What do you do with suffering? More pointedly, what do you do to help other people who are suffering?
Suffering has been on my mind of late, and it is a major part of my new novel (which I’m trying to get published) not to mention a major part of my vocational ministry. In addition to that, right now my daily Bible reading has me in squarely in the middle of Job. Job, who was so tortured by The Satan that he lost his wealth, his livelihood, his children, and eventually his health. He is the pinnacle of suffering.
But alas, three friends show up: Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. These three friends, along with a fourth one who comes later, named Elihu, speak to Job in his pain. The things they say are very theologically sound and it is things we would agree with. For example, here are some of Zophar’s words:
Can you find out the deep things of God? Can you find out the limit of the Almighty? It is higher than heaven–what can you do? Deeper than Sheol–what can you know? Its measure is longer than the earth, and broader than the sea . . . If you direct your heart rightly, you will stretch out your hands toward him. If iniquity is in your hand, put it far away, and do not let wickedness reside in your tents.” Job 8:7-9, 13-14 (NRSV)
See, they say good things, so why are they so wrong? Why does God judge them at the end when he vindicates Job?
Here is why. They have good theology but absolutely no compassion. Theology is helpful for people to know before suffering comes and it is helpful long after the suffering has passed, but in the midst; in the midst of pain theology is lousy. What we human beings need is empathy and care, love and concern. When helping those who are suffering:
1. Keep your mouth closed–People who are in pain do not need to hear your words. There is nothing you can say to make it better, so don’t even try.
2. Do not defend God or his ways–NEVER NEVER NEVER say something stupid like “God must have a reason for this” and then quote Romans 8:28. You are not being helpful. When people say things like that in the midst of pain what they are actually doing is relieving their own tension.
3. Resist the temptation to rebut the sufferer’s feelings–This was the big sin of Job’s friends. Whenever Job would complain about his emotional grief, they would give cold, calloused theological and philosophical reflection to try and “help” Job see how he was wrong. Don’t do that.
4. Don’t stay away–For all the things they did wrong, you’ve got to hand it to Job’s friends, at least they showed up! Many of us think “I don’t know what to say or do,” so we just ignore others in their pain. We don’t call, text or message. We just wait. That is the worst thing. True friendship and love pulls up a chair and sits.
One of the greatest miracles of the Bible is that Job is in it, because it flies in the face of so many of our preconceived notions about the Lord. In many ways it serves as a textbook to us on how to minister–the do’s and don’ts– to those who are suffering.