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Miserable or Merciful Comfort
Once a Week
Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar get a bad rap, for obvious reasons, but I’m sure they wanted to relieve Job’s suffering. After the traumatic events of Satan’s attacks were over, Job’s suffering had intensified due to wrestling with the apparent contradiction of how God could be good and just and yet allow such horrible evil. Job’s friends - believing that much of Job’s suffering was self-inflicted by questioning a contradiction in God which simply could not be - offered him the anesthetic of reinterpretation.
If they can help Job see that God is unfailingly just, and therefore that Job is being disciplined, Job can confess his sin and so resolve his mental/emotional/spiritual suffering. As Job makes clear, reinterpreting another’s experience can be harmful, even if the motive is mercy: “miserable comforters are you all” (Job 16:2).
Offering alternative interpretations is often done prematurely, before the wounds have been thoroughly washed in the tears of lament. If we read the Biblical laments, we find that they often intensify pain - rather than sedate - before finding resolution in God. Why? Pain that is not fully felt cannot fully heal. So we must be wary of offering the painkiller of reinterpreted experience. Often the work of a comforter is to provide strength and presence the sufferer needs in order to feel the pain, rather than run or numb, so that it can be properly lamented.
How comforters do that is obviously a deep question with a lifelong answer, but here’s one short suggestion: perhaps we start by doing the opposite of Job’s friends. They did “weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15), but only while Job was silent. What they failed to do was to weep with one who weeps even while he verbalized questions, doubts, anger, mistrust and despair. Not everything the sufferer says will be accurate and true. Even so, it was not Eliphaz, Bildad or Zophar but Job, with all of his vitriol and lament, who spoke rightly of God (Job 42:7, 8).
Quotation from Dan Allender
“Godly despair is . . . a howling prayer that sees no explanation for our pain but reflexively knows something beyond an answer is what we desire. Godly despair cries out for perspective but allows the hollowness of loss to move the heart to seek God.”
The ability to weep with others can be cultivated, as seen in the liturgy of the lament psalms which train us to press into our pain. How else might you cultivate yourself as a merciful comforter? Do you think despair can ever be godly?
Praying for and laboring with you,