July 26, 2015

How Not to Comfort the Hurting

Have you ever been sure you were right…until you learned you weren’t?  The other day we were getting ready to go to the pool and I had asked Noah to go to the garage to get something for us to take.  We weren’t planning on making it a long trip and so to the boys’ disappointment we pretty severely limited the number of toys they were going to be able to take.

Now, before I go any further in this story, let me give you some context.  This particular morning was one of those times when the day had already felt really long by 9:30.  We were tired and so were the boys…and they were behaving like they were tired.  For those of you who are or were at some point in the past the parents of young kids, you know what I’m talking about.  Josiah tends to throw a fit at the drop of a hat when he’s tired.  Noah gets very argumentative.  As for me, I start to assume the worst about them—whether that’s fair or not—and respond accordingly.

In any event, when Noah was asked to go get the stuff out of the garage, he immediately started trying to tell me something.  I responded as I said just a second ago and shut him down before he got much more than a word out.  “Go to the garage and get the stuff!” I finally hollered at him.  I knew the stuff we needed was in the garage and I didn’t want to hear any talking back from him or entertain any requests to bring some of the stuff that was locked in the back of the van we weren’t taking and about which he kept trying to tell me something.

Noah, however, was not to be deterred from his insistence on telling me something.  He kept at it until I finally and exasperatedly snapped, “What?!?”  “Dad, the stuff we need is in the old van,” he finally got out.  I stopped in my tracks.  “It’s what?” I said.  “It’s in the old van.  That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you!”  Still grumbling under my breath I went and got the other set of keys, came back out to unlock the van, and sure enough, there it was, right where he had only somewhat impatiently been trying to tell me it was the whole time.  I had been absolutely certain I was right…until I learned I wasn’t.

This morning we are in the second part of our series, Grace in Hard Times.  For three weeks we are making a run through the book of Job to glean some of the wealth of wisdom there on how to respond to the hard times we encounter as a part of life.  The fact is: we are surrounded by awful circumstances everywhere we go.  There are natural disasters, acts of war, acts of violence, broken relationships, battles with disease, financial hardships, and so on and so forth.  Evil is everywhere we look.  Now, if we lived in a godless world without any real purpose for it beyond what we construct for ourselves this wouldn’t be such a huge deal.  It would be unfortunate to be sure, but it wouldn’t be anything more than a symptom of how the world is, of how the world always will be until our sun explodes and the universe collapses back into a giant black hole.  But the very fact that the presence of evil has been such a pernicious problem for so many throughout the whole of human history suggests rather powerfully that such is not the true state of the world.

As Christians, we believe in a God who is good, just, loving, and holy.  Given how we just described the world to be, however, reconciling the existence of such a God with the state of the world as it is presents us with a big challenge particularly at an emotional level.  Now, we can certainly turn to Scripture for help in all this and we can indeed find a great deal of help there.  But one of the most helpful forms of help comes when we are given the freedom to be honest about our emotional struggles with the problem of evil even once we have mostly wrapped our minds around it at a philosophical level.  Well, of all the places in the Bible that give us such freedom (and there are many), one of the most poignant and powerful treatments comes in the book of Job.

Last week as we started this conversation we took a look at the beginning of Job’s story.  Remember it?  Job was living about as high up on the hog as you can get.  He was rich, he had a great family, he was a great guy, he was a godly man, he was a great parent, and he was probably good-looking too if for no other reason than the fact that when you have that many things going for you everybody thinks you’re good-looking even if you aren’t much more than a pig with lipstick. Anyway, Job was living this idyllic life to its fullest when one day there was a gathering before God’s throne.  We don’t know really anything about this gathering except that it appears to have been a regular thing and that at this particular gathering Satan was present.  After revealing that he had been essentially kicking around lately (probably looking for trouble), God offers him a little bait in the form of Job.  God holds Job up as an example of His best and brightest.  Satan immediately takes the bait and claims that Job is only such an incredible specimen of humanity because of how good God had been to him.  Take away all the blessings—both material and physical—and he’ll fall away just like everybody else.  God gives Satan license to do his worst short killing Job, and he goes right to work.  Job ends up penniless and mourning the death of all ten of his children while scraping himself with a broken piece of pottery to bring some relief to the enormously painful sores covering his body.  In other words, Job experienced a flood of pretty much every kind of evil we can imagine that by all accounting was totally undeserved.

