Miserable comforters

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The world cannot abide innocent suffering.  It unnerves us, to put it mildly.  Some of this is compassion.  But much of it is fear and selfishness.

Our (subterranean) thought processes go something like this:  If tragedy really is indiscriminate, then the world really is an unsafe place to make my home.  If my careful preparations, my hard work, my risk assessments, health and safety policies, due diligence, fitness regimes, good diet and general moral rectitude do not protect me from suffering  then…  dear me, I may just have to face the world depending only on the LORD who giveth and taketh away.  That’s an unbearable proposition for natural humanity.

So when our friend is sick we feel a twinge of empathy.  But if they persist in being ill, it’s scary how quickly compassion can turn to criticism.  (For some modern examples and comment, read my wife’s brilliant article on impatience with patients).

– You need to try Goji berries, anti-oxidants will do the trick
– I started doing X and my life’s never been the same, you should try it
– I read an article saying it’s caused by Y, you should cut Y out
– I hate  to say it, but I saw this coming, you should have been more Z…

What are the assumptions here?  We assume that life works according to laws.  Keep the laws, life goes well.  Break the laws and pay the price.  It’s easy for the advice-givers to say this, because their happy circumstances prove the myth that we desperately want to believe: my life is in my hands and my good works will save me.

Job had to endure such “miserable comforters.”  In fact he coined the phrase “miserable comforters” (Job 16:2) and we’ve found it ringing true for the best part of four millennia!

We have seen the sufferings of Job – he loses his sons and daughters, his livestock and his servants on a single day.  His family and his wealth are devastated.  Then in Job chapter 2, he loses his health as well.

[Satan] smote Job with sore boils from the sole of his foot unto his crown. And he took him a potsherd to scrape himself withal; and he sat down among the ashes.  (Job 2:7-8)

When his friends hear about it, they do the right thing:

When Job’s three friends heard of all this evil that was come upon him, they came every one from his own place; Eliphaz the Temanite, and Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite: for they had made an appointment together to come to mourn with him and to comfort him.  And when they lifted up their eyes afar off, and knew him not, they lifted up their voice, and wept; and they rent every one his mantle, and sprinkled dust upon their heads toward heaven.  So they sat down with him upon the ground seven days and seven nights, and none spake a word unto him: for they saw that his grief was very great.  (Job 2:11-13)

They come in sympathy, they sit with Job and are silent.  This is the best thing these friends do in the whole book.  For a whole week they manage to bite their tongue.  It’s when they open their mouths that the trouble starts.

First we hear from Eliphaz.  Here’s a snapshot of his philosophy:

Remember, I pray thee, who ever perished, being innocent? or where were the righteous cut off?  (Job 4:7)

Eliphaz simply has no category for righteous suffering.  Therefore Job’s suffering means unrighteousness, and Eliphaz doesn’t mind pointing that out.

Job takes a few chapters to respond – he really is innocent and he really is suffering.  But Bildad has enough of this nonsense.  He pipes up in chapter 8:

Then answered Bildad the Shuhite, and said,  How long wilt thou speak these things? and how long shall the words of thy mouth be like a strong wind?  Doth God pervert judgment? or doth the Almighty pervert justice?  If thy children have sinned against him, and he have cast them away for their transgression;  If thou wouldest seek unto God betimes, and make thy supplication to the Almighty;  If thou wert pure and upright; surely now he would awake for thee, and make the habitation of thy righteousness prosperous.  (Job 8:1-6)

Do you hear what Bildad is saying?  Your children had it coming to them and if you were truly upright you wouldn’t suffer like this!

With friends like these, eh?

Well in chapters 9 and 10 Job continues to insist – this really is innocent suffering.  Job is always stressing both things – it’s truly undeserved and it’s truly awful.  But our human nature can’t handle that.  So Zophar speaks up for miserable comforters everywhere.  Yes Job things are bad now but…

If thou prepare thine heart, and stretch out thine hands toward him;  If iniquity be in thine hand, put it far away, and let not wickedness dwell in thy tabernacles.  For then shalt thou lift up thy face without spot; yea, thou shalt be stedfast, and shalt not fear:  (Job 11:13-15)

Be more devoted Job, then things will turn out alright!

What can be said to that?  A bit of withering sarcasm seems best!

And Job answered and said,  No doubt but ye are the people, and wisdom shall die with you!  (Job 12:1)

It’s a wonderful riposte from Job!  But honestly, the advice of these friends is no laughing matter.  It’s torment!  Job says to them:

How long will ye vex my soul, and break me in pieces with words? (Job 19:2)

But this is where all “comfort” will end if the comforters don’t know the grace of God.  If friends don’t have Jesus Christ – the Ultimate Innocent and the Ultimate Sufferer – at the heart of their thinking and speaking, they will only end up tormenting the sufferers. They will only end up laying laws on the already burdened.

But thankfully, Job knew another Friend.  He speaks of Him in chapter 16.  Let me give you a more modern translation of it:

Even now my witness is in heaven; my advocate is on high. My intercessor is my friend as my eyes pour out tears to God; on behalf of a man he pleads with God as a man pleads for his friend.  (Job 16:19-21; NIV)

No-one on earth seems to believe in innocent suffering.  But Job knows One in heaven who certainly does.  This Friend in high places would suffer for the sins of the world, and He is Job’s Witness, Advocate, Intercessor and Friend.

In suffering, He is the one true comfort.  All our comforting must lead back to Him.

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