Does anyone imagine that he or she is
like Job? This oldest lesson in the Bible is a reminder that
suffering is not necessarily caused only by sin. Some things are “acts of God,” although in Job’s case the cause was Satan, with God’s permission. Of course,
sometimes a person’s sins do lead to earthly consequences
—excessive drinking causes cirrhosis of the liver, drunk driving
may kill others or oneself, promiscuity may end in AIDS and unplanned
children. It’s therefore easy to make the next seemingly logical
step and assume that all a person’s calamities must come from his
or her own sin, as Job’s friends did. Of course, today, our culture has replaced sin with psychosis and godly friends with professional therapists.
I’m sure Job’s friends were trying
to help. They believed his suffering would end if he would only face
his mistakes, the first example of an intervention when those who
care most attempt to confront a person with what they refuse to face.
We have the benefit of divine perspective. Job was the most
righteous man on earth, and he suffered the loss of everything but
his life—his wealth and property, his children, his health, and
even the support of his wife, who advised him to “Curse God and
die.” I can’t imagine how Job must have felt at the depth of his
loss, and I doubt he thought himself as any better than anyone. Did
he struggle with self-doubt? I suspect few normal people escape some
measure of introspection. Still, when his friends hammered him with
their accusations, he couldn’t agree with them. Was he in denial?
When the time came and God finally spoke (Yes, He is there, and
sometimes He is silent for a time), He had things to say to Job, but He had even
more to say to His friends. To Job, basically He said, “Stop
whining; I’m God and you’re not!” To the friends, He
vindicated Job and, to prove it, blessed him more than before.
Over the years, as I have faced my own
challenges, I have thought of Job; I rarely felt I could compare
myself to him. It is too easy to see my own failings and guilt, and
my own inner voice echoes Job’s friends. I’ve known others who
express the same things—regret, false guilt, genuine guilt, and
self-doubt. Sometimes the voices are the lingering voices of
others—a parent, a critical teacher, the mean voices of children,
or even a friend—seeds planted by others that grow and produce
bitter fruit long after the original voices are gone. It takes considerable grace for a boy, whose mother often told him he was just like his worthless father, to find genuine self-esteem and believe it. I dated a girl who still thought she was fat and ugly when she was neither. How many who had a teacher embarrass them publicly came to believe themselves stupid and incapable? We know that the victims of physical and sexual abuse carry inner burdens almost too heavy to bear. Physical shortcomings, handicaps, and genuine guilt for bad choices all leave their mark, deeply influencing a person’s sense of self.
As little as I see myself as Job, I’m
even less likely to picture myself as one of Job’s friends. In our
relativistic age that tends to scorn absolutes, one might guess that
nobody criticizes anyone for anything any more, but that is an
illusion. The harshness of politics, talk radio, and the media
reflect a more critical and judgmental climate than before this
world’s sages rejected absolutes. We would like to believe that Christians demonstrate a better way, but too often we take our pattern from the culture around us, allow our own twisted sense of self-righteousness, or self-importantly assume a measure of spiritual discernment that we don’t possess to lead us to abuse the very ones we intend to help. Even worse, we may mishandle others for the simple reason of our own selfish wishes. How else do even Christian spouses and parents or ministers and priests turn their privilege into dishonorable sins of the most horrible kind?
Have you noticed how hard it is to have
a civil disagreement about anything important? Unless a person
enjoys arguing, many avoid saying anything rather than get a harsh
response. We spend our time with people who agree with us, for the
most part, but then we have no chance to change minds. With
hostility toward Christianity growing in our culture, this means we
may have little contact with those who don’t share our beliefs and
little opportunity to tell them about Jesus. In this environment, a
Biblical worldview is slipping away even from believers, leading to a
loss of righteousness, spiritual health, and lasting, satisfying
relationships. Whether ideology, personal opinion, or individual
problems, either people fear saying anything, or they say the wrong
thing. Just this morning, one of the pastors mentioned watching a Christian face off against an atheist, and the nonbeliever simply made his case, while the believer took cheap shots and mocked his opponent. Whatever we’re trying to say, to whomever we seek to say it, for whatever reason however worthy, any manner that isn’t as Paul recommended in Colossians 4:5-7–“Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone“–will fail.
