Job and Human Suffering
I met Eliphaz recently. He was explaining to me the formula needed for a friend of mine, David, who is suffering horrendously with an inoperable stomach tumor, to get healed: It involved repenting from the hidden sin in his life. Throughout the 23 years that I have been a Pastor, I have met many Eliphaz’, Bildads and Zophars who transgress the dictum of Romans 13:10 Love does no harm. The thesis of this paper is the claim that much can be learnt from Job’s three friends, both positive and negative in relation to how to care for those who are suffering – particularly the terminally ill, specifically in light of society’s current cultural alienation of those who are dying. This paper will examine what can be learnt from the book of Job that helps Christians “do no harm” when it comes to those in our world who are suffering or are sick.
Unfortunately Christians and the Christian Church seem deeply inept at reflecting the Agape love that God commands of us. John 13:35 By this will all men know that you are my disciples if you have love one for another. The insertion of the word “if” means Christians can violate the love command, which has obvious negative consequences to the observing unchurched world – but it has some horrendous consequences within the church world – often not so obvious. Let us now look at some personal stories. With the authoring of this paper in mind, I asked my Social Media friends for their stories of Christians saying “dumb” things to those who are suffering. The 103 people who responded broke my heart as I read of the incredibly insensitive and hurtful comments Christians have made to them in their time of grief and pain. Here I provide a couple of examples:
Jodie: I was told that me having had anorexia for nearly 20 years was God’s plan for me to help others
Toni: I was told Joshy had disabilities and was sick because I was a sinner, and the reason he doesn’t get better is because I keep sinning and/or I don’t have enough faith
Michelle: When my first marriage ended in divorce a close Christian friend said “I hope you know what you are doing as you will be judged”
Liz: After being sexually assaulted and beaten by my ex, I was asked “What did you do to antagonise him”
Margaret: When my brother was diagnosed with a very rare form of aggressive cancer, I was told that at least he will have a quick death.
Bronwyn: I was in the hospital after being bashed and a few other things and the hospital chaplain comes and asks if he could pray with me. He starts by asking what happened and then goes into this lengthy prayer asking God to forgive my actions and how I must have annoyed the person that bashed me.
Judy: I lost three members of my family during the last 10 years and it infuriates me when people say “at least you will see them in heaven.”
Cam: Was told once the sickness of a newborn family member was the result of their parents leaving one church and attending another.
Job and His Friends
Job was a man who was blameless, upright, one who feared God and shunned evil. He was wealthy and had a large family. He is afflicted by God without cause and he loses all his children, all his wealth and then ultimately his health. Job has three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite and when they hear of his plight they journey to meet him and provide support. Norman Habel in his commentary The Book of Job, observes “The diverse geographical origins of these three “wise” men suggested that they each bring their own traditional wisdom to comfort Job and interpret his plight.” As they approach Job, he is so horrendously disfigured that they don’t recognise him. The bible records that they lifted their voices and wept for Job, reflecting the command of the Apostle Paul several thousand years later that Christians are to weep with those who weep. They tear their robes and fling dust above their heads which are traditional expressions of mourning and extreme anguish similar to actions in Joshua 7:6, 1 Samuel 4:12 and 2 Samuel 13:19. Habel suggests that the flinging of dust in the air recalls the actions of Moses of throwing dust into the air to produce the boils that afflicted the Egyptians; “thus the friends perform a rite which symbolically calls forth the same sickness on themselves as an act of total empathy. They are one with the dust of death and one with Job in his disease.” The friends then sit in silence with Job for a period of seven days. Janet Ramsey in her article titled First Do No Harm:Pastoral Care Informed by Job says “Their seven days of silence may have been the best moments for Job’s Counsellors.” Their presence mixed with actions of empathy and weeping is admirable. If the story of the friends support ended there, they would be praised for being true friends. But after seven days, they decide to fix Job. This is the fulcrum of where they went wrong and sadly where so many Christians also go wrong.
Job’s friends bring three broad lines of thought as to what has caused the affliction of Job. Eliphaz begins by introducing the idea of Retributional Theology. In its purest form, Retributional Theology is seen in Psalm 1 – The righteous are rewarded and the wicked perish. Eliphaz to convince Job of the fact that he has attracted this affliction by wicked living makes this observation “Think now, who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off? As I have seen, those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same….” Zophar agrees that Retributional Theology is part of the cause of Job’s issue “Know then that God exacts of you less than your guilt deserves.”
