Why Learn from the Book of Job?
More often than not, we use the book of Job to teach about trusting God in times of hardship. While the book does teach that God has a greater perspective than we do and that we can trust his choices. It’s not the only thing we can learn from the book. For example, if we were to measure the main topic of Job based solely on the amount of text devoted to a singular topic, we would find the book of Job is more about how Job’s friends tried to advise him in his suffering than about what Job learned from his trial or even what God taught Job after his friends finished speaking. In fact, roughly 83% of the book deals with this exact topic. The book of Job deals with God’s greatness over man but neglecting that larger middle section leads us to miss life lessons we could be getting on how to encourage suffering people. Today I’d like to look at the lesser covered sections of Job to break down the various lessons we can learn from Job’s friends by looking at their successes and failures.
The Context of Job’s Friends Advice: Job’s Past
Before we can talk about Job’s friends’ advice, we must first consider the context that led to them giving their advice. The book first introduces Job by describing him as “perfect and upright, and one that feared God, and eschewed evil.” These words present Job, not as a sinless man, but one who diligently sought to be right with God. In Job 1:5, this is reiterated through the author writing that Job not only passionately ensured that he was right with God, but that he also offered sacrifices for his children on the off chance they had sinned unknowingly.
In chapter one, Job is also introduced as a man of great wealth. While these are the only things the opening tells the reader, later conversations will reveal many more details. Later, in chapter four, Eliphaz reminds Job that he was one who “instructed many” and ”strengthened the weak.” So we also know that Job was an encourager who invested in others. In chapter twenty-nine, Job himself reminds his friends he was well respected in his community. For example, when Job came to town, we are told “the aged arose, and stood up” in respect, and “every one who heard him blessed him.” So we know Job is a well-respected public figure in his community. Job explains that this was due to his charitable giving to the poor, widowed, orphaned, and disabled. It appears everyone in town respected Job, and Job enjoyed his life filled with many blessings because he was a blessing to others.
The Context of Job’s Friends Advice: Job’s Present
However, Job’s praise and comfort quickly came to an end in chapter one. All of Job’s riches were ransacked and taken away by thieves, his children perished, his health was taken, and his wife became bitter in their anguish. In chapter thirty, Job tells his friends that all the respect he had received for his charitable work had gone away. The children now mock him, people spit in his face, and everyone fears being near him because of his illness. This is the state of afflicted Job, distraught, alone, fearful, and confused.
The Reason for Job’s Friend’s Visit
According to Job 2:11, Job’s friends came “to mourn with him and to comfort him.” This is a noble cause and an action that is encouraged by God. Paul teaches believers in Romans 12:15 that they are to “Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep.” Job’s friends saw a need, namely that their friend needed to be encouraged, and they decided to go as a group to comfort him. It was right for Job’s friends to come and mourn with him. Job was alone and in need of support and his friends sought to become his strength when he had none. This leads into the first lesson of ministering to suffering people, being tender.
Ministering to Others: Being Tender
When Job’s friends first saw him, they barely even recognized him. The first thing they did was cry out and weep over their friend. They mourned with him after the tradition of their day by tearing their clothes and placing ashes on their head. They truly mourned and were emotionally connected with Job’s struggles.
When ministering to others it’s okay to be emotional. We do not need to think that supporting someone means we must appear completely emotionless. Sometimes what people truly need is someone to cry and share their grief with. Expressing emotion improves our bonds with other people. People will always be more receptive to encouragement when they see that the person truly cares for them.
Emotional tenderness is something to be desired, and something that was demonstrated by Jesus Christ. In John 11, Jesus came to visit Mary and Martha after Lazarus died. While Jesus knew well that He was about to raise Lazarus from the dead, He still chose to weep with those mourning over their friend’s death. This is where the Bible gives those famous words, “Jesus wept.” To which the people respond. “Behold how he loved him!” From the people’s response, we can see Jesus’ mourning created a common bond with them through their shared grief.
Job’s friends were correct to initiate their meeting with their grieving friend by sharing in his sorrows and expressing a tender heart. Tenderness is the first step towards tearing down walls so that the healing process can begin.