The question we then wrestled with was simple: what do we do with this?  Well, there are lots of answers to that question, but the one the writer of Job leads us to consider was that we have to keep the bigger picture in mind.  When hard times hit, don’t lose sight of the big picture.  There’s more going on in this world than we can either see or understand.

But, while that works in a big-picture sort of way, let’s just be honest: we still struggle with it.  Knowing the truth doesn’t mean we don’t still run up against hard questions.  This is particularly true if we are the ones in the hard times.  When we are in a place of suffering, even if we understand the whole big picture thing, our natural reaction is still to cry out to God from the depths of our misery.  Why, God?  Where are you, God?  When will this end, God?  Even if we are only watching from the outside, though, there is still a struggle because what do you say to someone in such a place?

Thankfully, Job again offers us a great deal of help here.  Starting at chapter three and running almost the rest of the book we are treated to a conversation between Job and some friends of his in which they wrestle together with why this has happened and where God is in all of it.  From this conversation, we see two things clearly: Job is really honest about his feelings and bold, almost too bold, in expressing them to God; and his friends give us a really good lesson on how not to comfort the hurting.  In the end, we learn something important about both expressing ourselves from the midst of our anguish as well as how to talk to someone in such a place.  Grab a nearby copy of the Scriptures, find your way to Job 3, and we’ll take a look at this together.

Let’s actually back up just a bit to get started here.  Look back to the end of chapter 2.  When Job’s friends hear about all that has happened to him they come and do the best thing with him they can: they sit quietly and give him the gift of just sitting with him quietly.  From 2:11: “Now when Job’s three friends heard of all this evil that had come upon him, they came each from his own place, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite.  They made an appointment together to come to show him sympathy and comfort him.  And when they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him.  And they raised their voices and wept, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads toward heaven.  And they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.”

As far as ministering to the hurting goes, they are off on the right track.  When we are hurting, sometimes the thing we need most is simply to know that we are not walking our particular road alone.  Sometimes we just need someone to be with us and cry with us.  This was the assurance Job’s friends gave him in this first week.  They all sat in silence and cried together over the awful things that had happened to Job.  They wisely waited for Job to speak before saying anything.  And eventually, Job did speak.  From the depths of his anguish, he began pouring out his heart to God.  Look with me starting at the beginning of chapter 3.

“After this Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth.  And Job said: ‘Let the day perish on which I was born, and the night that said, “A man is conceived.”  Let that day be darkness!  May God above not seek it, nor light shine upon it.  Let gloom and deep darkness claim it.  Let clouds dwell upon it; let the blackness of the day terrify it.  That night—let thick darkness seize it!  Let it not rejoice among the days of the year; let it not come into the number of the months.  Behold, let that night be barren; let no joyful cry enter it.  Let those curse it who curse the day, who are ready to rouse up Leviathan.  Let the stars of its dawn be dark; let it hope for light, but have none, nor see the eyelids of the morning, because it did not shut the doors of my mother’s womb, nor hide trouble from my eyes.’”

Wow, right?  He goes on like this for several more verses.  He comes back to these themes several more times throughout the book.  Can you feel what Job is feeling here?  He genuinely wants to die and get all of this suffering over with.  In fact, more than that, he’s wishing he had never been born.  That would have avoided the whole mess.  Now maybe you’re like me and haven’t ever been in quite that much pain, but perhaps you can at least imagine feeling the same way.  Either way, though, consider for a moment the sheer weight of Job’s words.  “I wish I had never been born.”  That’s powerful.  It’s a powerful declaration to God that we think He got it wrong.  Had he gotten it right and not created us, we wouldn’t be suffering so badly right now.  Now, no one really understands the full implications of such a complaint as George Bailey learns in It’s a Wonderful Life, but still, there are times in life when we are tempted to make it our cry.  Job did.

And yet, throughout his experience of suffering, Job never sins.  Such a complaint is not condemned as sinful even tacitly by the context the way some other practices mentioned in the Scriptures without being explicitly labeled sin and yet which we rightly consider sinful.  Friends, as long as we don’t forget who God is and who we are in light of that, we can cry out to Him in utter honesty from the depths of our pain and anguish and have no fear that we are crossing some line with God over which He will smite us.  We can do that because God uniquely understands what we are feeling.  After enduring a brutal scourging from the Roman guards, carrying the rough, heavy crossbeam from Jerusalem to the hill of Calvary, and being nailed to the cross, Jesus Himself—God in human flesh—cried out in echo of the words of His ancestor, David, that aren’t so different from Job’s here: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?”  Such is the glory of the God we serve—and again, He is totally unique in this among the gods of the world—that He not only tolerates such heartfelt cries, but that He understands them.

