With Friends Like These

In moments of intense suffering, we might find comfort and encouragement in the compassionate and timely words of close friends.  Or we might not. Sometimes the words delivered to us, or if we look in the mirror, those that we deliver to a suffering friend when the shoe is on the other foot, seem more intended to convey what we know or think than to provide comfort in misery.

The Bible character Job experienced a depth of suffering that few can relate to.  He, an upstanding and wealthy man, lost his possessions, all ten of his children and his health in rapid succession.  His story, told in the Old Testament book that bears his name, provides the troubling context for the age-old question “Why do bad things happen to good people?”  After losing nearly everything, Job ponders his plight, and receives the unsolicited input of his wife and four friends.

Foregoing Friendship for Punditry

To say that their attempts to comfort Job fall short is putting it kindly.  But the rich and candid dialogue reveals a lot about how we tend to think as people when we or those we love are in crisis, and the “zingers” exchanged would almost be hilarious if Job wasn’t suffering so much.  For example, when Job’s bride sees him in intense pain from boils all over his body, she blames God and offers this helpful suggestion, “Are you still maintaining your integrity? Curse God and die!” (Job 2:9)

His friends were a little more understanding, with one first telling him that he should recognize and accept his plight as God’s “discipline” for some awful thing he’s done (Job 5:17).  Job replies that he hates to disappoint them, but he’s done nothing wrong, and even challenges them to prove otherwise (Job 6:24-25).  That was probably a mistake because they jump at the chance to pontificate, with each friend taking turns explaining that God isn’t unjust; He rewards people who are blameless, but punishes “evildoers” (e.g., Job 8:20).  Along the way, they share with Job that his children must have died as punishment for their sins (Job 8:2-4), and reason that he, too, had to be getting what he deserved (Job 34:11-12), so he should just come clean and admit it.

Not so Simple

In a variety of ways, they express what many people secretly think, namely that people always suffer because of something they’ve done wrong. Jesus’ disciples thought that way, asking him, upon seeing a man blind from birth, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2)  Even some preachers perpetuate that perspective, dismissing the question of why bad things happen to good people with the flippant answer “There are no good people.”  That seems to me a lazy cop-out to avoid an important issue that mankind has wrestled with since before the time of Job.  Perhaps it is no coincidence that Job’s story, which many scholars believe is the Bible’s oldest book, is quite long, exploring that issue over forty two chapters.

We sometimes talk of one “having the patience of Job,” and he does manage to keep it together for a while. Finally, though, he loses his cool with his friends:

[Y]ou are miserable comforters, all of you!  Will your long-winded speeches never end? What ails you that you keep on arguing?  (Job 16:2-3)

(If you are anything like me, you can’t wait to use that line the next time you receive some persistent and unsolicited advice!)

What Kind of Friend am I?

Maybe you feel overwhelmed, even buried in trouble and suffering, and can relate to Job. Most of us probably haven’t suffered to the same degree, but we may be nonetheless going through the proverbial fire, or some tragedy, disease, or “dark night of the soul,” and find that what people are saying to us—even those who we count as our closest friends— is neither helpful nor comforting.  And, we would do well to ask the question of ourselves, even in the straightforward way of songwriter Mark Heard: “What Kind of Friend Am I?” [1]  Is my presence in the midst of a friend’s suffering of any value to him or her, or am I delivering insensitive “body blows” like Job’s friends?

At the end of the day, perhaps instead of trying to share our insights or explanations, or “make sense” of a friend’s suffering, we should listen first, and maybe ask thoughtful and creative variations on the question “How can I help?”  With that approach, we just might avoid the mistakes of Job’s friends, and become the kind of friends we would want in our time of suffering.


[1] Mark Heard, “What Kind of Friend?” (High Noon, Fingerprint Records 1993)