How (Not) to Be a Miserable Comforter
A few times a year, I post one of my recent sermons. Our church is preaching through the book of Job, and below is the audio and manuscript from my sermon last Sunday. In the sermon I explore things we must avoid if we are going to be helpful to those around us who are hurting. I also tell the story of when our family went through some significant suffering.
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This morning we are continuing our sermon series through the book of Job. This is the fourth week of ten. Thus far in this series, we haven’t missed reading a single verse. That’s going to change. The book of Job has 42 chapters, and this is the first sermon where we’ll have to do a good bit of summarizing. In Week 1, we met Job, this great man from the land of Uz. In Week 2, the bottom fell out in his life—home and health collapsed as the evil one drew back his bow. In Week 3, Job’s friends arrived, and they sat in silence as Job began to lament. Now, in Week 4, Job’s friends, his comforters, begin to speak with Job, and it doesn’t go well. In fact, in chapter 16, Job says, “miserable comforters are you all” (v. 2). His friends, his comforters, are miserable—in Job’s estimation and God’s. This morning we are going to explore some of the things that made them so miserable. But I don’t merely want to stay in the land of Uz. I believe that to study this book rightly, we’ll need to also think about how we can avoid their mistakes.
I’ll read portions of the book of Job in the sermon, but I want to begin by reading just one verse from the book of Proverbs. The verse teaches that truth is sharp; it has a point to it, which means that using truth requires wisdom, and if you don’t have wisdom, you’ll hurt yourself and others. Proverbs 26:9 says,
Like a thorn that goes up into the hand of a drunkard
is a proverb in the mouth of fools.
I mentioned at the start that we would not be reading every verse. To understand why, you need to understand something of the structure of the book of Job. The book of Job begins with the account of Job losing nearly everything, and the book ends with a short account of everything—and then some—being restored.
In the middle of the book, people talk to each other—a lot! Here’s the order: Job talks, then Friend 1 talks (Eliphaz). Then Job talks and Friend 2 talks (Bildad). Then Job talks and then Friend 3 talks (Zophar). From chapters 3 to 31, this cycle of Job-Friend/Job-Friend/Job-Friend happens three times . . . well, almost three times. The last cycle is broken short. Then in chapter 32 a young guy comes onto the scene and he talks. His name is Elihu. And when Elihu is finished talking, God talks. Or rather, God asks question after question after question. That’s a lot of talking.
We’ll have a few sermons that come from passages in the middle portion of the book, the talking parts. My job this morning is to represent Job’s friends and explore what made them miserable comforters.
But before I get into them, I’ll say this. When I preached two weeks ago, I covered nearly all of chapter 1 and 2, which were very full chapters. I even preached an extra 10 minutes longer than usual, and I still felt like all I was able to do was observe what was going on in the passage, let alone do much by way of illustration and application. At the end of the sermon, I mentioned how I hoped to have time for more of this later. And we do. So I’ll be begin with a story.
Several years ago, I got a short phone call from my wife. This was before we lived here in Harrisburg. We lived in Tucson, AZ at the time. On the call, Brooke really only asked one question. After our greeting, she asked if I saw that our house was listed online? I said that I hadn’t. I hung up the phone after the call, walked outside and confirmed a few details, and then made a phone call to the realtor.
It’s sort of a cliché when we talk about being so unsettled that you feel like you are going to be sick, to throw up, but that’s how I felt. We had been trying to sell our home for two years—a home we didn’t even live in anymore. When a contract on the home looked like it was going to materialize, we moved to Tucson, so I could work in a church. But then the contract didn’t materialize. And I asked a friend to live in my house for only $200 a month if he’d just mow the yard, which was 1/7 of the cost to own the house. And 18 months later, he was still living there. Our savings were almost gone, and one afternoon I remember going to CarMax to see how much I could get for my Ford Escape, which I found out would only get me another month or two, and we’d be in the same situation.
So we made this whole plan to take our house of the market and put it back on again. If we did it right, the timing would make it so that the previous time on the market would start over at zero. (At least those were the rules at the time.) But through an administrative error, the new realtor one day got back to the office and just listed it online some 15 days too early to restart the “clock”—and listed with no pictures. That’s why I felt sick.