Well, after Job opens his mouth for the first time, his friends feel like it is now okay to open their own mouths to speak what they see as truth into Job’s situation.  Have you ever heard that wise saying that it is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than it is to open your mouth and remove any doubt?  Yeah, these guys pretty much show why that’s the case.  Starting gently and then getting more and more aggressive and hostile from there, Job’s friends reveal that they all hold a retributive understanding of the presence of evil in the world.  They believe God is totally just and totally sovereign.  Thus, if something bad is happening to you, God has caused it to happen, and if God has caused it to happen then He had a good reason for it, namely that you did something wrong.

Eliphaz the Temanite gets the ball rolling in chapter 4 and he starts things off pretty gently.  Look at this with me: “Then Eliphaz the Temanite answered and said: ‘If one ventures a word with you, will you be impatient?  Yet who can keep from speaking?  Behold, you have instructed many, and you have strengthened the weak hands.  Your words have upheld him who was stumbling, and you have made firm the feeble knees.  But now it has come to you, and you are impatient; it touches you, and you are dismayed.  Is not your fear of God your confidence, and the integrity of your ways your hope?  Remember: who that was innocent ever perished?  Or where were the upright cut off?  As I have seen, those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same.  By the breath of God they perish, and by the blast of his anger they are consumed.’”  And little later he adds: “As for me, I would seek God, and to God would I commit my cause…For he wounds, but he binds up; he shatters, but his hands heal.”  In other words, “Job, you have been a really great guy and have helped a lot of people hold up under hard times.  It’s pretty sad, though, that as soon as the tables of life have turned on you, you fall apart.  Where’s the great faith in God you’ve demonstrated throughout your life?  And anyway, you know God only allows bad things to happen to bad people, so just repent of whatever it is you have done and He’ll make you straight again.”

So here we have Job in the midst of more misery than he can handle and now his friends start piling on by arguing that it’s really all his fault.  With friends like these, who needs enemies?  Job rightly defends his integrity, but then Bildad adds insult to injury in chapter 8: “How long will you say these things, and the words of your mouth be a great wind?  Does God pervert justice?  Or does the Almighty pervert the right?  If your children have sinned against him, he has delivered them into the hand of their transgression [in other words, the tragic death of your ten children was really their fault too].  If you will seek God and plead with the Almighty for mercy, if you are pure and upright, surely then he will rouse himself for you and restore your rightful habitation.”  In chapter 11, after yet another self-defense and cry out to God from Job, Zophar keeps it up: “Should a multitude of words go unanswered, and a man full of talk be judged right?  Should your babble silence men, and when you mock, shall no one shame you?  For you say, ‘My doctrine is pure, and I am clean in God’s eyes.’  But oh, that God would speak and open his lips to you, and that he would tell you the secrets of wisdom!  For he is manifold in understanding.  Know then that God exacts of you less than your guilt deserves.”  Believe it or not, things get worse from there.

And when Job finally confounds their argument that suffering only happens to the wicked and proves incorrigible in his defense of his righteousness, another character appears in the story.  Elihu, son of Barachel the Buzite, a young guy, finally has his self-righteousness meter fill to the breaking point and offers his two cents…well, more like his two C-notes…on the matter.  He starts by blasting Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar for their inability to out-argue Job (even suggesting that the reason for it is their age), goes on to turn his guns on Job promising new arguments that he can’t defeat, and then fires away at him using the same arguments the other guys were using: God is absolutely just and wouldn’t afflict the righteous so you need to repent and get right with Him in order to make all this suffering go away.

All this time, Job is getting more and more depressed.  He feels like God has left him behind.  He agrees with his friends that God is just and that the wicked are going to receive their due, but can’t wrap his mind around how a God of justice could allow someone like him to suffer like this all the while some wicked folks seem to receive nothing but blessing.  And while he doesn’t come right out and say it, by the time he offers his final and most thorough defense of his righteousness, he’s starting to wonder a bit about the character of the God he has so faithfully served.  Flip over to chapter 31 with me and look at this.

