“They don’t need to say anything. Just be there.”
Those words, or a variation, come up again and again when I talk with people about what they need when they’re hurting. You’ll also find this advice in books, articles, and interviews talking about how to interact with grieving people. Don’t try to compare your pain to theirs, or explain it away, or slap verbal band aids on the wound. Just be there for them.
Whenever we think about suffering in the Bible, Job is one of the first stories that comes to mind. This man lost seven sons and three daughters all in one day, along with all his wealth. Shortly after that, Satan struck him “with painful sores from the soul of his foot to his head” (Job 1:13-22; 2:7-8, all quotes from WEB). Family, wealth, and health all gone in a moment. Job was about as low as you can humanly get. And so his three best friends came to comfort him and to teach us important lessons about how to interact with hurting people.
Comfort, Sympathy, and Silence
Now when Job’s three friends heard of all this evil that had come on him, they each came from his own place: Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite; and they made an appointment together to come to sympathize with him and to comfort him. When they lifted up their eyes from a distance, and didn’t recognize him, they raised their voices, and wept; and they each tore his robe, and sprinkled dust on their heads toward the sky. So they sat down with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his grief was very great. (Job 2:11-13)
Things started out well. 1) they cared about Job enough to keep track of what was going on with him and know he needed support. 2) they came to him for the purpose of comfort and sympathy. 3) they shared in his grief, weeping with him. 4) they didn’t talk; they just sat with him and waited to see what he’d need.
All these are things we can and should do do for people who are hurting. We need to keep in touch with our friends so we know when they need us, as well as make time to go to them in their distress. And once we get there, we need to be with them in what they’re feeling. You don’t always have to try to make someone feel better. Just feel what they’re feeling with them.
The Wrong Perspective
Job was the first to speak. He “opened his mouth, and cursed the day of his birth” (Job 3:1). He’s asking why he was ever born if this is how things turn out. He sums up his lament with the words, “I am not at ease, neither am I quiet, neither do I have rest; but trouble comes” (Job 3:26).
Eliphaz responds in a very human way, asking, “If someone ventures to talk with you, will you be grieved? But who can withhold himself from speaking?” (Job 4:2). He knew his words might offend Job but, like so many of us, he had something to say and couldn’t stop himself from sharing his opinion and advice. Here’s where things go off-track.
As the story progresses, all three friends offer their take on why Job is suffering and how he should respond. To quote my study Bible (edited by Spiros Zodhiates), “These three men missed the basic truth that affliction is not always punishment.” In blaming Job for his problems, they earned a rebuke from God.
It was so, that after Yahweh had spoken these words to Job, Yahweh said to Eliphaz the Temanite, “My wrath is kindled against you, and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me the thing that is right, as my servant Job has. (Job. 42:7)
They are later reconciled to both God and their friend Job (42:8-10), but this is a sobering statement. Not only did they fail to comfort Job, but they also angered God by the way they spoke about Him. We don’t want to fall into the same snare as Job’s friends did when we are speaking to hurting people.
Attacking A Friend
We know the friends’ theology was flawed, but so was their approach to Job in his grief. During the course of their conversations, Job makes several comments on the effect of his friends’ words that show us what not to do when we’re talking to someone in grief.
“Behold, my eye has seen all this. My ear has heard and understood it. What you know, I know also. I am not inferior to you. … But you are forgers of lies. You are all physicians of no value. Oh that you would be completely silent! Then you would be wise. Hear now my reasoning. Listen to the pleadings of my lips.” (Job 13:1-2, 4-6)
Grieving, hurting people don’t need lectures on what you think the purpose of suffering is or how they brought this on themselves (especially if you’re wrong, as these men were).They don’t need someone to talk down to them, but to listen and to offer comfort.
Then Job answered, “I have heard many such things. You are all miserable comforters! Shall vain words have an end? Or what provokes you that you answer? I also could speak as you do. If your soul were in my soul’s place, I could join words together against you, and shake my head at you, but I would strengthen you with my mouth. The solace of my lips would relieve you. Though I speak, my grief is not subsided. Though I forbear, what am I eased?” (Job 16:1-6, WEB)
It might help some people to have a rousing intellectual discussion while suffering, but not if its infused with blaming the sufferer (as happens in Job 11:3-6, for example). Our words should strengthen people and ease their pain, not make them more miserable.
Then Job answered, “How long will you torment me, and crush me with words? You have reproached me ten times. You aren’t ashamed that you attack me.” (Job 19:1-3)
This shouldn’t be something any of us want to hear. If we’ve gone to comfort a friend and offer sympathy they shouldn’t feel attacked. They should feel encouraged and built-up.
Always Speak In Love
So how ought we to speak to each other? Paul offers some tips, which tell us to speak in love for the purpose of building others up. These tips apply to all our communications, whether someone is grieving or not.
Let no corrupt speech proceed out of your mouth, but only what is good for building others up as the need may be, that it may give grace to those who hear. Don’t grieve the Holy Spirit of God, in whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, outcry, and slander be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind to one another, tender hearted, forgiving each other, just as God also in Christ forgave you. (Eph. 4:29-32, WEB)
I’d encourage you to read all of Ephesians 4, as it talks about how we should treat one another, build each other up, and speak the truth in love. All our interactions must be characterized by the love of God if we’re part of Christ’s body.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort; who comforts us in all our affliction, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, through the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. (2 Cor. 1:3)
One of the reasons “the God of all comfort” extends comfort and mercy to us is so that we can learn how to comfort the people around us. As we accept His comfort, we learn to extend that same comfort to other people. We must learn how to do this not in a blaming way, as Job’s friends did, but with mercy, understanding, and sympathy knowing that we also need comfort at times.
Featured image credit: Ulrike Mai via Pixabay