How do we deal with someone less than
Job-like? I don’t think the answer is in Job’s friends. For us
believers, the answer comes in the words and example of Jesus. He
told us to love one another, like He loves us, to love our neighbor
as ourselves, which Paul (mostly in passages all through the epistles) amplifies with “Be kind and compassionate
with one another, build up one another, encourage one another, bear
with one another, be patient with each other, stop passing judgment
on one another, serve one another in love, clothe yourselves with
humility toward one another, wait for one another, have equal concern
for one another, offer hospitality to one another without grumbling,
bear each other’s burdens, pray for one another, accept one another
as Christ accepted you, teach and admonish one another, forgive each
other, and stimulate one another to love and good deeds.” “Love,”
“build up,” and “encourage one another” are written several
times each; “admonish” is given only once and coupled with
teaching. In I Corinthians 13:1-3, Paul said what we do without love
is empty, pointless, and useless, and that probably also means
powerless, too. Not only does a graceless approach fail to work with unbelievers, an unloving approach does work with anyone.
Jesus almost never rebuked anyone;
those He did were hypocritical religious leaders. Peter, His most
challenging disciple in some respects, He chided a few times.
Mostly, He dealt with sin, even sins like adultery, with compassion
and forgiveness. For all His perfect sinlessness, He understood the frailty of humans, and though it grieved him, he responded with compassion and tenderness. This greatest of all men didn’t do “macho!” He was virile enough that he could be kind, sympathetic, forgiving, and unbelievably patient.
So, on the one hand, we have Job
suffering terrible loss despite his outstanding righteousness. On
the other, we have Jesus, the sinless Son of God. As sinners, none
of us measures up to either of them. We’re more like Job’s
friends. We may restrain ourselves in the broader society where our
opinions are often unwelcome–and sometimes not–but among our intimates, ah, there we
can let go! We, by no means have a corner on the market, but it is a scandal how often Christians shoot their own wounded.
Perhaps the worst place is in the home.
Nice people don’t abuse their children, yet I suspect Job’s
friends were nice people. Then didn’t intend to harm; they meant
to help. How often do parents or spouses do the same thing?
Well-intended words produce unintended consequences. Instead of
speaking the truth in love, perceived truths are dispensed harshly,
unkindly, without love. Words intended to teach, correct, and
discipline become nothing but persistent criticism, leaving a child
feeling incapable and unloved. It’s so easy to be Job’s
friend to a child.
Kids are imperfect, offspring of
imperfect parents, but loving parents must not allow their own
failings to keep them from nurturing with encouragement and
kindness. A spouse may be difficult and controlling or passive and
unresponsive; no one is likely to find a perfect mate. For sinners
to deal with sinners, only the loving way is the right way and the
way most likely to be effective. Sadly, unpleasant experiences lead
to the more negative approachs, and people learn to dish out what has
been dumped on them. Our view of things becomes twisted, but yet we
imagine we are doing right, trying to force what may be cultivated and called forth only
As they say, we often find ourselves on
the horns of a dilemma, facing a difficult or demanding person,
someone struggling with issues for which we may have wisdom. Do we
say nothing and avoid conflict, or do we assert ourselves. The wrong
choice may be as bad as nothing. Love can’t be weak, but neither
dare it be aggressive. Neither silence nor brutality are kind or effective.
Consider this example: A man watches
his friend in a flooded river being pulled toward a falls that will
surely kill him. He knows him well, and he knows he can swim; but,
instead of swimming, he is flailing and screaming for help. The man
on the shore has a rope, but the water is cold, he would get wet, and
perhaps he would even put himself in danger because the waters are
fast and deep. It seems so pointless when his friend can swim.
There’s also a rescue team who will grab him if only he would swim
toward them, but he can’t see them and either won’t or can’t
hear his friend on shore telling him to swim toward them. He keeps yelling but makes no effort to do more. He watches
his friend go over the falls. Afterward, he says, “I tried to help
him, but he just wouldn’t listen.”