Oh, and I should add a few months before I got that phone call, my wife had a miscarriage, which lead to some other on-going complications. And I should add that our landlord in Tucson just doubled our rent. And I should add that my job wasn’t as stable as it seemed when I first moved to this new city. My world felt unstable, like everything I was standing on was moving under my feet.
Think about an A-frame ladder. A-frame ladders are, relatively speaking, stable. They have a low center of gravity and a wide base. It’s stable. You can biff an A-frame ladder, and it returns to normal, if it even moves at all. When we went through that season, it was like I had been flipped upside down. Rather than a wide base and low center of gravity, all that was flipped. Everything was unstable. And if someone only whispered to me that all my calamities were because of my sin and lack of faith, I might have toppled over. This is how Job is when his friends arrive. He’s been honoring God, but yet his life has become unstable. If someone only hints that this is his fault, he might topple over.
And remember what Jason said last week. These are not just any friends. These friends are subtly flagged by the author of the book as wise men of the world—they are from countries noted for their wisdom. It’s like having grief counselors from Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, Jason said. And the wisdom the world has to offer Job is miserable.
Now, let’s spend the rest of our time getting into passages and talking about what made them so miserable.
1. Miserable Comforters Confuse Proverbs and Promises
The first thing that makes a miserable comforter is confusing a proverb and a promise. Both proverbs and promises are wonderful things. The Bible has many, many of each. But they are different things and things that should not be confused. Let me read a portion of chapter 18 to show you what I mean. This is Bildad speaking for the second time.
18 Then Bildad the Shuhite answered and said...
5 “Indeed, the light of the wicked is put out,
and the flame of [the wicked person’s] fire does not shine.
6 The light is dark in [the wicked person’s] tent,
and [the wicked person’s] lamp above him is put out.
7 [The wicked person’s] strong steps are shortened,
and his own schemes throw him down.
8 For he is cast into a net by his own feet,
and he walks on its mesh.
9 A trap seizes him by the heel;
a snare lays hold of him...
19 [The wicked person] has no posterity or progeny among his people,
and no survivor where he used to live.
20 They of the west are appalled at his day,
and horror seizes them of the east.
21 Surely such are the dwellings of the unrighteous,
such is the place of him who knows not God.”
How would you summarize these words? I might summarize them this way: Cheaters never win. They always get what they deserve. What Bildad says here is true as a proverb. A proverb, biblical speaking, is a statement about how God has generally set up the world. They are short statements that are designed to be memorable (e.g., cheaters never win). And because they are designed to be memorable, they do not have qualifications and disclaimers. If you clutter a proverb up with all sorts of qualifications, then the punchiness and memorableness are lost. (e.g., “many hands make light work,” but if you have a small room and too many people, well then, the work gets harder.) Part of handling proverbs rightly is having the wisdom to know their limits.
Yes, as Bildad says, most of the time when wicked people use wicked means to get ahead in life, they are crushed in their own devices. But if we could speak with Bildad, we’d want to ask him, “Bildad, is that true all of the time? Do you mean to tell me that this general truth that you have observed about the world is always true? Do you mean to tell me that a wicked person has never gone free, never gotten away with what they’ve done? No, Bildad, of course they do; sometimes the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer.”
I’m just picking one example from the many that could be mentioned in Job. You can hardly read any one of the friends’ speeches and not see aspects of their confusion about proverbs and promises.
Let me say it another way. What makes a miserable comforter is to believe that sin and suffering are in a relationship and that relationship is a one-to-one relationship. You’ll be a miserable comforter if you believe that if a person does something wrong, God will crush them—always. And to be a miserable comforter is to believe prosperity and righteousness are in a one-to-one relationship. If you do something right, God will reward you—always.
Let me make it more personal. Let me read Proverbs 22:6 and ask a question.
Train up a child in the way he should go;
even when he is old he will not depart from it.
Is that a promise or a proverb? Is God saying wisdom seeks to raise children up in the fear and admonition of the Lord, and—generally speaking—when patterns of godliness are ingrained from an early age and the goodness and grace of God are tasted at an early age—generally speaking—those children who see an authentic relationship with God modeled before them—generally speaking—will not depart from such a beautiful way of life when they are older?
