When Bad Things Happen to Someone Else

When Bad Things Happen to Someone Else

Previously, in Job:  bad things happened to a good person. 

Job was a really good guy with a really good life.

Then Satan suggested to God that Job might only be so good because he had it so good.

So God gave Satan permission to test that theory.  Satan destroyed Job’s good life: no more wealth, no more children, and no more health.

And when the dust from all that destruction settled, Job is left sitting in the dirt, scratching his painful sores with a piece of broken pottery.

With that bleak setup, we’re almost ready for Job’s friends to enter the scene.  But before we read their story, stop and put yourself in their shoes.  Imagine you had a friend like Job.  What would you do for him?  What would you say?    

I bet you’ve dealt with this question before, because if you have any friends at all (and I hope you do!) then odds are, they’ve had bad things happen.  Maybe you’ve had a friend who lost their retirement plan in a sickening stock market drop… or grieved the death of a child… or suffered with a debilitating illness.

When that bad thing happened, did you know how to respond?

Some people have a natural instinct for comforting others, but many of us do not.  It wasn’t a trait I was born with.  I remember two times in my teenage years when someone from our church youth group got sick in a scary way – stuck in the hospital or bedridden at home.  And my natural-born instinct was… nothing.  Either out of self-centeredness of lack of preparedness (or both) it didn’t occur to me to do anything for them.  Only through years of pastoral ministry – being required to make phone calls and visits in the tender moments of suffering – have I come to see the importance of being there for our friends when they face their worst.  After many, many such visits I’ve gained a humble understanding of what is helpful to do in those moments… and what is not.

So when Job’s friends enter the scene, I watch them through the lens of that pastoral experience.  I see them offer us a good example in three ways – and then make one very common mistake. 

Let’s watch and learn:

Now when Job’s three friends heard of all these troubles that had come upon him, each of them set out from his home—Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They met together to go and console and comfort him.  When they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him, and they raised their voices and wept aloud; they tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their heads.  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 (Job 2:11-13).

job-and-his-friends-1869.jpg!Blog

Job and His Friends, Ilya Repin (1869)

Reading this, I get the feeling that Job and Eliphaz and Bildad and Zophar were really good friends.  Have you ever been a part of a friend group?  I tend to make my friends one at a time, but a few times in my life I’ve been a part of a posse.  There’s a kind of magic to those groups – when you hang out together, dream together, celebrate together… and even comfort each other together.

I think Job had that kind of group… because when his life fell apart, these three friends were there for him.

First, they went to him.

Now when Job’s three friends heard of all these troubles that had come upon him, each of them set out from his home—Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They met together to go and console and comfort him.

When a close friend is in a really bad way, it’s almost always good to go and be there in person.

This can be a scary thing to do.  As a teenager, it was unthinkable.  I remember my mom encouraging me to go visit those sick friends from the youth group.  “Why would I go?” I objected.  “I don’t really know her that well.  What will I say when I get there?”  In one case, mom rolled her eyes and commanded me to get in my car, collect a few other friends for support, and go to the hospital.  In another, more serious situation she went with me.  Essentially, my mom commissioned my first pastoral care visits – long before I set foot in a seminary.  And what I learned was:  although those visits can feel awkward, there is something important about showing up when things are bad.

Even if you don’t show up for very long.

That’s the part that being a pastor has taught me.  Sometimes I go and I stay for several hours; sometimes it’s as short as 5 minutes.  It all depends on what’s going on and what the person needs.  But whether I stay for hours or minutes, I never regret going.  When a friend is truly suffering, it’s good to go to them.

Then, once Job’s friends got to him, they grieved with him.

When they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him, and they raised their voices and wept aloud; they tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their heads.

In my second year as a pastor a horrible tragedy hit our church.  I had to call a relative of one of the people who had died – and as I did, I was overwhelmed with emotion.  I couldn’t help my voice cracking from tears.  When I hung up the phone I thought, “Well, that wasn’t very professional.”

But later – as you might guess – that same family member told me how much it meant to her that I was feeling her pain, too.  Like Job’s friends with him, I was grieving with her.  When we go to someone who is suffering, feeling their pain and grieving with them are not to be underestimated.

This is not to say I should be a sloppy mess when I officiate funerals.  Neither does it mean that we should fake emotion.  It does mean we should really put our feet in our suffering friends’ shoes and understand what it’s like to be them.  We need to let their pain into our own hearts.  Sometimes we need to spend time listening to get to this point of empathy, which brings us close to the third thing Job’s friends do well.

They just sat there, saying nothing, for a whole week.

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.

Sometimes the best thing we can do is simply to be present.

I remember going to visit a woman named Jean Christy – a beautiful, faithful, wickedly funny soul who lived to be 111.  Toward the end of her life I’d go to see her and she’d be sleeping so hard, I couldn’t wake her.  So I’d sit in her room for a little while, sometimes saying silent prayers.  That didn’t feel like wasted time.

I think, too, of my mom.  When she was nearing the end of her battle with cancer, some of my visiting time was just sitting beside her, watching TV.  I remember once in particular, when I got in bed with her and we laid there quietly watching some bad movie, saying very little.  That didn’t feel like wasted time, either.

When someone is suffering, it’s so very good to go to them and grieve with them and just sit with them.  But remember this, too:

Job and Eliphaz and Bildad and Zophar were really good friends.

Whether or not you go to someone – and how you act once you get there – will be determined by how close you really are with that someone.  As you decide how to be there for a friend, consider the nature of your relationship.  If you’re not already close, this is probably not the time to develop a best-friendship.  It’s good to make yourself available; it’s bad to force yourself on someone at a time when they want to be alone.

So there are the three good things that Job’s friends do when he’s suffering:  they go to him; they grieve with him; they sit in silence with him.  Now, here’s their one big mistake, the example we should not follow:

They try to explain away Job’s problems.

After a week of sitting in silence, Job opens his mouth to complain.  And he has some pretty serious complaints – cursing the day he was born and challenging God to a courtroom showdown.  His friends respond one by one.  They explain what caused Job’s problems (he must have sinned!).  They tell Job what he should do (repent!).  Most of the book of Job – from chapter 3 to 37 – is a long, long debate between Job and his friends.  With each passing chapter, Job seems to become more and more agitated.  The friends insist that Job sinned, and Job insists that he did not.

Job’s friends did so many good things for him.

This debate isn’t one of them.

I think we often say the wrong things when bad things happen because we feel a need to say something.  The silence is awkward.  We want to explain what happened, to find some reason in it.  But look – if Job teaches us anything, it’s that bad things just happen sometimes.  At the end of Job, when God finally shows up, God offers no explanation except that God is God.  Which is completely unsatisfying, except that it’s satisfyingly true to life.  There isn’t always a reason for bad things happening.  It’s very tempting to make up a reason – but doing so isn’t helpful.

The next time you have a friend who is terribly suffering, you might feel tempted to tell him what caused his problems.  Or you might think you know just what the solution is – and oh, you want to tell her what to do.

Stop.  Back up.

Before you say any of that, follow the three good examples of Job’s friends.  Go to the one who is suffering; feel their grief; sit with them in silence.

By doing so, you will represent our God – the one who came to us, the one who feels our grief, the one who stays with us.

Amen.


Credit to Talbot Davis, whose 2010 sermon sparked the idea that led to this one.

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