With friends like these…
“Can a mortal be just and upright before God? Can a person be pure before the Creator?” – Job 4:17 NLT
We all have them – well-meaning friends who step alongside us during times of difficulty and seasons of suffering spouting sanctimonious sermonettes on our condition. They’re the Scripture quoters who tend to quote passages they don’t fully understand and draw conclusions based on scant information and little or no experience. These people don’t intend to do hurt, but in their zeal to “encourage” they do more harm than good. Job’s friend, Eliphaz, was one of these types of individuals. In the midst of all of Job’s grief and suffering, he shows up on the scene lobbing all kinds of theological and psychological hand grenades into Job’s pity party.
He has taken one look at Job’s circumstance and reached a conclusion: Job is guilty of something! He has to be. Otherwise, why would he be suffering so much loss and pain? After all, he concludes, “evil does not spring from the soil, and trouble does not sprout from the earth. People are born for trouble as predictably as sparks fly upward from a fire” (Job 5:6-7 NLT). Bad things don’t just happen he tells Job. They’re the result of bad choices made by individuals. In other words, you reap what you sow. And Job must have sown some really wild oats at some time in his past. Sure, Eliphaz confesses, Job was a pretty good guy. He had be an encouragement to a lot of people over the years. He had been a source of comfort and strength to others when they needed him. He had always been there with a kind word and a listening ear. But he must have done something to deserve this bizarre turn of affairs. These things don’t just happen.
The problem with Eliphaz’s speech is that there is a lot of truth in it. He has a lot of good things to say. He just has bad timing and an even worse understanding of reality. He is speaking of things he doesn’t know. He is making assumptions about things he doesn’t understand. He is judging based on the circumstances, but can’t see what God sees. He can’t even see God working behind the scenes. And isn’t that how we work? We draw conclusions. We make assumptions. And we pass out words of wisdom like they were so much Valentine candy. We mix a touch of biblical truth with a little bit of our home-spun wisdom and then baste our friends with this toxic marinade of self-righteous piety. Eliphaz was dispensing truth like a doctor handing out prescriptions for a condition he had yet to diagnose – making perfectly safe drugs potentially deadly. We do that when we reach hasty conclusions about the spiritual condition of others based on circumstances alone. It reminds me of the story in the Gospel of John. Jesus is walking with His disciples and they encounter a man blind from birth. His disciples reveal a lot about their theology when they ask Jesus, “Teacher, why was this man born blind? Was it a result of his own sins or those of his parents?” (John 9:2 NLT). To their surprise, Jesus responded, “It was not because of his sins or his parents’ sins, he was born blind so the power of God could be seen in him” (John 9:3 NLT).
The truth is, we don’t know what God is doing behind the scenes. We don’t know why certain situations are as they are. But like Eliphaz, if we are not careful, we can hastily draw wrong conclusions and hand out poor advice. When Job needed comfort, he got unnecessary conviction. When he needed a listening ear, he got a lecture. Was a lot of what was said true? You bet. But it was misapplied and mistakenly meted out. In his commentary on the book of Job, John Gill says this about Eliphaz’s little speech:
“and he “said” not anything by way of condolence or consolation, not pitying Job’s case, nor comforting him in his afflicted circumstances, as they required both; but reproaching him as a wicked and hypocritical man, not acting like himself formerly, or according to his profession and principles, but just the reverse: this was a new trial to Job, and some think the sorest of all; it was as a sword in his bones, which was very cutting to him; as oil cast into a fiery furnace in which he now was, which increased the force and fury of it; and as to vinegar an opened and bleeding wound, which makes it smart the more”
A big part of ministering is learning to listen. A big part of providing comfort is in saying nothing. But if you’re going to say anything at all, maybe we could take notes from the words of Isaiah. “Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; say to those with fearful hearts, ‘Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you'” (Isaiah 35:4-5 NIV). Strengthen, steady, encourage, and point them to God. Lift them up, don’t tear them down. “A friend is always loyal, and a brother is born to help in time of need” (Proverbs 17:17 NLT).
Father, may I be a friend who encourages and lifts up. Give me discernment to know when to shut up instead of speaking up. May I wait for you to direct my words. May I not be hasty to hand out advice, but instead be quick to hand out love and compassion. Amen
Grow Pastor & Minister to Men