Ministering to Others: Being Still
After mourning with their friend, Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, and Elihu chose to take another step that was important. Rather than immediately try to counsel Job with their advice, they chose to remain silent. Job 2:13 says, “So they sat down with him upon the ground seven days and seven nights, and none spake a word unto him: for they saw that his grief was very great” Here we see that Job’s friends recognized the severity of his grieving state. Job’s friends knew that what their friend truly needed was someone to be with him at that moment, not necessarily comforting words. They acknowledged that it was too soon to start giving advice, they instead waited for Job to talk and open up before they tried to help.
Oftentimes, it can be easy for us to try to solve another person’s problems too quickly. This can cause two issues. First, it’s possible we do not have a true grasp of the context of the situation. This can lead us to make faulty assumptions about the person we are trying to help and cause them to withdraw from us. It’s important for us to give an opportunity for the other person to explain their situation and present what kind of help they are looking for before we have any attempt to solve their problem.
Second, it’s possible that the situation may be too fresh or the time is not right for us to give advice. It may take time for an individual to be emotionally ready to start dealing with the problem. Our first encounter with a grieving person may not always seem profitable, however, it should not be a discouragement. If a person has chosen to meet, that is a first step in the right direction. We should never rush to solve a problem, but be willing to help people at their own pace.
If we are to minister to the grieving we must be prepared to listen more than to speak, and Job’s friends initially understood this well. If Job’s friends had continued down this path, they may have been more successful at lifting up their friend. We should learn from the mistakes that Job’s friends made. Those who are pastors, teachers, or others trained in the art of speaking must take additional caution, as we are used to speaking and giving wisdom at a moment’s notice. This means it’s even easier to trip up and talk more than needed purely out of habit. However, we must choose to refrain from speaking too soon or too strongly. No matter the case, with self-control and emotional awareness, we can know when it is the right time to start a conversation which can lead to healing.
Ministering to Others: Listening
The time will come when a person begins to open up. For Job, this happened at the start of chapter three where he pours out his heart and his regret over having ever been born. Job expresses how he has not found a way to cope with the experiences he has gone through, leaving an opening for his friends to respond and begin to comfort him. Those who seek help will almost always have plenty to say about how they feel, our responsibility is to help them figure out why they might feel that way and what they can do about it. Job’s friends once again succeeded at counseling their friend. They did not speak until Job was ready for them to speak and waited until Job directly gave them an opportunity to respond. However, how one responds is just as important as when.
Ministering to Others: Lifting Up
Once the opportunity to speak has been given, it’s our responsibility to lift up the hurting by raising their spirits and giving them hope. This is done by reminding the hurting that despite life’s circumstances, in gain or loss, in life or death; God is still good. In the case of Job, Eliphaz was the first who attempted to lift him up. Eliphaz’s first step was to remind Job that he had comforted people who had gone through similar trials. Eliphaz says, “Behold, thou hast instructed many, and thou hast strengthened the weak hands … But now it is come upon thee, and thou faintest; it toucheth thee, and thou art troubled.” This was meant to be a loving correction. Eliphaz was not saying he was a hypocrite but was reminding Job of a truth he had often reminded others, namely, that God takes care of those who love Him.
Ministering to Others: Being Sympathetic
Eliphaz quickly changes topics and begins telling Job about a vision he had in which God claimed no one could be right before Him. He extrapolates this vision to mean that Job has sinned and God has judged him. Eliphaz builds his own understanding of Job’s situation without having context of what was really going on. He started right but soon lost track of his purpose. Rather than comforting Job with love, he confronted him with condemnation.
When ministering to others it is important to let the individual know that we are on the same team. We must be genuinely sympathetic and allow the sufferer to know we are committed to helping them. Job shows a vivid example of the disconnect that can be caused by a lack of sympathy. In response to Eliphaz, Job said, “ye see my casting down, and are afraid. Did I say, Bring unto me? or, Give a reward for me of your substance? Or, Deliver me from the enemy’s hand? or, Redeem me from the hand of the mighty? Teach me, and I will hold my tongue: and cause me to understand wherein I have erred.” Here Job is saying, “I did not ask you for this correction, I did not ask you for answers.” Job was not yet in a place for these discussions, he was just beginning to open up about his situation when his friend cut into him harshly and hurt him even more.
Job’s response demonstrates why it is important to lift people up and give them hope before trying to “fix” them. If Job had a better understanding of his friends’ intentions, he may not have read into their response as an attack on his character.
