Job 3: How should we comfort the suffering?
JOB ARTWORK USED BY PERMISSIONCOURTESY OF KINGSTONE COMICS (https://kingstone.co/)
JOB CURSES THE DAY HE WAS BORN
I have presided as minister in many funerals and on occasion on behalf of a family that has lost an infant. These are not the most tragic and difficult, because the family grieves but they truly do not know the baby the way a family knows a sixteen year old who has senselessly and tragically lost her life in a wreck involving a drunk driver. For two millenia humanity has resisted Augustine, then Luther and Calvin, and the idea that babies, all humans are born into sin, that somehow this innocent infant made in the image of God has the mark of sinful Adam and must be redeemed by baptism before death or some other form of absolution must be given before or after death because of the Adamic sin.
Most of humanity and many Christians and ministers like me have rejected that notion that a baby is born into individual sin and must be absolved in some way of that sin before, during, or after burial. Burials do not include this kind of absolution when I perform them.
Job speaks about dying as an infant rather than going through life and enduring such suffering as losing all his children, livestock, then falling to such miserable bodily, emotional suffering. We don’t know when Job lived, if he was real or fable, but we do know the story of Job was written a long, long time ago, and it was way before Augustine, Luther, Calvin. So there is no hint in his words about dying as an infant and being in jeopardy of anything but bliss and enjoyment with kings and holy, heavenly work if he’d died as an infant and entered the other world.
To use a phrase people use today would be utterly inadequate for what Job really says about his birthday. Job doesn’t just rue the day he was born. He pummels, flattens, curses, calls on God to ignore that day on the calendar, skip it from now on, and if that day should ever dawn again, may the whole day be like night and the sun never rise. He wished his birthday had never happened.
If this were “It’s a Wonderful Life,” which it isn’t by the way, then the next scene would be Clarence the Angel asking George Bailey to repeat that, then having a little telepathic conversation with the managing heavenly angels, and finally saying to George, “OK, you’ve never been born!”
What can we do for someone who has lost a loved one to death? John Mark Hicks lost his first wife (1980), father (1994) and son (2001) to death, and his second wife and John Mark divorced in 2001. John Mark shares here based more on in his words, “his experience more than any expertise” in grief counseling. Truly, however, John Mark’s words align with what grief counselors say.
PRAYER: COMFORT THE SUFFERING
Have a healthy sense of inadequacy. The worst and most offensive thing to a sufferer is for someone to come with all the answers.
Be there and be silent. From a sufferer’s point of view, the most important thing is not what you say but your presence. Be present and be God’s instrument of comfort.
Listen. It’s difficult to listen to a sufferer, and the tendency is to try and change the subject. Take a cue from the sufferer. If they lead you into remembering their loved one, go with their lead. If they talk about something more superficial, talk about the topic they choose. Be willing to listen to questioning doubt. Job’s friends were unwilling to hear Job’s questioning and tried to stop him. What we do represents God for them. They will experience God’s listening through our ears.
Be willing to experience pain with the sufferer. We may have enough problems in our own lives that we often don’t want to experience the pain and hear about the problems of others, but a sufferer needs someone to listen, feel with them. Proverbs 25:2. When we are willing to sit with others in their feelings then they can also feel the empathy of God’s own presence.
Express your love without interpretive statements. Don’t say, “It’s all for the best,” or “God plucked a rose from his garden.” Never try to interpret why a person died or what God’s intent was—this is not only arrogant but doesn’t help the sufferer. Say something that you feel, such as “I feel awful about this. This is terrible.” Never tell a sufferer how they should feel, but you can tell them how you feel, that is, how you hurt with them and how awful you feel about the circumstances.
Do something. Don’t say, “If there’s anything, anything I can do, call me.” Why not? Because this places on the sufferer the responsibility to do something, to figure out something for the person to do for them and make a call. This is a time when the sufferer doesn’t need more burdens. Have you ever really been called by someone who is suffering after you told them this? Most likely, you’ve been called rarely, if ever. The sufferer may not want to inconvenience someone nor decide who to inconvenience. Statements like, “Call me if there’s anything I can do” only extend the suffering rather than helping. What needs done? In some cases, everything needs to be done. Do something for the sufferer that you perceive they need. Mow their lawn, take them some food, help them clean their house, change the oil in their car. Show up and do.
Greg Taylor preaches for The Journey: A New Generation Church of Christ. Greg's wife, Jill, teaches math at Broken Arrow High School and Tulsa Community College. Greg and Jill have three adult children, Ashley, Anna, and Jacob. Greg is the author of many books, including his latest co-authored with Randy Harris, Daring Faith: Meeting Jesus in the Book of John.