The Book of Job - Part 8
Published November 5, 2017 at 10:45 AM
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Last week we left Job sitting in an ash heap outside the city gates, having literally lost everything except his life.
He had been extraordinarily wealthy and extraordinarily generous as well. He had known honor and respect in his community. He had enjoyed the love and blessing of seven sons and three daughters who all got along and celebrated life together. He had walked with God unlike any man in his day, serving and honoring him with all he had. He had been healthy and strong.
And then, for reasons we know but he did not, almost overnight it was all gone. All his wealth was destroyed or stolen. All his children died suddenly. He came down with a host of unbearable diseases with horrific symptoms. Surely as Job scraped his sores with potsherds, he thought to himself in tears, “How did I ever end up here?”
If you’ve experienced great loss, or what I call a personal apocalypse, most likely there was a point, as the dust settled, you wondered the same.
When we suffer like that we need the support of others more than at any other time. Wise old Solomon was surely right when he observed…
Ecclesiastes 4:10 (ESV) — 10 … woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!
Thankfully, though Job may have wondered how he got there, he wasn’t without others to lift him up.
Job 2:11–13 (ESV) — 11 Now when Job’s three friends heard of all this evil that had come upon him, they came each from his own place, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They made an appointment together to come to show him sympathy and comfort him.
Ancient Jewish legends say Job and his three friends were all wealthy kings, and they kept aware of the others’ affairs by having a picture of each engraved on their crowns. When the picture of their friend changed, they knew something had happened.
That’s unlikely, but somehow they all, more or less, at the same time heard of Job’s calamity and came to do two things: 1. Show sympathy, 2. Give comfort
If you know anything about Job’s story you know his three friends (four actually as you’ll see) are not seen in the best light and for good reason. But for now, we must at least give them credit for having good intentions and starting off well.
We all should seek out our friends, and especially our brothers and sisters in Christ, when they suffer great loss, hoping to show sympathy and give comfort.
Legend has it as well that “when the [three] friends arrived in the city in which Job lived, the inhabitants took them outside the gates, and pointing to a figure reclining upon an ash-heap at some distance off, they said, “Yonder is Job.” At first the friends [didn’t believe it was him], and they decided to look more closely at the man, to make sure of his identity. But the foul smell [coming] from Job was so strong… they could not [approach] him. They ordered their armies to scatter perfumes and aromatic substances all around. Only after this had been done for hours, … could [they get close] …”
12 And when they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him.
Over the years I’ve dealt with my share of church members’ suffering health issues. Some were in an accident, others had major surgery. I’ve noticed how hard it is for families when they enter the hospital room and see their loved one for the first time.
The trauma is so drastic, it shows in their faces and bodies. Big, strong men look frail and weak. Beautiful, young women look old and ghost-like. It’s a shock, the kind where you put your hand over your mouth and hold back tears.
Job’s friends were horrified to see the shell of man sitting in a garbage pile, not only because how he looked but from where he had fallen. Look at the rest of verse 12…
And they raised their voices and wept, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads toward heaven. 13 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.
Many Jews in the present day practice a form of mourning called shivah that finds it roots in the actions of Job’s friend’s here. One resource on Jewish culture describes shivah this way…
"The bereaved family gathers to “sit shivah” in the home of the deceased… In the past, the practice was to sit on overturned couches or beds (Sem. 6:1); it is now traditional for mourners to sit on low stools or benches. This may be a symbol of the mourner’s awareness that life has suddenly changed…
It is considered an obligation for relatives and friends to visit mourners during the shivah period, comforting them and providing them with food and other needs. Mourners do not extend greetings to the comforters or rise to meet them, a tradition derived from God’s urging Ezekiel to “sigh in silence” (24:17).
Based on the actions of the three friends of Job…who sat with him for seven days without uttering a word (Job 2:13), the Rabbis noted that discreet individuals express their condolences in sympathetic silence. Therefore, visitors are advised not to speak until the mourner begins the conversation and to refrain from frivolous talk and customary greetings…"
Job’s three friends here, and Jews in general, could teach us much about comforting those in great pain or grief, because, let’s just be honest, we modern day Westerners probably aren’t the best at it, are we?
Our culture is so fast paced, so self-oriented, that we would never dream of setting aside seven days to mourn with someone, would we?
We want to rush it through, get it off our list so we can get on with our busy lives. I will be the first to admit this, even when it comes to my own family.
The first thing we could probably learn from Job’s three friends is…
The need for presence when crisis strikes.
One person writes, “There is something about suffering that longs for someone to sit with us through the pain. It’s the fellowship of suffering. It’s the words ‘you are not alone’ put into action. The sitting bears witness to our pain. More than a card or a casserole, the familiar, patient presence of another says to us ‘it’s too much for you to bear, but I will be with you, I will sit with you.’”