Or, is this verse saying that if you do everything right as a parent, then your children will always become good, Christians, and if you don’t do what is right, then your children will always end up hating God? Which is it?
“Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” is a proverb, not a promise. It’s a general truth about how God has set up the world, namely, as a cause-and-effect world. Good causes—generally speaking—produce good effects. But that proverb starts to fall apart when it’s treated as a promise. And when this verse is treated as a promise, much confusion and much misery are bound to follow. When Job’s friends get proverbs and promises mixed up, it certainly causes Job all kinds of misery. Let’s go to the next point to see what this view leads them to do.
2. Miserable Comforters Speak Beyond What They Know
The next thing that makes a miserable comfortable miserable is when they speak beyond what they can know. Job’s friends are so committed to their one-to-one view of the world (sin leads to suffering and righteousness to prosperity), that even though they don’t know why Job’s suffering, they believe they can make up the reason he is suffering with absolute certainty.
Let me show you two examples, one from chapter 8 and the other from 22. The first also comes from Bildad. This is from his opening speech. Look at Job 8:1–4,
8 Then Bildad the Shuhite answered and said:
2 “How long will you say these things,
and the words of your mouth be a great wind?
3 Does God pervert justice?
Or does the Almighty pervert the right?
4 If your children have sinned against him,
he has delivered them into the hand of their transgression. (Job 8:1–4)
In v. 2 he says, “Your words are nothing more than hot air, Job.” And look at v. 4. He says, “Job, the reason your children are dead, is because they are sinners.” A miserable comforter today might say, “The reason your kidneys failed, the reason you have cancer, the reason your house didn’t sell, the reason your child died of SIDS . . . is because you’re a sinner—not a general sinner, as we all are, but a sinner in particular ways that lead you to deserve the particular punishment you got.”
Do you see why they are miserable? Bildad doesn’t know what he’s talking about. This wisdom of the world wasn’t in the secret council room of God when things were discussed, but still, it claims to know why things happened the way they did.
Now look at Job 22:1, 5–10, and 21. This is from the final cycle of conversations. Eliphaz speaks in this way,
22 Then Eliphaz the Temanite answered and said:
5 Is not your evil abundant?
There is no end to your iniquities.
6 For you have exacted pledges of your brothers for nothing
and stripped the naked of their clothing.
7 You have given no water to the weary to drink,
and you have withheld bread from the hungry.
8 The man with power possessed the land,
and the favored man lived in it.
9 You have sent widows away empty,
and the arms of the fatherless were crushed.
10 Therefore snares are all around you,
and sudden terror overwhelms you...
21 “Agree with God, and be at peace;
thereby good will come to you.
Every word of this is a lie. In Eliphaz’s first speech in chapter 4, he conceded that Job was likely a righteous man (vv. 3–6). But then all the friends start dancing around the massive elephant that they believe is in the room: Job is a wicked sinner, and if only he would come to his senses and repent, God would restore him. The whole time they are wondering who will be the one to say this outright to Job. Eliphaz is the one.
Did you notice that line in v. 9 about widows? Eliphaz say that in Job’s prior life, he “sent widows away empty.” I take this to mean that Job got his wealth by being a wicked miser.
One of the reasons I spent so much time in just reading and observing chapters 1 and 2 a few weeks ago, is for this moment right now. The narrator called Job a blameless man. God called Job a blameless man, and though he hated it, it seems Satan had to acknowledge it too. But here, these miserable comforters reinterpret the backstory of Job’s life. They speak beyond what they can know. This is one reason why Job is so exasperated. In a long, final appeal to his friends, Job says in chapter 29 that in his former life he “caused the widow’s heart to sing for joy” (v. 13). This is quite the contrast from what his friends tell him, but one I’m inclined to agree with because of what God had said about him.
To go back to my ladder metaphor, Job has been turned upside down; his center of gravity has moved up; his base has shrunk. He’s wobbly. He’s unstable. And the wisdom of the world comes along and says, “This is your fault.”
3. Miserable Comforters Speak Wrongly about God
Let me briefly mention the final thing that makes them miserable. It’s the thing that God mentions at the very end of the book. Look at 42:7,
7 After the Lord had spoken these words to Job, the Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite: “My anger burns against you and against your two friends, for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.
