April 6, 2003

The Friends’ Arrival: Consoling Those in Pain
Job 2:11-13

A few years ago I went to the Hershey Medical Center to visit Bill, a man from Harrisburg who had been in a serious car accident. I remember feeling anxious and rather uneasy along the way. I did not know Bill too well, and I wasn’t sure what to expect or what I might say once I got there. Upon my arrival, I gently greeted this hurting man, pulled up a chair, and sat down. Within just a few moments, he began speaking, and an experience that I had almost dreaded turned into a sacred time of fellowship and communion.

People in pain provide us with wonderful opportunities to reach out in the love and mercy of Jesus. Such people are often vulnerable and open to caring ministries, and it is important for us to meet them during their moments of deepest need. Here in Job 2:11-13, we encounter a helpful picture of a group of men who, regardless of what they may say and do later, try hard to reach out in love and mercy.

Our passage this morning brings the opening act of the book of Job to a close in much the same way that 1:1-5 introduced it. Once again the numbers three and seven appear—Job has three friends who sit with him for seven days and seven nights—implying that Job’s misery is as complete as was his prosperity earlier. Further, the fact that both the personal and tribal names associated with the three visitors can be traced to the opening books of the Old Testament suggests a sense of antiquity, much like the phrase “There once was a man in the land of Uz” back in 1:1.

In spite of such similarities, however, dramatic changes have obviously taken place in these opening chapters. Where the story began with Job as a model of religious fidelity and worldly success, he now serves as the ultimate paradigm for pain and loss. And while Job’s children gathered in 1:1-5 to celebrate and make merry, now Job’s friends gather to sympathize and mourn. Clearly, 2:11-13 depicts a new and not so wonderful day.

Look with me, first of all, at Job. He has lost everything, and we find him here sitting on the town dump. He is, as the friends’ response indicates, so weather-beaten that he is no longer recognizable. People who saw him did not know who he was.

Perhaps you have been in a situation like that at some point. I remember one particular occasion at least ten years ago when I went to a retirement village to visit a former teacher of mine. I hadn’t seen him for several years. When I stepped into his room—he had suffered from Alzheimer, among many other things—I thought I was in the wrong place. He was curled up in a fetal position on his bed, completely unaware of what was going on around him. I didn’t know who he was. So it was with Job’s friends. When they saw him, they didn’t recognize him. They thought they were in the wrong room.

But notice where Job is. He is sitting out in public. Although his friends didn’t recognize him immediately, the fact that they saw him from a distance suggests that he was in a very visible place. Now imagine where you might go were you to experience significant pain and suffering. A secluded place? A secret room in your house? As far away from people as you could possibly get? Would you go to great lengths to be certain that the people of your community would never see you in such a condition? Perhaps put on a mask or cover your face with make-up? Job didn’t do that. He was accessible. Job sat on the town dump, out in public, where everyone could see him. Had Job decided to hide—please remember this the next time that you are hurting—the friends would have had no opportunity to reach out to him.

Think next about the three friends. We know virtually nothing about these characters, of course. We can probably assume that they were heads of neighboring clans, probably the closest thing to peers or equals that Job would have had. The additional fact that they came from three different clans implies a breadth and richness of traditions and experiences. Job, we assume, is in good pastoral hands.

Notice, then, how these three friends respond to Job’s situation. First of all, they decided to go to Job during his time of suffering. There are, of course, any number of reasons why they might not have. From a purely practical point of view, these friends might simply have had too much to do. After all, each of them had their own families and jobs to be concerned about. Going to minister to Job required time and energy—they probably had to travel a considerable distance to get there. As is often the case, Job’s crisis probably did not occur at a time that was convenient for his friends.

Beyond such practical consideration, Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar might have stayed away because they were afraid to see him in his current condition. Perhaps they worried that seeing Job would conjure up painful memories of previous experiences in their own lives—a time when their own parent, sibling or spouse suffered from some grievous hardship. These friends could very easily have felt inadequate for the task, doubting that they would know what to say once they arrived. Pain and suffering are not only difficult for the victim, but for the family and friends as well. These friends might easily have said, “Let’s stay here at home. We can always pray for Job where we are.” But they didn’t. They heard about Job’s condition, left their homes, and met together to go.

Thinking about the friends’ initial response makes me wonder about the hurting and suffering people all around us. Do we see them? Do we listen carefully so that we actually hear about their condition? Do we get up and go to minister to them, in spite of our fears or the demands that such a ministry might place on our already busy lives? There are hurting and suffering people all around us, both within these walls and beyond. Do we notice them, or are they like the “Negroes” in Ralph Ellison’s classic novel Invisible Man—present, but unseen?
People who are physically ill, either at home or in the hospital
People suffering from loneliness and depression
People, often teenagers, who feel different from everyone else for some reason and often find themselves living on the fringes
People who come from or are perhaps living now in broken homes
People who are anticipating the death of a close friend or loved one
People who are nearing the end of their lives and are feeling worthless and broken down
People who have experienced a major financial setback and don’t know how in the world they are going to pay their bills from one month to the next
People who have no place to call home and scrounge around for food and sleep on the streets
People who drown out their earthly cares and sorrows with alcohol or drugs
People who live next door and have never made any type of commitment to Jesus
There are any number of hurting people all around us. Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar heard about Job’s troubles, met together, and went. Are we willing to do the same?

Consider also what the friends’ intentions were as they set out on their journey. They went to console and comfort Job. The verb “to console” or “to sympathize with” actually comes from the root meaning “to sway with.” Like a reed swaying in the wind at a nearby pond, so Job’s friends longed to move with him. They wanted to shake with him. Rather than simply holding some type of theoretical understanding of what Job was experiencing, they wanted, somehow, to gain a real sense of what he was actually going through. They wanted, as best they could, to walk in Job’s shoes for a while.

