When Job suffered disaster, his three friends Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar were worried about him. They traveled a great distance “to sympathize with him and comfort him.” When they saw him, “they raised their voices and wept” (2:11-13). They kept silent watch for seven days.
But it didn’t take long for things to go sour. They heard Job’s lament toward heaven, and they heard him protest his innocence before God, and they felt they needed to correct him. There ensued a back-and-forth that became bitter and ugly.
Job now called his friends undependable like desert streams (6:15), “worthless physicians” (13:4), and “miserable comforters” (16:2). He sarcastically challenged their claim to be wise (12:2, 13:12), and finally asked them to just go away (19:2).
What happened? On one level, sympathy turned to debate so that we could read an inspired lesson on innocent suffering. But, on a practical level, we discover that Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar failed to appreciate certain things about how to comfort those who have experienced a great loss.
Brother Phil Roberts gathered Job’s complaints, to make a practical handbook on avoiding common mistakes in comforting. I’ve condensed them here:
1.) Be there. Sometimes people will avoid a grieving person—perhaps nervous about what to say, or perhaps wanting to be polite, or perhaps wary of sharing sufferings lest they rub off like a communicable disease. But, the resulting loneliness deeply upset Job.
“My relatives have failed, and my intimate friends have forgotten me. Those who live in my house and my maids consider me a stranger… I call to my servant but he does not answer; I have to implore him with my mouth. My breath is offensive to my wife, and I am loathsome to my brothers” (19:13-21).
To be a comfort to the bereaved, you don’t have to stay long, you don’t have to bring food, you don’t have to buy flowers, you don’t have to do any big deed. Just a quick touch—the fact that you showed up—will be appreciated and remembered for a long time. Such a brief and simple thing will never be thought of as an imposition.
Also, it is important to check on the bereaved in the weeks and months later. Often those prove a greater challenge than the chaotic days immediately following a loss.
Don’t be a pest; but don’t be a stranger. The bereaved need love, lest grief take them too far away from the Lord. “For the despairing man there should be kindness from his friend; so that he does not forsake the fear of the Almighty” (6:14).
2.) Silence is golden. Job’s three friends did their best work when they sat quietly with him (2:13). Often, when going through the funeral line, we struggle to figure out what to say. Actually, we don’t need to say anything! Often, it’s better to give a tender hug and sit down quietly (13:5).
If we do speak, we must be careful. It is extremely easy to say the wrong thing. Eliphaz suggested that if Job would be faithful, “your descendants will be many” (5:24). Did Eliphaz realize that he was pouring salt in Job’s wounds? Job had just suffered the death of his ten children! A time of grieving requires extreme sensitivity and care. Don’t put your foot in your mouth with clumsy comments. Also, please don’t be the guy who tells jokes and bursts out in laughter at a funeral.
3.) Don’t try to play God. It is so tempting to say things like, “God had a plan,” or, “It was his time,” or, “It was better this way.” Perhaps, but who are we to say? As Job said to his friends, “Will you contend for God?” (13:8). Often, these presumptuous assertions just make grieving people angry. Sometimes, they will even lash out.
Bereaved people don’t expect you to make it all better. Job asked his friends, “Have I said, ‘Give me something,’ …or ‘deliver me from the hand of the adversary?’ ” (6:23). Job wasn’t looking for solutions or answers; just a shoulder to cry on. It’s easy for a non-sufferer to launch into a lengthy philosophical discourse about the meaning of life. Job said, “I too could speak like you, if I were in your place” (16:4). Grievers don’t need to have all their cosmic questions sorted out. They just need time and comfort. Later, there will be a chance for trusted advisors to deal with the questions of life and purpose.
4.) Be patient. Grievers say things they don’t mean. There will be times when it seems like a griever insults God’s honor or questions God’s fairness. There leaps to the hearer’s mind a passage of Scripture to contradict the inaccuracy.
Before correcting every misstatement, realize that emotional people don’t think before they speak; within reason, they should be allowed a degree of latitude. Almost every time, they later reconsider their unguarded words.
Listen to Job in 6:1-4, “Oh that my grief were actually weighed, And laid in the balances together with my calamity! For then it would be heavier than the sand of the seas; Therefore my words have been rash…” Who knows what we would say or do, in the depths of such terrible loss? Who knows what unfairness we would accuse God of? Realize that, “the words of one in despair belong to the wind” (6:26). Let grievers vent for now, and let the wind carry the words away. Simply provide sympathy until cool-headed reason can return. —John Guzzetta