Methodist preacher Charles Allen tells of a little child who went on an errand for her mother. She was late coming back, and her mother asked for an explanation. The child explained that a playmate of hers down the street had fallen and broken her doll and that she had helped her. The mother wondered what she could do to help mend the broken doll. The little girl made a marvelous reply, “I just sat down and helped her cry.”
Even if we do take the time to sit with those in great pain, we often feel we have to say something to make it better, as if, in the clutches of their terrible loss, words could actually make things better. Much like we think those sayings on church signs could influence someone for Jesus, but don’t get me started.
Job’s three friends just sat there at his side for seven days without speaking, without talking even among themselves. So there’s another thing we learn from these three guys when it comes to helping those who suffer…
The need for silence when crisis strikes.
We are so afraid of it though! So afraid we end up saying dumb things.
What kind of things do we say? Things we need to retire or save for later, especially us Christians. The first should be familiar.
God will never give you more than you can handle.
We have already looked at this. The Book of Job shatters that old saying into a thousand pieces. Truth is, he will give you more than you can handle, but not more than HE can handle. Let’s retire this.
Don’t worry, it gets better.
That’s true, but right then, it’s not better. And things might actually get worse before things get better. Save this for later.
When God shuts a door, he opens a window.
I can find no verse, no biblical teaching to support this. It sounds good, but it means little, especially at the time. Let’s retire this one too.
Just take it all to God in prayer.
A lady recounts how, at a time of deep pain in her life, a man said this to her. She looked at him in silence, and then with a shaky voice said: “We haven’t been able to pray in three months–so no, we haven’t prayed about it.” She was in so much pain– it was like he had slapped her.
I don’t see Job praying in the ash heap. He was so mortally wounded physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually, he couldn’t.
If someone was in a car wreck and broke both their legs, you wouldn’t advise them as they lay in the hospital bed to get up and walk around to feel better. Likewise, when people are suffering deeply, we shouldn’t expect them to be able to pray or even read their Bible. Later, yes, as healing comes, but not at first.
I am comforted in the truth that when we can’t pray the Spirit prays for us…
Romans 8:26 (ESV) — 26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.
Save this phrase for later too.
God is good – all the time.
True without a doubt, and very appropriate in a worship setting. But is it helpful to say this when someone just lost a baby? Or when someone lost their job and look to lose everything? Or when someone is going through a painful divorce?
Save this for later.
Don’t worry. God is in control.
True as well. But not much comfort at all when someone’s world is falling apart. Helpful later, but not in the heat of crisis.
Maybe God needed to get your attention.
Do I need to even say anything about that one? Let that go for good.
When I think of your situation, I’m reminded how blessed I am.
Christians have actually said this to people suffering intensely. Retire this (no, bury it). Lastly (and let’s cover our toes)…
Just call me if you need anything.
I am so guilty of this one. Problem is, often those we say it to aren’t able to call and ask for help even if they needed it. Job wasn’t able to.
Someone suggested changing this from “Call me if you need anything” to “Let me come over and help you do some laundry.”
Conclusion: Job three’s friends started well, giving Job exactly what he needed in the depths of his pain: presence and silence. We’d do well to learn from them
Journalist and author Bob Greene experienced these truths firsthand. He tells the following story in his book And You Know You Should Be Glad: A True Story of Lifelong Friendship:
There are a handful of people, during your lifetime, who know you well enough to understand when the right thing to say is to say nothing at all. Those people—and there will be, at most, only a few of them—will be with you during your very worst times….
When, during an already painful juncture in my life, my wife died, I was so numb that I felt dead myself. In the hours after her death, as our children and I tried in vain to figure out what to do next, how to get from hour to hour, the phone must have been ringing, but I have no recollection of it.
The next morning—one of those mornings when you awaken, blink to start the day, and then, a dispiriting second later, realize anew what has just happened and feel the boulder press you against the earth with such weight that you fear you will never be able to get up—the phone rang, and it was Jack.
I didn't want to hear any voice—even his voice. I just wanted to cover myself with darkness. I knew he would be asking if there was anything he could do. But I should have known that he'd already done it.
"I'm in Chicago," he said. I misunderstood him; I thought he was offering to come to Chicago.
"I took the first flight this morning," he said. He had heard; he had flown in. "I know you probably don't want to see anyone," he said. "That's all right. I've checked into a hotel, and I'll just sit in the room in case you need me to do anything. I can do whatever you want, or I can do nothing."
He meant it. He knew the best thing he could do was to be present in the same town; to tell me he was there. And he did just sit there—I assume he watched TV, or did some work, but he waited until I gathered the strength to say I needed him. He helped me with things no man ever wants to need help with; mostly he sat with me and knew I did not require conversation, did not welcome chatter, did not need anything beyond the knowledge he was there. He brought food for my children and, by sharing my silence, he got me through those days.