The second category of analysis of Job’s friends is that suffering is the result of Divine Chastening: Ultimately God is going to use your suffering to teach you something. “Behold happy is the man who God corrects: Therefore do not despise the chastening of the Lord.”
The third and final category is centered around the idea that it’s all going to work out in the end – that suffering is only temporary. In his article An Examination of the Progress of Thought in the Dialogues of Job, WA Irwin breaks down Job 8:11-19
“Bildad contrasts the life-history of two plants: One, a swamp rush, grows luxuriant in the mire and pools by the riverside; but with the advance of the season the water dries up and this erstwhile flourishing plant fails and ‘first of all verdure it withers’ (8:12). But, on the other hand, the desert herb grows in blighting heat and aridity, and still worse is a prey to camels’ teeth. It is eaten away so completely that not a trace is apparent. Yet from its root it grows again and from the ground it sprouts afresh (v.19). The first, he tells us, is the type of the wicked; the second, of the righteous. And disaster has overtaken both alike. The difference is in the sequel.”
These three broad categories are a succinct summary of the three speeches of Job’s friends and even Elihu’s fairly randomly included speech in Job chapters 32 to 37, has a little of each of these categories. An example is Job 35:8 Elihu states “Your wickedness affects a man such as you”. However in the multitude of the words that these three main characters play in this sad drama there are some other “gems of wisdom” that are used by present day “friends” of the suffering.
Job 4:3-6 “In the past you have encouraged many a troubled soul to trust in God; you have supported those who were weak. Your words have strengthened the fallen; you steadied those who wavered. But now when trouble strikes, you faint and are broken. Does your reverence for God give you no confidence? Shouldn’t you believe that God will care for those who are upright?”
Eliphaz is effectively saying – Job you used to be a man of faith but now that you are going through a tough time – where is your faith? Another way of saying this is…if you had more faith Job then you would be well. “Having his faith hurled back at him like a stone is no help to Job. Aggression such as this may be cloaked within a compliment, but it ends up conveying the sentiment, “Don’t come whining to me! You are supposed to be a person of faith!” Once again, the needs of the counsellor pre-empt those of the sufferer”
Another example shows that Eliphaz was possibly from a Pentecostal church:- “This truth was given me in secret, as though whispered in my ear. It came in a vision at night as others slept. Fear gripped me; I trembled and shook with terror. A spirit swept past my face. Its wind sent shivers up my spine. It stopped, but I couldn’t see its shape. There was a form before my eyes, and a hushed voice said…” Eliphaz is saying – Job I have a prophetic word from God for you – and I know it was from God because I got goose bumps.
The third and final additional comment that Eliphaz makes that I want to identify: “My advice to you is this: Go to God and present your case to him. For he does great works too marvellous to understand. He performs miracles without number. He gives rain for the earth. He sends water for the fields. He gives prosperity to the poor and humble, and he takes sufferers to safety. He frustrates the plans of the crafty, so their efforts will not succeed.” What Eliphaz is saying is “Job if I was in your situation; this is what I would do.” This is entirely unhelpful.
Clearly Job’s friends were after a particular response from Job. But what was Job’s response to his friends: “One should be kind to a fainting friend, but you have accused me without the slightest fear of the Almighty. My brother, you have proved as unreliable as a seasonal brook that overflows its banks in the spring when it is swollen with ice and melting snow. But when the hot weather arrives, the water disappears. The brook vanishes in the heat.” And then further alone in the same chapter: -“You, too, have proved to be of no help.” Job’s pain caused by his friends can be seen as he lamentingly asks “How long will you torment my soul, And break me in pieces with words?”
“From Job’s perspective, the only friendship worthy of the name is that which proves itself in the crucible of suffering.” So we have established that Job’s friends have not provided support for Job and in fact they offended God by saying things to Job on His behalf that were just plain wrong. God judges these three men and calls them to repent and bring sacrifices. “The problem of speaking correctly about God in the midst of unjust suffering is not limited to the case of Job, but is a challenge to every believer.” So how can we apply the negative lessons of Job’s friends to how we treat the suffering – particularly the terminally ill? First we will examine death and dying.
