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

One thought on “Job’s friends

  1. Peter
    Thanks, kasturi. What a lovely comment.

    I’d like to see a book or movie about your great-grandfather. What a story.

    And it does seem like many who suffer most seem able to care for others the most.

    I love your line: “Suffering humbles us all, whether it is our own or someone else’s.” I’ve often thought about that expression, “I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.” I don’t think that points to any virtue in us, but I think it may point to how deep suffering — even imagined — can lead us again to our common humanity.
    February 4, 2010, 9:44:00 PM EST – Reply

    Guest
    i remember, back in the days when i was studying theology, people used to say the three marys were the true disciples of xt because they stayed at the foot of the cross with him through his ordeal.

    it is hard to be a faithful witness, though, i’ve found – especially to mental suffering.

    when i was going through difficulties in my youth (i’d rather not say what), my great-grandfather’s bible came into my hands and books like proverbs and job had passages marked in pencil. he lost his leg in the civil war and had ‘phantom pain’ for the rest of his life. he was possibly tricked but nevertheless did the right thing and married a woman of ‘low estate’ (mixed race, with children out of wedlock). he lost his position as county clerk as a result and what was left of his family spurned him. yet his bible, unlike other bibles in my possession, seemed to send up waftings of peace, serenity and strength to me when i would read it, and this experience helped me through that awful period in my life.

    the way some people handle their suffering is amazing. i’ve seen this in people i’ve known personally as well. it’s like ‘they’ can help ‘you’ when it’s supposed to be the other way round. in scripture, suffering is likened to a furnace that refines gold, and i have found that those who hav suffered often make better comfortors than those whose lives have had a different orientation, like ambition and success, both laudable in society’s eyes, and jolly lots of fun.

    anyway, suffering humbles us all, whether it is our own or someone else’s. thank you for writing about this subject close to my heart.
    February 4, 2010, 12:17:21 PM EST – Reply

    Peter
    Job is strange comfort, isn’t it? I know James uses it to comfort his readers.
    January 28, 2010, 1:43:12 AM EST – Reply

    Evan
    Yeah, I too am definitely picking up on you holding this up as a lens on Haiti. Job is comforting — strangely. I will walk around thinking about this angle on Haiti.

    —-

    Another Job point: I always wondered who the heck was God talking to in the beginning when his buddies goad him to test Job. Who were God’s buddies.
    January 26, 2010, 7:38:35 PM EST – Reply

    Peter
    I like that, Beryl: “. . . unwelcome, always undeserved source of grace and honing tool of compassion. ”

    Thanks for reading!
    January 15, 2010, 7:54:41 PM EST – Reply

    Beryl Singleton Bissell
    What perfect timing considering Pat Robertson’s recent remark about the reason for Haiti’s suffering — their “pact with the devil.”

    I hope I no longer view suffering as the result of sin, but as an unavoidable, often unwelcome, always undeserved source of grace and honing tool of compassion.

    I’ve neither or Rohr’s books, but shall now fill that gap. Thanks Peter (and eileen).
    January 15, 2010, 6:22:03 AM EST – Reply

    Peter
    Thanks, Beth, for being there. (And here, too.)
    January 15, 2010, 12:41:57 AM EST – Reply

    beth
    Thanks for making this exploration and writing it out. You’ve given me a great deal to think about (as Lucas did too.) We’ll never understand suffering, especially the random kind, but human beings seem hard-wired to try. connecting with Job on a more personal level, I’ve been involved with a friend, a neighbor, who’s been suffering from severe but unexplained pain and depression for several months. He pretty alone, and needs people to sit with him and listen, which I/we do. He’s a good person, tries not to ask too much, but even so, it’s very wearing. My problem is that I do show up, and try very hard not to judge or offer unwanted advice, but after a while I become inwardly fatigued and resentful — is this ever going to get better or end? — and I also confront fears of being in his place — who would show up for me? Would I fare any better than he is? There are no answers – tempting as it is to suggest some! My sense of God is that being in that uncomfortable place, and loving anyway, with patience, is what we’re asked to do. Often I don’t like that at all. Working on all of this seems to be a lifelong process.
    January 14, 2010, 9:44:05 AM EST – Reply

    eileen
    I have Everything Belongs and will reread Chapter 1. Something I picked up on Slow Reads and had been somewhat aware of: the second time around (and the third) is even better.
    February 18, 2008, 6:55:50 AM EST – Reply

    Peter
    I’ve read Rohr’s Everything Belongs. I really liked his first chapter, which I think is the one that fleshes out a distinction between a “spirituality from above” (not healthy) and one “from below” ( a healthier one based on self-knowledge and humility).
    February 18, 2008, 12:43:32 AM EST – Reply

    eileen
    This has spurred me to re-think (again) Job, long a favorite. Most of my like-minded friends either never read Job, dismiss it or vaguely dislike it. Am rereading Job and the Mystery of Suffering by Richard Rohr who dedicates his book: “For all the victims and scapegoats of human history, who never had a chance, with trust that there is an answer in the voice from the whirlwind.”
    February 17, 2008, 8:25:41 AM EST – Reply

    Andrew
    What an interesting thought! We always think about what we would feel if we were Job, but rarely (if ever) think about what we would do if we were his friend.
    I have to think about this….
    July 17, 2006, 12:48:08 AM EDT – Reply

    Peter
    Thanks, Dave.

    Job reminds me of my favorite Shakespearean tragedy: Lear. Almost a fairy-tale setup in the first scene, followed by some intense dialog between the suffering hero and some people who treat him quite differently than they did before.
    July 15, 2006, 9:55:16 PM EDT – Reply

    Dave
    A good, honest post about my favorite Biblical book. One of the great things about Job is that non-religious and religious people alike seem to find it deeply unsettling. Probably because, as you say, it doesn’t provide much in the way of answers.
    July 15, 2006, 9:29:13 PM EDT – Reply

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