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When I was 17 or 18 I was asked to give a talk about friendship for a group of junior high students. I was provided with a list of obvious choices of Bible verses to reference, things like

“A friend loves at all times” Proverbs 17:17

“A cord of three strands is not easily broken.” Ecclesiastes  4:12

Never really one to take the path most-travelled, I decided to be a rogue and choose my own scripture references. I chose to talk about Job’s friends.

As I was giving my talk, I noticed the faces of the priests in the room looking surprised, and then concerned, and then relieved as I finished up and got off the stage.

“What did I say wrong?” I wondered. I was a fairly new Christian and really didn’t have much in the way of Bible knowledge, other than the necessities. It wasn’t until later that I found out Job’s friends are often held up as an example of how not to be a friend.

Then two years ago, sitting in my hospital room, I wept over some hurtful and unsupportive things friends had said to me. I was pouring out my hurt and my sorrow to a true friend, and she expressed disappointment my “Job’s friends”. I cocked my head  and considered. Yes, that was the truth of it. In my pain and suffering, I was getting judgement, condemnation, and truth wielded against me. And it hurt.

I concluded from these two experiences that Job’s friends were, perhaps, not really a great example of friendship after all.

Lately though, I have been searching for deeper understanding of Job’s friends. I have many friends and family members who are suffering. Grief follows grief, and my heart hurts for them. I learned enough from my own time of grief and suffering to know that ministering to those who suffer is delicate work. Like marriage, this is not to be entered into lightly or unadvisedly. Rather one goes there with reverence, respect, and with great humility.

I’ve spent lots of time studying Job, but my purpose was to understand Job; to understand the problem of pain; to understand why the righteous suffer. I didn’t really pay much attention to Job’s friends, other than to nod my head in agreement and say, “Yeah, that’s right!” when God rebukes them.

But since I’ve been surrounded by all this suffering, I’ve been turning to Job again. And, what do you know? I find that Job’s friends know how to do this after all.

When Job’s three friends…heard about all the troubles that had come upon him, they set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathize with him and comfort him.

Job 2:11

Job’s friends hear about his troubles, and they set out to be with him. Their purpose? To sympathize and to comfort. Their friend is hurting, and it is good and right that they should seek him out to offer sympathy and comfort.

In this day and age we have so many ways to seek one another out that it’s not always necessary to travel for days on a camel in order to be with a suffering friend in person. I consider e-mail, postal mail, and phone calls all to be appropriate means of setting out in sympathy and comfort.

Here, Job’s friends remind me to check my motivation. Anything less than sympathy or comfort does not belong. Why am I sending that card, or bringing that gift, or forwarding that link, or sharing that Scripture? Maybe I want others to think I’m a thoughtful person, maybe I want to be given praise for being so generous, maybe I want to be the one who offers the words that help my friend heal. I’m guilty of succumbing to all of these warped motivations.

During my 12 week hospital stay, I received quite a few visitors. There were very, very few visitors who came to me in the spirit of Job’s friends. I’d guess about 70% of my visitors came to fulfill some need of their own–they needed me to be happy, they needed to be able to check off “visiting the sick”, they needed to help teach me God’s lessons, they needed to feel useful.

Of course, this wasn’t intentional on their part and grace ought to be (and is) extended as they work through their own broken spots. But my point is this, as I seek to be a good friend to those who suffer around me, whatever I do must come from a desire to offer comfort and sympathy to the broken-hearted.

When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads.

Job 2:12

The second appropriate thing that Job’s friends offered to him was to grieve with him. Tearing robes and wearing ashes is not something you do lightly. It is a sign of the greatest sorrow. Their sorrow for their friend was so great that they wept aloud.

This is the hardest thing for me to offer. I’m not by nature a person who cries easily. My tears simply don’t sit near to the surface. I weep tears in my heart, they just don’t spring readily to spill out of my eyes.

But I’m learning that an ability to weep for others can often speak volumes to someone who is suffering. For someone who is grieving to not just know, but to see that someone else weeps with them can be an immense comfort. A grieving spirit does not need stoicism. A grieving spirit needs fellowship.

My prayer is for God to transform me in this area of ministration. I pray to one day be able to weep, literally and actually, with those who are weeping.

Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was.

Job 2:13

For a week, the amount of time an Israelite would mourn someone who had died, Job’s friends did not speak to him. They respected his suffering with silence, knowing that nothing they could say would take any of it away.

I don’t know about you, but in the past I’ve not really embraced silence. I love words. I love a perfect turn of phrase that is perfectly suited to an occasion. I think this is my area of greatest failure in loving on the Jobs in my life. I come ready to comfort with my words, instead of with my presence.

God is working on me here, too; teaching me when to hold my tongue (or my keyboard) and when to speak. I don’t claim to be perfect, but I can say with assurance my words have been tempered from what they were before.

And while they were sitting in silence, what do you think they were thinking about? I would probably be considering what words I was going to use to break the silence. After this weighty silence, my words had better be important, right? I’d better give it some thought. Scripture doesn’t tell us what they were thinking, but I’m not so sure that’s what it was.

After this, Job opened his mouth….

Job 3:1a

Job’s friends let him break the silence. They did not speak until he himself spoke.

And once they did speak? Well, that’s another story. The comforting ministrations of Job’s friends end once they open their mouths. Prior to speaking? Perfect. Speaking? Insensitive, inappropriate and ill-timed.

It’s an ironic prayer that says, “Please, Lord, teach me to be more like Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar,” but this has been my prayer of late. Because I see such love for their friend in their early offerings. It is this love that I wish had been offered to me, when I was feeling like a Job. And it is this love that I wish to offer to the Jobs in my own life.