Death and Dying
“Death is both inevitable and irreversible.” Over the last century the decline in mortality has been significant but has had some interesting cultural ramifications. In the Journal, Annual Review of Sociology, John Riley in his article Dying and the Meanings of Death, reports “Most deaths now occur not among the young as they did at the turn of the 20th century where the life expectancy was not much above 30, but among the old. In the United States, people aged 85 and over account for only 1% of the total population but for 17% of all deaths.” George Fitchett in Wisdom and Folly in Death and Dying, writing in the Journal of Religion and Health says “Advances in medical science and technology have all but eliminated the acute diseases that once were the major causes of death. This has created a radical change in the demographic characteristics of those who are dying. At the turn of this century fifty-three percent of those who died in this country were under the age of fifteen”. This major shift as to who is dying as well as the West’s preoccupation with “perpetual youth, beauty, sexuality, and strength has typically disguised, avoided, denied, and embellished death resulting in alienation of the dying” according to the article in the journal Public Health Reports titled Terminal Care: Issues and Alternatives.” The article goes on to say the isolation has been encouraged by a change in societal institutions, most prevalent of which is the change in family structure, away from the traditional almost tribal nuclear family to a more disconnected modern family. Within the extended family, the processes of the life cycle were an accepted and natural part of daily life, with birth and death on a continuum in nature. Ill persons were cared for in their homes by their families, and the burials of those who died were attended by all members of the family. This is simply not the case these days.
When we consider the terminally ill, “technology has influenced care for the terminally ill even more dramatically by creating a population of people who experience their dying over an extended period of time.” One article I read coined the phrase that there are many people who are currently “living dying.” Now technically we are all living dying but the phrase applied to the terminally ill has a particular poignancy. So the demographic shift of who is dying, mixed with the obsession of youth and beauty in our culture and the change in the modern family, married with death being delayed by medicine, all lead to the terminally ill experiencing social death before biological death. This conclusion is reinforced by the research reported on in Coping with Loneliness Among the Terminally Ill published in the Social Indicators Research Journal concluding that “the terminally ill are particularly prone to loneliness.” Elisabeth Kubler-Ross wrote a highly acclaimed book titled On Death and Dying back in 1969 where she identified the 5 stages of grief that a person journeys through once they have been diagnosed with a terminal disease. This has both been positive and negative “ Our present state of care for the dying is one in which a unique and personal human experience has been transformed into a series of psychological stages to be monitored and facilitated by specialists in the techniques of doing so has dehumanised the care process.”
I have laboured on death and dying and the changing sociological and Medical issues as well as identifying that one of the key issues for the terminally ill is social death before biological death, to make the point that there is an extreme need for Christians and indeed Pastors to step into the care of the terminally ill: but to do so with Romans 13:10 echoing through the chambers of their heart – Love does no harm.
My good friend David is currently living dying. After 12 months of suffering indescribable stomach pain and being misdiagnosed multiple times, David was told he has an inoperable stomach tumour that is growing aggressively. His diagnosis coincided with the start of my studies on Job in the Subject OT570 Job and Human Suffering. Studying the response of Job’s friends and indeed Job himself has been a significant challenge to me personally as I have examined how to not only be a friend to David but also a pastoral carer. The following is an application of how to be a friend and pastorally care for the Davids of this world, looking through the lens of the Joban journey.
The first step, possibly the most powerful thing that we can do to care and show love for the terminally ill is to presence ourselves with them. Job’s friends travelled from afar, from three separate regions, to come and presence themselves with him. I found it a fascinating thought that “The practice of visiting the sick is an ancient one that goes back to biblical days, when Abraham was visited in his tent by three angels while recuperating from his self-circumcision.” Through observation, and both ministry and personal experience, it seems that the iPod, iPhone, and iPad generation have become so frenzied in their lust for, wealth, fame and success that they have forgotten, iCare, iVisit, iLove. Through the articles that I have quoted earlier, it is evidenced that loneliness is a big issue for the terminally ill. Just as passionately as the medical field work to prolong the biological life of the person, the pastoral care field should work to prolong the social life of those who are ill. We don’t seem to understand the power of our presence. Jesus when he was “terminally ill” in the Garden of Gethsemane (I use the term terminally ill here creatively as death was imminent), his disciples withdrew their supporting presence from Christ by falling asleep. The bible records the importance to Jesus of his disciple’s presence:. “Then He said to them, “My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even to death. Stay here and watch with Me.” Then we see the failure of the disciples, you can almost hear the anguish in the voice of Christ, “Then He came to the disciples and found them sleeping, and said to Peter, “What! Could you not watch with Me one hour?” The story retold in Luke 22 includes an account of where angels come and strengthen Christ. Was this compensation for the failure of the disciples? I conclude step one with a quote from an Janet Ramsey’s article “With pastoral experience comes the realization that we need not be so clever, we need not fix or cure. But we do need to show up.”