Ministering to Others: Focusing on the Future
Chapter eight introduces Bildad to the discussion, who quickly doubles down on Eliphaz’s condemnation of Job. Rather than respond to Job’s expression of his depressed state, Bildad focuses on bringing up potential sins Job or his children may have committed. He even goes as far as saying that God was right to have killed Job’s children. Rather than trying to deal with Job’s present situation and helping him deal with the future, Bildad focuses on Job’s past. While it is true that if Job sinned, he may have deserved punishment, Job had already asked God why He had not forgiven him. Job had already tried to repent of sins he had not done. Even from the beginning of the book the reader is informed that Job regularly offered sacrifices for subconscious sins.
Rather than dwell on how things could have gone differently, we should focus on the present and future. The past cannot be altered, only what is done in the future is open to change. For this reason, we should focus on giving practical advice on how one can face the road ahead. This, along with the next quality of good ministering, is an area that Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar struggled with for the rest of the book of Job.
Ministering to Others: Responding to Responses
After Bildad lectures Job about his possible past failures, Job responds by saying he knows that no one can be right with God and that God’s ways are much higher than his. Despite this, when Zophar joins the discussion, he ignores everything that Job said, twists his words, accuses him of being irreverent, and condemns him to be punished more. It is obvious this was not a right response and that Zophar fell far short of his purpose of ministering to Job, however, there is a lesson to be learned from Zophar’s mistakes.
Zophar should have been listening to Job. It is clear that Zophar heard some of Job’s words, however, Zophar only heard what he wanted to hear. Rather than seeing Job’s humility in saying there was no way to be right with God, Zophar claimed Job said he was completely right in God’s eyes. Zophar made the mistake of ignoring a response and then pretending he had listened to it. In ministering to others, this is a worst-case scenario. There is nothing worse than not listening to what someone is trying to say and then correcting them with complete disregard for their input. It is an immediate breach of trust, especially if the few words heard are twisted out of context and used against them. This can be seen as an attack and can ruin any chance for further peaceful discussion.
We should learn from Zophar’s mistakes. It was at this point that Job lost hope in reasoning with his friends. Surely the conversation was over when Job said, “No doubt but ye are the people, and wisdom shall die with you.” Job expresses the feeling anyone in his position would have when he says, “I am not inferior unto you.” When we ignore someone’s input, we are telling them that their opinion is inferior to ours. In any discussion dealing with encouragement, all responses should be recognized, if not immediately, then as soon as they naturally can be.
Ministering to Others: Failure
After Zophar’s mistake, what began as a trip to encourage a friend, became a heated argument over the nature of God and hardship. Though Job’s friends set out to encourage him, they failed at their goal and made his life even more tortuous. Out of all the things Job lost, he at least had his friends, but now Job was not so sure about it.
If we attempt to be people who comfort others and we put ourselves out there to the best of our ability, there will eventually be times of failure. There will be times where we make mistakes and hurt people. All of us are humans and all humans make mistakes from time to time. When this happens, we should not call it quits forever, but, there is a time when we may need to step away from someone to give them time to heal. In the case of Job and his friends, Job’s friends said many harsh words which deserved an apology. It was at this point of failure that Jobs’ friends should have recognized their mistake and tried to move on with an apology and some space. Sadly, though, they did not. They continued to harass Job for most of the rest of the book. Had Job’s friends recognized their mistake and apologized, they may have been able to have had good discussions. However, even if they had made a successful apology, they may have needed to give Job some space before reopening their discussions.
When we fail at encouragement, we should sincerely apologize and give the person an option to continue the discussion in the future. We should make it clear that we are open to talking again, but we understand they may not be ready, or may not wish to continue. This leaves an open door but does not pressure them to walk through it. Part of good leadership is being able to admit mistakes. If we wish to help people in their time of suffering then we must be humble enough to admit when we are wrong or have wronged an individual.
The book of Job is filled with wisdom and foolishness. As with any wisdom literature, there is much to learn from it. The conclusion of this discussion can be summarized like this: be tender and listen, find out why a person is hurting, and, when it is discovered, be sympathetic and encourage them. Listen to what they have to say in response and deal with those concerns. If failure comes, do not double down on the mistake, but have humility and admit the shortcomings.
If these steps are followed, we will be able to lift up those who are hurting just as Christ did during His ministry on earth. When people are faced with times of uncertainty and doubt, it provides us a unique opportunity to serve others as Christ’s representative on earth. For this reason, we should learn from the book of Job in order to be prepared to minister to others with the love, humility, and tenderness of our Lord Jesus Christ.