Minimize the wrongdoing that caused the suffering. I’m not sure why we tend to do this, but we do. It’s that karma instinct. We say things like “I’m sure they meant well,” or “It can’t be that bad,” or “Well, in every conflict the blame is on both sides.” But the truth is we don’t know that someone meant well. Maybe they didn’t. We don’t know that it wasn’t that bad. Maybe it was. And blame is not always 50/50. Sometimes it’s 80/20. Sometimes it’s even 100/0. That seems to be God’s verdict on Job and his friends (Job 42:7). When you’re sitting with a sufferer, don’t minimize the sin that has contributed to their suffering.
Of all the Bible’s many colorful characters, none is quite so exasperating as Job’s friends. Herod might chop off your head, and Judas might stab you in the back, but Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar will hurt you with Bible verses.
Job’s actual losses take two brief chapters to recount (Job 1–2), but the tortuous dialogue that follows drones on for 35 chapters (Job 3–37). I wonder which agonized Job more: his initial suffering or the extended indictment that followed?
The problem with Job’s comforters isn’t that they’re heretics. Much of what they say is true. The problem is the moralistic worldview that governs their engagement with Job, and compels them to reason backward from suffering to sin.
It’s easy to criticize Job’s friends, but let’s be honest: We can all be like them. In fact, a good litmus test of our heart’s alignment with the gospel—whether functionally we believe in a world of grace or a world of karma—is how we respond when a Job comes across our path. Suffering pulls out our real theology like a magnet.
Here are four things in particular to avoid when with a sufferer. Think of them as four ways we, like Job’s friends, can pour burning coals on the heads of those already sitting in ashes.
1. Appeal too quickly to God’s sovereignty.
The Bible teaches that “all things work together for good” for those in Christ (Rom. 8:28) and that God can use evil for good (Gen. 50:20). However, just because this is biblical doesn’t mean it’s always tactful or helpful to say.
“God meant it for good” is said by Joseph years after his suffering, not to Joseph during his suffering. Imagine Joseph’s angst and frustration had his brothers gathered around the well to shout down in encouragement: “Don’t worry, Joseph; God means this for good!”
Similarly, soon after Paul teaches that “all things work together for good,” he admonishes us to “weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15). Before quoting the former, let’s be sure we’re willing to practice the latter.
2. Launch into a story of how God used your suffering.
It’s human nature to relate others’ experiences to our own. We can’t help but see the world through our own eyes. But one mark of maturity is learning to genuinely enter into the world of another, rather than always filtering their story through our own. This is especially important to do with sufferers for two reasons.
First, everybody’s story is different. Maybe God gave us a better house after our first one burned to the ground, or maybe we’re able to see the good side of a friend’s betrayal. But in a fallen and confusing world, it’s entirely possible your suffering friend may never get there in this life. Some sorrows won’t mend until heaven. So we really don’t know enough to be able say, “You’ll be glad this happened.”
Second, even if our stories are similar, our suffering friend may not need to hear that right now. A good question to ask is: “Is sharing my story more about meeting my need, or about serving my friend’s need?” At the very least, we should listen carefully to the nuances of a sufferer’s story before we draw comparisons.