When tragedy strikes, what do you do? You seek counseling. It may be with a professional therapist or it may be with your family and friends. Whoever it is, you seek them out primarily because you’re looking for comfort. In a few texts from Job, we’re going to look at three counseling models. Each one of them will teach us something about how to give and not give comfort to somebody facing suffering.
Really bad counsel
After living through incredible loss, Job does what many of us do when we face hard times; he turns to his friends. Each of them take turns weighing in on Job’s situation and they do a terrible job. In fact at one point Job turns to them in chapter 16 and says to them “miserable comforters you all are.”
Why were they miserable comforters? Eliphaz is the first one to speak up and in 4:7-8, this is what he says:
Job 4:7-8 - “Consider now: Who, being innocent, has ever perished? Where were the upright ever destroyed? As I have observed, those who plow evil and those who sow trouble reap it.”
In other words, you reap what you sow. “Job, what did you do?”
Bildad then pipes up and says, “When your children sinned against him, he gave them over to the penalty of their sin” (Job 8:4).
“Job, your children are dead because they must have done something heinous.”
Zophar piles on, “…if you put away the sin that is in your hand and allow no evil to dwell in your tent, then, free of fault, you will lift up your face…” (Job 11:14-15).
This is really bad counsel for a couple of reasons.
This is really bad counsel because their view of suffering is incomplete. It’s a partial truth, but it’s incomplete. The only category Job’s friends have for suffering is: you reap what you sow.
This is true. We need to give the friends partial credit. You reap what you sow is a biblical principle. Sometimes suffering is caused by sin in a person’s life. For example, in John 5, Jesus heals a paralytic and after healing him says to him:
John 5:14 - “See, you are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you.” The reason this man is paralyzed is tied directly to his sin. In this case, you reap what you sow is true.
When Paul writes to the church in Corinth he tells them flat out that the reason some of them have become ill and even died is that they were participating in the Lord’s Supper in a dishonorable way.
1 Corinthians 11:27-30 - So anyone who eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord unworthily is guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. That is why you should examine yourself before eating the bread and drinking the cup. For if you eat the bread or drink the cup without honoring the body of Christ, you are eating and drinking God’s judgment upon yourself. That is why many of you are weak and sick and some have even died.
You reap what you sow. This is true, but it’s not the only reason for suffering. Job’s friends think this is the only reason for suffering, but Scripture disagrees with them.
For example in John 9:1-3a - As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus…
The blind man’s suffering was not caused by his sin. You reap what you sow doesn’t hold true in his case.
One of the reasons Job’s friends’ counsel is so terrible is that they have an incomplete view of suffering. Their view of suffering is only a partial truth. And in fact, as the book unfolds, not only is their view of suffering incomplete, in Job’s case, it’s completely wrong. Job is not suffering because of something he did. Job is innocent.
The second reason this is really bad counsel is that their view of human need is incomplete. Job’s friends think this is just a moral and spiritual problem. Because this is a moral and spiritual problem, what Job needs is a sermon and a series of probing questions. “Job, have you confessed all known sin in your life?” “Job, are you applying the gospel to your life?” “Job, are you clinging to the promises of God?”
Does Job need a sermon? Yes. But that’s only part of what he needs. Human beings are not just moral and spiritual creatures. We are also physical and emotional creatures. That means there are times when we need more than a sermon.
In 1 Kings 19 we have a very interesting passage. Elijah is running for life. Jezebel is threatening to kill him, so Elijah flees to the desert to hide. He’s so exhausted, so discouraged, he asks God to take his life. Elijah falls asleep under a big bush and God sends an angel to him. What do you think this angel does? If we are spiritual and moral beings only, the angel should be giving Elijah a sermon. But instead the angel cooks him a meal. Elijah eats and then falls asleep again. God sends the angel to Elijah a second time. What do you think happens? Maybe a it’s a sermon this time? No. The angel cooks Elijah another meal. That’s the only thing God sends the angel to do: cook Elijah a meal. We are more than mere moral and spiritual beings. We are physical and emotional beings. When life is hard, sometimes we need a sermon, but there are times when what we need is a nap and meal or some laughter with friends or a hug.
Job’s friends don’t understand this which leads to them giving him some really bad counsel. So bad, that at the end of the book, God lets them know just how displeased with them he is. They messed-up big time and God lets them have it.
Job’s friends try to counsel him, but Job also does some self-counseling. If you face tragedy in life, you’re going to need to do this as well. Let’s just make some observations about Job’s self-counsel.
Job 6:1-4 – Then Job replied: If only my anguish could be weighed and all my misery be placed on the scales! It would surely outweigh the sand of the seas—no wonder my words have been impetuous. The arrows of the Almighty are in me, my spirit drinks in their poison; God’s terrors are marshaled against me.
Look at the words Job uses. He's honest and real about his emotions. He doesn’t stuff it. He doesn’t fake it. Job doesn’t pretend he’s doing better than he really is. And he’s doing this in the company of his friends. This is healthy self-counseling. He is being emotionally real. He says, “I’m in anguish and misery.” He doesn’t say, “Oh, I’ll be fine. I’ll get over it.” He’s emotionally real and God never rebukes him for it. That’s good self-counsel. And in the body of Christ, we need to make it safe for people to respond to suffering in emotionally real ways.
