Job’s friends. So sure they know what’s going on. So persistent. So annoying. Oh they start off on the right foot. The friends learn of Job’s troubles, they leave their homes, meet up and go to “console and comfort him” (2:11). They weep, tear their robes and throw dust on their heads- which is what people did in those days. Sort of acts of solidarity with the despondent and bereaved. Then they sat with Job for seven days and nights and did not speak to him. They were simply and powerfully present with him. There was nothing to say, because “his suffering was very great.”
At some point, however, they feel the need to help Job along- to fix his grief and suffering. As Eliphaz says, “Who can keep from speaking?” (4:2). And once the friends start trying to “help” Job, even though Job doesn’t want their help, they can’t stop. They won’t stop until Job does what they know Job needs to do to heal and to move on with his life.
One of the reasons Job’s friends make us uncomfortable- at least they make me uncomfortable- is that I have been one of Job’s friends myself. And to be honest, more than once.
It’s hard to “just” sit with someone. It’s hard to watch someone suffer. We feel badly for them. And we ourselves feel uncomfortable. Yes the person is suffering but their suffering makes us uncomfortable. And so we try to fix it.
Like Job’s friends, we can be very persistent. From our vantage point what they need to do is clear. Stop drinking. Start exercising. See a therapist. Get a job. Go back to school. Go to church. Confess. Repent.
It’s no surprise that Job’s friends make us uncomfortable. They make us cringe. We’ve argued with suffering people. We’ve said these unhelpful and even stupid things to people we love. The words of Job’s friends are hard to read. Imagine how hard they must be to hear.
By the end of the book, not only does God speak to Job, God also speaks to Job’s friends. They are told they “have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” (42:7) And in verse 8 God tells them again, ” you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has done.” (If it is repeated, it must be important. If it is repeated, it must be important.)
Of course, sadly we still offer comfort like Job’s friends. If you are suffering, you somehow must have caused it. Because if your suffering isn’t your fault, why are you suffering?
The world is a simpler place if God materially rewards the “good” and punishes the “evil”. If we know the rules we can protect ourselves and maybe even our families. If there is no apparent logic about who suffers and who is rewarded, life is more complex and more frightening. We don’t have as much control as we thought.
The book of Job leaves us with an answer we don’t necessarily like. The reason why some people suffer and struggle and others lead a happy, secure life isn’t a formula. It’s mostly unknowable. Just as, in many ways, God is unknowable.
Of course, personal choices and societal structures and systems do cause people to suffer and there are actions we can take to reduce or eliminate some suffering. The prophets are clear about this.
But in the real world where people suffer and struggle, our first responsibility to suffering people is not to explain or to fix. Job’s friends begin with the better way. They tear their clothes, they cry, they throw dust on their heads- in solidarity with the suffering ones. The sit silently because there are not words to say. Job’s friends last for seven days. Our challenge to to develop the capacity to stay with, to persist as long as our friends need us to.