I believe the teachings of Jesus and
the New Testament are the wisdom of the Creator in how to deal best
with His fallen, fallible, sometimes weak people. My example is an
exaggeration to make a point. A person may need to reach out to
someone for help but will do probably do it only if he or she sees
the need and believes that help is there. A friend’s perspective may be
right, but it may also be wrong. Regardless, love is more likely to
lead others to help than assertiveness will drive them there. I
person may feel they are drowning and that there is no one to pull
them to shore, and the wrong kind of help may leave them floundering.
In every adult, there is a child that needs kindness, patience, and
understanding, and not just discipline. Tough love may have its
place, but it’s easy to be too tough and destroy the love altogether.
I fear we have abandoned the family of God for rugged individualism. I was impressed to read Larry Crabb’s concept of the power of relational connection. He believes, and I suspect he is correct, that we have substituted therapy for the power of the spirit in the community of believers. Paul quotes Jesus as saying it is more blessed to give than to receive, but only in community is there the likelihood of both. In isolation, we are too likely to find or become Job’s friends,
I have been Job, though not as
devastated and certainly not as righteous. My claim to perfect
righteousness exists by faith in Jesus Christ. Too often, I have been
Job’s friend, and I regret that. I have tried to focus on being
a friend, hoping that I will pass on by example the lessons of
friendship and spiritual brotherhood that I have learned and that the
things of friendship that I want and perhaps need would be returned
to me. I don’t have the right to demand them, however much I want
them, even if I feel I’m starving for affection, yearning for a kind word, hoping for positive
encouragement, or wishing to experience words and actions that say, “I like you.”
Being hungry doesn’t give me an excuse to steal food from others.
Being a professional counselor or
pastor doesn’t mitigate the responsibility to love, even as we
attempt to give wise counsel. I’ve heard to many stories of
presumptive and arrogant givers of advice, profession and not, where
a person believes they know what another should do. As the years
have gone by, and I have gained experience, wisdom as well I trust, I find
myself much less bold in giving advice. I try to listen more and
lead a person to discover God’s wisdom for themselves. Practically, this
encourages ownership so that when a person with a problem “discovers”
a solution, with or without my help, he or she will actually follow through with
it. Often, those who receive “second hand” solutions will actually
apply them with conviction and confidence.
Have you ever wondered what Job’s
friends should have done? Here was a person, their friend, no less,
who had lost his livelihood, his property, his children, his health,
and the support of his own wife, and they lectured him! Could they
have helped him through his impoverishment financially? Might they
not have built him a new home? Surely, they should have comforted
him in his grief (which they did in spending some quiet time with
him)? I have noticed that people often expect others to “get
over” their grief as soon as the funeral is past, but in this case,
they basically told Job that his own sin ultimately killed his kids! And what kind
of compassionate care might they have offered as he lay sick and
miserable? Job’s wife, of course, was suffering virtually all that
Job had suffered, not only as a bereaved mother, impoverished wife, and
exhausted caregiver, but as one who had lost her faith, one thing Job
never did. If ever there was a home in need of patient,
compassionate encouragement, Job’s home was it…but Job’s friends
did none of this, as far as we know. They added insult to injury and
chided and reproved him, escalating the rhetoric as his resistance to
their opinions increased.
Lord spare us from being like Job’s
friends. Lord keep me from becoming like them. As much as I hope
never to suffer the kind of loss that Job did, I hope, even more, not
to be like them.
Have you ever wondered what temptation might really be like? How about trying to discern the devil’s wiles without the promises God has given to protect us from more than we can handle? Want to see how the effects of abuse and oppression might play out in the midst of such temptation? That’s a lot what Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant books are like. This is the second book in his third trilogy, and I confess it can be tortuous going. Sometimes, I see my own twisted reasoning, but mostly I see how despair might play out without any assurance that a “happy ending” lies ahead, without divine assurance that evil has been defeated. The idea of “Get thee behind me Satan” gets creative attention, but it isn’t Jesus who is trying to discern good and evil in the voices, not only of enemies but friends. It’s a good story, but it’s much darker (and longer) than Tolkien…and not nearly as amusing as C. S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters.