I wonder if I would ever sit silently with a friend for seven days out of respect for his suffering.

I wonder if I would ever stay with him after he began to talk for the hours or days it took him to grieve his loss, to get in touch with his feelings, and to stand against his God.

I wonder if I would ever stay with him long enough to stand up for his God and to be rebuked by his God for it in the end.

I wonder if I would ever love someone enough to spend hours accusing him as a means of defending my bad theology against my friend’s suffering that would, in the end, invalidate my theology. I wonder if I would ever love someone enough to risk the kind of abyss the loss of such a closely held theology might lead me down.

Would I love him enough to discover that I truly hate him, that the comfort I offer makes everything worse for him?

When I was younger, I tried to avoid hospitals, nursing homes, viewings, funerals — anything that required me to get close to other people in their sufferings. I didn’t know what to say to comfort the sick and the bereaved. Job’s friends later taught me by their example that I don’t have to say anything, and that it is important just to call, just to visit.

At one point, I also shared Job’s friends’ judgmental theology: suffering generally results from sin. My theology was another reason for my avoidance of hospitals and funeral homes. The sick and the dying pitted my heart against my stiff, sick understanding of God. Job’s friends could have helped me here, too. By following their example, I might have stuck it out with others in tight quarters where, sooner or later, God would have shown up and challenged my thinking.

I see the same struggle I went through going on in each of Job’s friends. The struggle plays out in their speeches to Job. They try to help Job by preaching to him about God’s judgment and, in the process, making not-overly-subtle references to the tragedies that rocked Job’s world. For example, Zophar, knowing full well that all ten of Job’s children died when a great wind blew down the house where they were eating, is kind enough to remind Job that ” . . . God shall cast the fury of his wrath upon [the hypocrite], and shall rain it upon him while he is eating.” (Job 20:23)

The following may be only a partial list of remarks by Job’s friends demonstrating how they connect Job’s suffering with what they judge to be his sin:

Job’s disaster (chapter:verse) Friends’ remarks to Job (chapter:verse)
The Sabiens take Job’s oxen (1:15), and the Chaldeans take Job’s camels (1:17) “Whose harvest the hungry eateth up, and taketh it even out of the thorns, and the robber swalloweth up [foolish men’s] substance. (5:5) “[The wicked] shall not be rich, neither shall his substance continue. . .” (15:29)”The robber shall prevail against [the wicked].” (18:9)”In the fullness of [the wicked’s] sufficiency he shall be in straits; every hand of the wicked shall come upon him.” (20:22)”The increase of [the wicked’s] house shall depart, and his goods shall flow away in the day of his wrath.” (20:28)

 

The sole surviving servant over the oxen and the sole surviving servant over the camels escape and tell Job the news (1:15 & 17) “A dreadful sound is in the [the wicked man’s] ears: in prosperity the destroyer shall come upon him.” (15:21)
“The fire of God is fallen from heaven, and hath burned up the sheep, and the servants…” (1:16) “. . . brimstone shall be scattered upon [the wicked’s] habitation.” (18:15) “The heaven shall reveal [the wicked man’s] iniquity… (20:27)”… the [estate] of [the wicked] the fire consumeth.” (22:20)
A great wind blows Job’s son’s house down, crushing and killing all of Job’s children while they are eating (1:18-19) “Remember, I pray thee, who ever perished, being innocent? or where were the righteous cut off?” (4:7) “[The foolish man’s] children are far from safety, and they are crushed in the gate, neither is there any to deliver them.” (5:4)”If thy children have sinned against [God], and he have cast them away for their transgression. . .” (8:4)”[The hypocrite] shall lean upon his house, but it shall not stand. . .” (8:15)”[The wicked] shall neither have son nor nephew among his people, nor any remaining in his dwellings.” (18:19)

“When [the wicked and the hypocrite] is about to fill his belly, God shall cast the fury of his wrath upon him, and shall rain it upon him while he is eating.” (20:23)

 


I suppose one could read Eliphaz’s, Bildad’s, and Zophar’s remarks in light of Job’s tragedies and figure that these friends are simply somewhat insensitive. In this way, one might give them the benefit of the doubt, supposing that they might have added, “present company excepted” to each remark had the events of Job’s trial come to their minds during their orations. It is difficult to believe, however, that these three friends would have so entirely forgotten the remarkable events that had led them to remain silent with Job for seven days. Surely the correlations in the above table are more than instances of insensitivity.

Why do these three friends act this way? Logically, of course, they proceed abductively from a faulty explanation. They believe that sin causes all suffering. At a certain stage of many people’s spiritual life, this simplistic belief reinforces itself. At an immature stage of my spiritual life, I may judge others in order to feel good about myself. This makes me quite conscious of other people’s faults. (Needless to say, my judgments are often quite inaccurate.) I am susceptible both to fixating on others’ sins and to accepting the explanation that their sin causes their suffering.

But the root of Job’s friends’ behavior is really not logic but the unrecognized fear that drives the logic. Job’s trials must have scared his friends. After all, if sin doesn’t cause all suffering, what would keep these guys from fates similar to Job’s? What good would their religion be if it ceased to protect them or even to make them feel comfortable or good about themselves? What good would their religion be to them if its essential purpose were not their well-being?

Before Job’s friends show up, the third-person omniscient narrator points out that Job does not “sin with his lips” despite all of his losses. Later, though, his friends’ fear drives them to remonstrate with him, and their attacks in turn drive Job to defend his righteousness. (His rebuttals against their accusations also include some snappy and sometimes sarcastic rejoinders:

Do you imagine to reprove words, and the speeches of one that is desperate, which are as wind? (6:26)

No doubt but ye are the people, and wisdom shall die with you. (12:2)

But ye are forgers of lies, ye are all physicians of no value. (13:4)

I have heard many such things: miserable comforters are ye all. (16:2))

Job’s friends stick around, and Job’s stubborn penchant for justifying himself against God eventually causes them to lose all subtlety. By chapter twenty-two, for instance, Eliphaz no longer requires Job to put two and two together:

Is not they wickedness great? and thine iniquities infinite? For thou hast taken a pledge from thy brother for naught, and stripped the naked of their clothing. Thou hast not given water to the weary to drink, and thou hast withholden bread from the hungry. (22:5-7)

The narrator starts the book by telling us that Job is “perfect and upright, and one that feared God and eschewed evil.” (1:1) The narrator returns after the speechifying to sum up everyone’s chief faults. Job has “justified himself rather than God.” Job’s friends have “found no answer, and yet had condemned Job.” (32:2-3)

Why do I and others I know feel like we have to have answers? What drives us to bright-line theologies that we will defend at the expense of old friendships and normal human kindness? My own experience tells me that fear is involved. Perhaps we have a premonition that, by pretending to possess God, we have grabbed a patient, powerful tiger by the tail.

Yet I have nothing on Job’s friends. I’m not sure I would have goaded Job to defend himself, and I’m not sure I would have risked having my theology ripped away from me by the God it turns out I never knew. At once comfortable and vaguely uneasy in my piety, I’m not sure I would have shown up to comfort Job in the first place.

Posted July 2006