and expose them as toxic would-be counselors. After Job responds to the second round of speeches, there is a third round (chapters 22-31). This final round differs in that Zophar did not participate while Eliphaz and Bildad appeared weary and perhaps unsure of themselves. Throughout it all, Job continued to protest that their point of view was warped and incomplete, even as he, himself, attained new heights in his understanding of God’s sovereignty.
How (Not) to Be Well-Intentioned but Misguided and Cruel
Job’s friends are not wrong to assert that a wicked life often leads to destruction and misery; such is the entire point of the book of Proverbs. Our sin, in general, triggers negative consequences. But Job’s well-meaning friends drew the false conclusion that all suffering and misery is the result of a person’s sin. They were wrong. Scripture teaches clearly that people experience senseless suffering that is not spurred on by any sin on the part of the afflicted person.
Job’s friends expressed a reductionist view of God and of human life in a fallen world. They had a small and misguided view of God and his universe, one that doesn’t take into account Satan or the cosmic effects of the Fall. They can’t wrap their minds around the fact that the Fall created a situation in which all human beings suffer; in which some human beings suffer more than others; and in which an individual’s suffering isn’t necessarily connected to that person’s sins. In fact, in Job’s case, he suffered precisely because he was righteous.
Indeed, the Lord rebuked Job’s friends for their foolish and untimely words. To Eliphaz, he said: “I am angry with you and your two friends because you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (42:8). God is offended not only because their mechanical and impersonal theology is wrong but also because they self-righteously hammered Job during his time of agony. Their attempts to help might have been well-intended but were ultimately, misguided and cruel.
How to Minister to People in Pain
If Job’s friends could have such good intentions while ultimately exacerbating Job’s trauma, what conclusions should we draw about our own encounters with people in pain? We should recognize our own limitations, resist the temptation to universalize, and listen more than talk.
The first and best way to minister to a traumatized person is to recognize our own limitations. God’s intention is for suffering people to be comforted in community. He doesn’t intend for any one person to be the sole agent of healing. That is why he places human beings in families, communities, and—ideally—churches.
Thus, when ministering to a suffering person, we should “swim in our own lane.” We shouldn’t try to help in ways that overstep our competency. For example, if a person’s suffering is cataclysmic, they may soon develop a brain-and-body disorder such as PTSD. And, if so, we might gently suggest that the suffering person seek medical help. Brain-based therapies such as EMDR can help a person’s brain hit “reset” so that their emotional state and decision-making abilities are substantially improved.
Second, we should resist the temptation to universalize. Often, and with the best of intentions, we try to reduce a traumatized person’s pain to the lowest common denominator in an attempt to apply Bible promises simplistically to that person’s situation. However, when we assume that a traumatized person’s pain is the same as some other garden-variety pain, we shut down communication with that person. We unintentionally communicate to them that, “God only speaks to the peak of their pain at the most garden-variety levels.”
Third, we should center our ministry more on listening than instructing. A traumatized person tends to divide the world sharply between people who understand and people who don’t. Their instinctive impulse will be to open up only to people who have also experienced trauma; this impulse is reinforced when people who don’t understand offer well-intentioned but ham-fisted advice. Thus, when ministering to traumatized people, we should be careful not to introduce more pain into that person’s life by sloppily handling the information he or she gives us.
A good rule-of-thumb, therefore, is: the fresher the grief, the fewer the words we should speak. Job’s friends helped him by sitting silently with him for days. If only they had remained in listening mode a while longer, they might have gained the discernment to know what to say when the time came to speak.
When the time is right and we have set the context by listening and sympathizing, we can remind the person of God’s promises, such as:
- God offers strength and courage. “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous hand” (Is 41:10)
- God, through Christ, empathizes because he has experienced fear and trauma. After all, the Christian “logo” is a naked, suffering, bleeding God-man.
- God will one day put an end to pain and suffering. When Christ returns to set the world to rights, he will bring an end to trauma and its effects. “He will wipe away every tear…. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (Rev 21:4).
Fourth, we should be pro-active, persistent, and prayerful. We can be pro-active by offering financial and practical help, so when you visit a person in pain, consider bringing the checkbook and the cookbook. We can be persistent by reaching out in appropriate ways, consistently, over extended periods of time. And we can be prayerful by ministering behind the scenes, advocating for the suffering person during our times of intercession.
These reminders will not enable us to provide a quick or comprehensive healing for a suffering person’s pain. We will not be able to repair their brain and body. But we will be able to play a positive role in that person’s eventual healing–mentally, spiritually, and perhaps physically also.
Taking Every Opportunity to Heal the Brokenhearted
The world is chock full of hurting people we can touch with God’s love. If we minister to them in appropriate manners, we can make a significant difference in the life of a traumatized person. We can be a fragrant aroma instead of a feculent windbag. Thus, let us endeavor to play a positive role in healing the brokenhearted (Lk 4:18).