The second step within this strategic plan is to learn from Job’s friends who acted wisely within the first 7 days. They wept, they demonstrated their grief and they showed powerful empathy. Job, feeling safe in the presence of his friends, laments. “The lament is a weaving together of self lament, mournful interior reflection and God lament- complaint addressed to God.” In the radical triumphantism that permeates the DNA of most Pentecostal circles, the lament is seen as depression, lack of faith, defeatist – but there is role for lament to play in the journey of the terminally ill. Certainly lament has significant air play in the bible, even with an entire book named Lamentations. Lament should actually “be encouraged along with the integrity to speak honestly with God.” The article Coping with Loneliness Among the Terminally Ill pointed out that “when you can share your darkest secrets and mistakes with another person who listens without judgment, it is like shining a light in the darkness.” For David as for any terminally ill person, deep expressions of lament should be listened to without comment. Job’s initial lament was the trigger for his friends to begin the analysis. Pastoral carers must be comfortable not only with lament but with silence: listening without judgement, without the need to “fix things” and without Pentecostalizing the situation. Eugene Peterson, quoted by Fuller Seminary Professor James Butler says:- “Suffers attract fixers like roadkill attracts vultures.” This kind of attitude is captured in this Dilbert Cartoon:
I love the attitude of the carer identified in Ramsey’s article, Job’s “journey reminds us that our task is not to critique the weakness of hurting persons. Rather, it is to accompany them to the cross, where together we meet a God whose greatest moment was one of public defeat and personal vulnerability. Pastoral care at the foot of the cross is not about demanding strength but about guiding those in pain toward a new location.” Professor Butler, also implores “ We must affirm that silent presence is a sacrament—it is a tangible sign of God’s presence with the suffering and a contradiction of the world’s aversion to pain and disease and poverty and homelessness.”
Final step in the Love Does No Harm strategic plan is that we should work on empowering the suffering – Job was disempowered by his wife and by his friends. When a patient is severely ill, he is often treated like a person with no right to an opinion – as was Job. It is often someone else who makes the decision if and when and where they should be hospitalised. “It would take so little to remember that the sick person too has feelings, has wishes and opinions and has – most importantly the right to be heard.” Job himself speaks of a time when he “was eyes to the blind, And I was feet to the lame. I was a father to the poor, And I searched out the case that I did not know.” He is speaking of a time of empowering the disempowered. For those living dying, not only should their opinion be sought and valued but also their journey should not be reduced to the impersonal psychological journey through Kubler-Ross’s 5 stages of grief. Treating every terminally ill person as a beautiful and wonderful human being with thoughts, feelings and an opinion will ensure we keep them human and not turn them into merely fodder for the an institutionalised medical system.
Life is not fair. If Psalm 1 was the undeparted from formula by which life happened – then all would be well in the world. But it is not. Job found that out. When God looked in the Garden of Eden the only thing He saw that wasn’t good was that man was alone. As people experience the unfairness of life, it is not good that they should be alone. It is also not good for them when they are not alone to experience further wounding and pain at the hands of their friends, fellow Christians or church leaders. Job’s journey was made all the tougher by friends who failed at friendship and in so doing angered Yahweh. This paper has identified where Job’s friends failed, and indeed what they did right, the societal and cultural changes that have impacted our current view of death and married the two together so that hopefully when we are dealing with people suffering or who are terminally ill we can….. do no harm.
 All biblical quotes are from the New King James Version of the bible. Holy Bible, New King James Version copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation.