In addition to consoling Job, his friends sought also to comfort him. This word is just a bit more difficult to get a hold of. In various places in the Old Testament, the word used here refers to the changing of one’s mind. Even God, on occasion, changed his mind, as when he rejected Saul’s kingship (1 Sam. 15:35) or chose not to bring destruction upon the people of Nineveh (Jonah 3:9). Here in Job 2:11, Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar apparently want to provide Job with a new way of envisioning his situation. After everything that he has gone through—and remember, these friends have no apparent awareness of how Job has reacted up to this point—Job’s frame-of-mind might understandably be totally out of whack. He might be struggling with any number of issues, trying to figure out how in the world all of this happened to him. He might be on the verge of taking his own life, for all they know. The friends, then, want to help Job reconfigure reality. They want to guide him through this catastrophe and hopefully help him to see it in a new light.

Finally, when the friends arrive, they discover that Job’s condition is even worse than they had anticipated. When they see him, they begin to sway and move—they raise their voices, weep aloud, tear their robes, throw dust on their heads, sit down beside Job, and remain silent for seven days and seven nights. They begin, in other words, by visibly identifying with Job’s condition in culturally appropriate ways. They cry, tear their clothes, and place ashes on their heads. Were you and I to do some of those things today when we minister to the hurting, they would probably scratch their heads in bewilderment and suggest that we, too, have a major problem! We don’t tear our clothes and throw around ashes as signs of mourning anymore. But the fundamental principle here is timeless and priceless: Be present and be quiet.

First, be present. As Nouwen, McNeill and Morrison have written,
In a time so filled with methods and techniques designed to change people, to influence their behavior, and to make them do new things and think new thoughts, we have lost the simple but difficult gift of being present to each other (Compassion, p.14 ).
We might not tear our clothes and throw ashes, but we can create a sense of connectedness—a sense of movement—with hurting people in any number of ways: a pat on the back, a warm embrace, a tender smile, a chair by the bed, and yes, a tear in the eye. I wonder how often I have heard many of you apologize for crying, as though it is a sign of weakness. Crying can be one of the most powerful ways of connecting with people who are hurting. Crying provides an open door to shared experiences.

There is a rabbinical story called “The First Tear.” According to this story, after Adam and Even had been banished from the Garden of Eden, God noticed that they were very sorry for their sins. God, the compassionate father that he is, then gently said to them:
Unfortunate children! I have punished you for your sin and have driven you out of the Garden of Eden where you were living without care and in great well-being. Now you are about to enter into a world of sorrow and trouble the likes of which staggers the imagination. However, I want you to know that My benevolence and My love for you will never end. I know that you will meet with a lot of tribulation in the world and that it will embitter your lives. For that reason I give you out of My heavenly treasure this priceless pearl. Look! It is a tear! And when grief overtakes you and your heart aches so that you are not able to endure it, and great anguish grips your soul, then there will fall from your eyes this tiny tear. Your burden will grow lighter then.
When Adam and Eve heard these words, the story continues, they were overcome with sorrow. Tears welled up in their eyes, rolled down their cheeks and fell to earth. These tears, tears of anguish, are what first watered the earth. Adam and Eve left a precious inheritance to their children—tears. Since that time, whenever a human being experiences great difficulty and anguish, tears begin to flow from her eyes. As a result, the gloom begins to lift. Like Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar, learn to be present with hurting people.

And second, be quiet. We frequently grow uncomfortable with silence—silence has often lost its significance in our loud and fast-paced world. When we find ourselves in the middle of an uncomfortable situation, we sometimes hurriedly and nervously throw words around. Mother Theresa once said that Christians should spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ everywhere, but they should use words only if necessary. Much the same thing could be said about ministering to those who are hurting. So often we shy away from real ministry opportunities because we are afraid that we will either say the wrong thing or we won’t know what to say at all. When we think this way, we place far too much emphasis on “words” and far too little emphasis on “presence.” That is often why people do in fact say the wrong things, things that do more harm than good. They want desperately to help and to solve the problem, so they say something that should never have been said.

Several years ago, a former colleague of mine at the college shared with me what he went through when his young child died. Although he had long since processed much of the grief that accompanied her death, one lingering memory continued to trouble him. When his daughter died—she was just a little girl at the time—a no doubt well-intentioned person tried to comfort him. “God has a garden in heaven,” this person said, “and he wanted to plant a beautiful new flower there. So he plucked your daughter out of her earthly soil and transplanted her there.” Whatever this would-be comforter hoped to accomplish, he in reality only added to my colleague’s worsening pain.
Imagine how much more helpful this person might have been had he followed the friends’ example and kept quiet. Imagine how liberating it would be for all of us were we to accept and enact the age-old Jewish custom of always letting the suffering person speak first. We don’t have to solve everything. We don’t have to right every wrong. We don’t have to take everyone’s pain away. But we can be present. We can be quiet together.

I often think back on that hour that I spent with Bill at the Hershey Medical Center. I was so nervous walking into his room. Something strange happened, however, as I sat by his bed. He soon gave me a copy of a book on prayer that he had been reading, and he asked me if we could pray together. By the time I left his room, I—the comforter—had become the comforted. That is often the way it works when we take the time to be present with each other.

It is much the same way with Jesus. As you and I come to the end of the Lenten season and begin reflecting on the pain and suffering that Jesus endured, we can see people—Mary, James, John, and others—running to comfort him, to anoint him, to be present with him. I want to join them. I don’t want to see Jesus abused and mistreated. I don’t want to see him hanging on a cross. But as it turns out—the miracle of all miracles—Jesus, the sufferer, becomes the ultimate healer to all of us who are ourselves in pain.