Warnings for Counselors from the Book of Job

One pearl of wisdom from my father is indelibly imprinted in my memory. “Son,” he said, “I can’t change mistakes I’ve made in life, but there’s no reason for you to repeat them. If you learn nothing else from me, learn from my mistakes.” Those words come to mind when reflecting on the failure of Job’s friends.

Upon hearing of the calamities that crushed Job, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar traveled from their respective towns “to sympathize with him and comfort him” (Job 2:11). After silently mourning for seven days with Job, they spoke and things took an unfortunate turn. Job’s assessment of their counsel was blunt: “Miserable comforters are you all!” (Job 16:2). He then dismissed them with withering words: “So how dare you give me empty comfort? For your answers remain nothing but falsehood!” (Job 21:34).

How did things go south so quickly? How could these men turn on their friend they intended to comfort? These friends of Job made four key errors—mistakes we should strive to avoid.

They lost track of their purpose

This trio came with generous empathy for their suffering friend. Horrified at the initial sight of Job, they sat with him in silence for seven days. Watching him scrape his boils with potsherd and hearing his moans through sleepless nights must have been unnerving. Understandably, they were haunted by a question: Why? Why was this righteous man suffering severely? So, they sought to understand the reason behind it all. They lost themselves in their own heads and failed to remember why they were there. Ultimately, their illogical reasoning turned them from compassionate companions to aggressive accusers.

Sitting with sufferers is hard. If we are not careful, we can forget our role and bring added hurt rather than help. Job did not need theological debate, he needed comfort. His friends failed him because they lost track of their purpose for being there.

They overreacted to his words of despair

When Job finally speaks, he explodes with dreadful words. He curses the day of his birth (3:1-10) and asks why was he not stillborn (3:11-19). He then expresses a desire for death—a conclusive end to his suffering (3:20-26). These words express dark desires that grow in intensity with Job’s subsequent speeches. His friends are aghast at his words of despair. Unfortunately, they did not recognize his words were just that—eruptions of despair, not declarations of his theology. Job himself declares,

Do you intend to rebuke my words,
When the words of one in despair belong to the wind? (6:26)

People in deep distress sometimes say stupid stuff. But their words are like the wind, they have no root and pass quickly. We must realize they are speaking through their pain and not give their words more weight than they deserve. Those in despair need comfort, not rebuke for their careless cries.

They misread the reason for Job’s circumstances

Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar embraced a reward-retribution paradigm—the righteous are rewarded, while the wicked receive retribution. In their minds, Job’s ruin showed he was guilty of sin, for which repentance was the only reasonable response. They thought they could read his heart through the tragedies of his life. Convinced his claims to innocence were false, they lobbed unfounded accusations his way. But they were terribly wrong. Job was exactly what God proclaimed him to be: “A blameless and upright man” (1:8).

While it is true that sin sows trouble, trouble also besets the innocent. We must avoid trying to read the heart of another person through their circumstances—especially through their experiences of affliction. In truth, we cannot see clearly into the heart of another person. Exposure of the true nature of a person’s heart is a work of the Spirit, as he uses the Word “to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).

They thought they understood the purposes of God

As readers of the drama, we learn of the cosmic conflict behind his trial in the opening chapters of Job—events about which he and his friends were oblivious. Job’s counselors mistakenly thought they could discern the purposes of God in Job’s experience. Their errant conclusions led to erroneous counsel. If nothing else, the book of Job reminds us that the ways of God in any given situation are largely inscrutable. As the Lord shows Job when He appears in the whirlwind, our minds cannot put together all the pieces of the puzzle of God’s providential workings in this world. That is why we, like Job, must respond with humility and trust.

Sitting with suffering saints is a privilege. When we do, may God keep us from repeating the failures of Job’s friends.

Photo by Emmanuel Phaeton on Unsplash

Craig Svensson
Dr. Svensson is Dean Emeritus and Professor in the Purdue University College of Pharmacy.