Though he refers to God in the third-person, his posture is still prayerful. Hebrew scholars say people would often address a superior directly using the third-person. For example, if you lived in an ancient monarchy and the king summoned you to appear before him, you might come, bow, and say something like “what does the king desire of me?” You’re talking directly to him, but still using the third person. That’s what Job is doing here. He is talking directly to God, but using the third person. That shows us Job, though he knows he’s innocent, though he knows he hasn’t done anything to deserve this, still maintains a humble posture before God. Job still recognizes, for now at least, that God is superior.
Why is that important? Remember what Satan thinks about you. He thinks the only reason you live for God is because there are benefits attached to it. The only reason you’re loyal to God are for the blessings He gives you. Satan thinks that if God’s benefits and blessings were removed from your life, your praising of God would turn into cursing God.
Why is it important that God remain superior to you when He takes what you love away from you? When you praise someone, you elevate them; you lift them up. When you hear an incredible musical performance and you applaud it, you are praising it; you are elevating it above yourself. When you see Aaron Rogers make an incredible throw, you praise it; you elevate it above yourself. Praises give recognition to superior people and events. Curses go the opposite direction. When you curse someone you essentially say, “you are nothing compared to me.”
Praise turns to God and says, “God, who am I to question you?” Cursing turns to God and says, “God, who are you to do this to me?”
When suffering comes, when bad things happen in your life, you are tempted or will be tempted to turn to God and say, “God, who are you to do this to me?” The moment that happens, you’ve switched places with him. In cursing God he is no longer superior to you. You are superior to him. “God, who are you to do this to me?” This is not the way to go. Good counsel means maintaining a humble and prayerful posture before God recognizing his superiority over you.
Job 6:8-9 - “Oh, that I might have my request, that God would grant what I hope for, that God would be willing to crush me, to let loose his hand and cut off my life!”
Both Job and Elijah, in the 1 Kings passage I referred to earlier, reject suicide as an option in dealing with their suffering. If the stats are correct, then 15% of us have considered suicide as an option to deal with the pain. So it’s worthwhile to draw attention to this. Job is looking for answers and comfort. He’s looking for someone to tell him everything is going to be OK. Job rejects suicide as a means of getting that comfort and reassurance. Though Job says he wishes he would have never been born so that he would never have to experience what he’s experiencing now, Job never resorts to considering suicide as a credible way of dealing with the pain. Both Job and Elijah plead with God to take their lives, but leave it in God’s hands. They could have taken the knife that was next to them and ended it right there, but they leave the timing of their last breath completely in God’s hands. They don’t see suicide as a means of receiving comfort in their pain. That’s good self-counsel.
Job 6:10 - Then I would still have this consolation—my joy in unrelenting pain—that I had not denied the words of the Holy One.
Job 7:20-21 - If I have sinned, what have I done to you, you who sees everything we do? Why have you made me your target? Have I become a burden to you? Why do you not pardon my offenses and forgive my sins? For I will soon lie down in the dust; you will search for me, but I will be no more.”
Suffering affords us an opportunity to ask ourselves a question: how are things between God and me? Job is reflecting on his life; where he may have messed up; where he has had moral and spiritual victories. He’s inviting God to read him like an open book to show him where his shortcomings are. Job is inviting God to do an audit on him. When you’re in pain it’s good to get some sort of examination done.
Job is doing really well in spite of very difficult circumstances. Can he keep going like this? Or will he eventually crack? I don’t think anybody in Job’s position would be able to last for long without having another source of strength to lean on.
The best counsel
There’s a place in The Lord of the Rings Trilogy where Sam Gamgee turns to Gandalf and asks, “Is everything sad going to come untrue?”
Are you, in the middle of your suffering, able to say, “Yes, everything sad is going to come untrue?” How do you know? How do you know everything sad is going to come untrue? How do you know everything is going to be OK?
"For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 8:38).
Are you convinced that the suffering you’re experiencing now has not and will not separate you from the love of God?
You can be convinced that in spite of the worst suffering imaginable it won’t separate you from the love of God. How do you know? On the cross, Jesus was separated from the love of God so even in your worst suffering you won’t be. If you are a genuine believer in Christ, Jesus has taken the worst suffering imaginable off the table. It’s not longer an option. There may be many reasons for your suffering. One of those reasons is NOT: God doesn’t love you anymore. In his suffering, Jesus endured losing the love of the Father so when you suffer you can be assured of the Father’s love. As the tears roll down your face and you cry out to God he just points to his Son and says, “Look at what he’s doing for you. That’s how much I love you. I’m taking the worst suffering imaginable off the table at the price of my only Son’s life.”
One of the remarkable things the story of Job shows us that it’s possible for God to be thrilled with you; ecstatic about you; proud of you and you’ll still suffer. But because of what Jesus has done, God stands in the background of your suffering not pointing his finger at you, but applauding you.