“I have made a covenant with my eyes; how then could I gaze at a virgin?  What would be my portion from God above and my heritage from the Almighty on high?  Is not calamity for the unrighteous and disaster for the workers of iniquity?  Does not he see my ways and number all my steps?  If I have walked with falsehood and my foot has hastened to deceit; (Let me be weighted in a just balance, and let God know my integrity!) if my step has turned aside from the way and my heart has gone after my eyes, and if any spot has stuck to my hands, then let me sow, and another eat, and let what grows for me be rooted out.  If my heart has been enticed toward a woman, and I have lain in wait at my neighbor’s door, then let my wife grind for another, and let others bow down on her….If I have withheld anything that the poor desired, or have caused the eyes of the widow to fail, or have eaten my morsel alone, and the fatherless has not eaten of it (for from my youth the fatherless grew up with me as with a father, and from my mother’s womb I guided the widow), if I have seen anyone perish for lack of clothing, or the needy without covering, if his body has not blessed me, and if he was not warmed with the fleece of my sheep, if I have raised my hand against the fatherless, because I saw my help in the gate, then let my shoulder blade fall from my shoulder, and let my arm be broken from its socket.  For I was in terror of calamity from God, and I could not have faced his majesty.”  He goes on like this proclaiming that if he has done any of these wrong things he’ll gladly face the consequences.  The implication here, though, is that as far as he knows, he hasn’t.  He’s clean.  He’s righteous.  So why is he suffering?  Where’s God?

You know, of all the things we can learn from Job, one of the most important is that drawing a line between choices we’ve made and bad things that happen to us—or anybody else for that matter—is a tenuous endeavor that must be undertaken with a great deal of humility.  Now, yes, sometimes we can draw a line.  If you have an affair and your marriage then falls apart, there’s a line there.  If you’re either really hard on your kids or else pretty absent in their lives and they don’t have a very good relationship with you when they grow up, there’s probably a line there.  But sometimes there isn’t a line.  You work really hard for a company and then lose your job.  You take pretty good care of your body and then get really sick.  You’re a really good friend and get stabbed in the back.  There’s no line there.  But here’s the thing: most of us assume we know how God works, how the world works.  We’re absolutely certain we’re right about it to…right up until we have an unpleasant run-in with the walls of reality and discover we aren’t right at all.  This was certainly the assumption Job’s friends all made.  It was even the assumption Job flirted with near the end of the conversation.  Friends, that’s pride, and there’s no relief in pride.

When we are in the midst of a hard place, pride is the last thing we can afford.  Job’s first three frenemies grew more and more prideful in their attacks and rebuttals on Job and offered less and less of worth to him.  As Job flirted more and more with pride he grew more and more despondent in his misery.  When Elihu finally broke into the conversation he dripped with pride like he’d just stepped out of a pride shower.  He went on and on blasting everybody for their ignorance and unrighteousness all the while boasting of his singular gasping of true wisdom until God Himself finally interrupted him and just put everybody in their place—more on that next week.  All the while, Job never received one stitch of anything even remotely resembling relief.

Listen, when we’re in the midst of a painful situation, the one thing we want more than anything else is to get out of it.  We want to fix it, to make it go away.  And if that doesn’t happen immediately, we start searching.  We go digging for what could possibly be the root of the pain so we can cut it off there.  But here’s the thing: our search is guided by our assumptions about the world and how it works.  We make those assumptions on a normal day.  When things get tough, we lean into them with all our weight, hoping they’ll hold us.  Like Job’s friends we pridefully assume we know how the world works, how God works, and look for relief along those lines when we are hurting.  Yet as long as we assume on our own knowledge, our own wisdom, our own experience with the world, real relief will prove elusive.  There’s no relief in pride.

In light of this we now understand better how to comfort the hurting and how to find comfort ourselves when we are the hurting.  When others are hurting, we give them the assurance that they are not alone…and then make sure they aren’t alone.  We don’t come with words or arguments, but rather with presence.  We sit with them before the Lord and cry out to Him together.  In our own lives, we make our prayer something like this: “Father, I don’t understand what’s happening, but I don’t like it.  I want relief from this pain now, but in the meantime, I trust that your character has not changed and that when the time is right you will restore me.  While I wait for that day, give me the grace to hold up under this pressure by leaning hard into You.  I take comfort in the fact that You understand my pain better and cry with me harder than anyone else.  I pray that my experience will be able to serve as a signpost to point others toward the incredible worth of a relationship with you.  In Jesus’ name and by the Spirit’s power I lay myself before You. Amen.”

Now, will that make it all go away?  No, it probably won’t.  But it will put you in the arms of the God whose Spirit can lift up the broken and the hurting even in the midst of their pain.  An attitude like that will lead others to the same place.  And with such an approach of humility, the relief you need—and God knows that better than you—won’t be far behind.  There’s no relief in pride, but humility brings hope.