God looks through all the aspects of Job’s friends’ words that make them miserable, some of which I pointed out and others I didn’t have time for, and God says, the main issue is that they are not speaking rightly about him. Don’t miss this. What you believe about God is eminently practical for every aspect of your life, including when you’re comforting others.
So many applications could be made. You want to be a wise friend, a wise counselor? Soak in good theology. This is one reason why we give huge portions of our service to thinking soberly about the book God wrote, and why we should spend our lives, not just on Sundays, soaking in it. When we do this, we can come to people who are suffering, and we’ll be able to do everything we can to deepen their trust in God, to lower their center of gravity and widen their base, so to speak.
And when we don’t know something, we should just say we don’t know it. We need to look people the eyes as they cry, and as we cry with them, and say, “I don’t know why this strange providence of God has come upon you. And I don’t know if we’ll ever know in this life. But let me help you hold on to God even as he’s going to hold on to you.”
And Jason mentioned many other, very practical things we need to do last week regarding the effort to help those suffering. When people are suffering, we write cards, make meals, mow the yard, rake leaves, clean bathrooms. We show up; we talk for a bit; then we leave. And with our words we point people to the goodness of God, even though it seems like the storm makes him and his goodness difficult to see.
Speaking of the goodness of God, I want to close by talking about that. There is a saying that goes around these days that says, That escalated quickly. We usually say it when we observe that someone took something out of proportion. So, someone stubs their toe, and they start calling down curses from heaven on the nightstand. “Woe to you, nightstand. Curse the tree that gave birth to you.” And we say, “That escalated quickly.”
When God says, that Job’s friends had spoken about him wrongly, God did not escalate quickly, and when he did, he did not overstep proportion. “The Lord is slow to anger” (Exodus 34:6). God listened to their hot air for chapter, after chapter, after chapter, until finally, he says, “Enough.” Because of God’s love for Job, because of God’s love for Job’s friends, and because of God’s love for his own reputation and glory, God says, “Enough.”
Sometimes when Christians talk about the book of Job, we can focus so much on the suffering and sin and Satan and how God fits in all those things, that we miss that God has given this book to make us wise. The book of Job is part of what are called the wisdom books in the Bible. They are those books that are especially given by God to his people to make them wise.
Think about that. Not only does God love you so much that he would send Jesus the savior to the earth and live perfectly and then die in your place for your sins, and then rise again on the third day, defeating sin and death, and then sit in heaven where he rules and reigns and awaits to come again for you—but not only has he done all of that, but he loves you so much that in the meantime while Christians wait for his glorious return, he has given us instructions to make us wise. We can get so focused on chapters 1 and 2 of Job and forget that God has given us a great gift in this book, a book showing us how to relate to people who are suffering, and in many ways, how not to relate to them, how not to be a miserable comforter. That may feel like a small thing. But I know story after story of people who were suffering and some well-meaning Christian comes to him or her and says, in essence, “This is your fault, and if you’d just have enough faith, your circumstances would change.” God loves us so much that his salvation includes his desire to make us wise. Be careful with your words, Christian.
There was an article on a popular Christian website a few years ago called, “What Grieving People Wish You Knew at Christmas” by Nancy Guthrie (Desiring God, December 21, 2016). It’s a short article. It came out just four days before Christmas in 2016. It’s just my guess, but it would seem that the average number of “shares” for articles on that website are maybe 1–3k shares. A good article might get 10k shares and a great one might get 30k or even 50k shares. The article, “What Grieving People Wish You Knew at Christmas,” an article that gave Christians wisdom for how to speak to people who are suffering, was shared over 1.3 million times, many of those in the first few days. It’s the most-shared article of all time on Desiring God’s website. We are hungry for wisdom, especially when people are grieving.
I talked about not confusing proverbs and promises. Let me close with a promise from Jesus. This is Jesus speaking to his disciples. He tells them,
I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world. (John 16:33)
Now that’s a promise. No matter what happens in this life—whether it’s your fault or not—if you are trusting in Christ, he will hold you. Take that to heart, Christian.