 Job 1:1
 Job 2:3
 Habel, Norman. 1985 The Book Of Job Westminister Press. Philadelphia:Pennsylvania, 97
 Job 2:12
 Romans 12:15
 Exodus 9:10
 Habel, The Book Of Job, 97
 Ramsey, Janet. “First Do No Harm:Pastoral Care Informed by Job”. Word and World. Theology of Christian Ministry. Vol 31, No.4( Fall 2011) , 367-373
 Job 4:7-8
 Job 11:6
 Job 5:17
 Irwin, W.A. “An examination of the Progress of Thought in the Dialogues of Job,” Journal of Religion 13 (1933): 152-153
 Ramsey. “First Do No Harm,” 373.
 Job 4:12-16
 Job 5:8
 Job 6:14-17
 Job 6:21
 Job 19:2
 Balentine, Samual E. 2006. Job. Smith and Helwys Publishing INC:Georgia, 142.
 Job 42:7-8
 Gutierrez, Gustavo. 1987 On Job. Orbis Books, Maryknoll:NY
 Riley, John. Dying and the Meanings of Death: Sociological Inquiries. Source: Annual Review of Sociology, Vol.9 (1983), 191-216
 Riley, “Dying and the Meanings of Death”, 191
 Fitchett, George. “Wisdom and Folly in Death and Dying.” Source: Journal of Religion and Health, Vol 19, No.3 (Fall, 1980), 212.
 Ryder, Claire F. “Terminal Care: Issues and Alternative.” Sources: Public Health Reports (1974), Vol. 92, No. 1 (Jan – Feb., 1977), 22
 Ryder, “Terminal Care: Issues and Alternative,” 20
 Riley, “Dying and the Meanings of Death”, 194
 Rokach, A. “Coping with Loneliness Amongst the Terminally Ill”. Source:Social Indicators Research, Vol 82, No. 3 (July 2007), 494
 Ryder, “Terminal Care: Issues and Alternative,” 21
 Genesis 18:21
 Meyerstein, I. Ruskin, Gila. “Spiritual Tools for Enhancing the Pastoral Visit to Hospitalised Patients”. Source: Journal of Religion and Health. March 2007. Vol 46. Issue 1, 109.
 Matthew 26:40
 Matthew 26:38
 Matthew 26:40
 Ramsey. “First Do No Harm,” 373.
 Job 2:12-13
 Balentine, Samual E. 2006. Job. Smith and Helwys Publishing INC:Georgia, 89
 Ramsey. “First Do No Harm,” 368.
 Rokach. “Coping with Loneliness Amongst the Terminally Il, 499.
 Week 10 Lecture Notes in the Fuller Subject OT 570 Job and Human Suffering, 6.
 Adams, Scott. Dilbert Does 2014 – Desktop Calendar
 Ramsey. “First Do No Harm,” 373.
 Week 10 Lecture Notes in the Fuller Subject OT 570 Job and Human Suffering, 6.
 Ryder, “Terminal Care: Issues and Alternative,” 22
 Job 29:15-16
 Genesis 2:18
Adams, Scott. Dilbert Does 2014 – Desktop Calendar
Balentine, Samual E. 2006. Job Smith and Helwys Publishing INC:Georgia
Butler, James. Professor Fuller Theological Serminary for Subject OT 570 Job and Human Suffering. Summer 2014.
Fitchett, George. Wisdom and Folly in Death and Dying. Source: Journal of Religion and Health, Vol. 19, No. 3 (Fall, 1980), pp. 203-214
Gutierrez, Gustavo. 1987. On Job. Orbis Books, Maryknoll:NY
Holy Bible, New King James Version copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation.
Habel, Norman. 1985 The Book Of Job Westminister Press. Philadelphia:Pennsylvania
Irwin, W.A., “An Examination of the Progress of Thought in the Dialogues of Job,” Journal of Religion 13 (1933): 152-3
Kubler-Ross, Elisabeth. 1969 On Death and Dying. Scribner New York:NY
Meyerstein, I. Ruskin, Gila. Spiritual Tools for Enhancing the Pastoral Visit to Hospitalised Patients. Source: Journal of Religion and Health. March 2007, Volume 46, Issue 1, pp 109-122
Ramsey, Janet. First Do No Harm:Pastoral Care Informed by Job. Word and World. Theology of Christian Ministry. Vol 31, No.4( Fall 2011) P367-373
Riley, John W. Dying and the Meanings of Death: Sociological Inquiries. Source: Annual Review of Sociology, Vol. 9 (1983), pp. 191-216
Rokach, A. Coping with Loneliness Amongst the Terminally Ill. Source: Social Indicators Research, Vol. 82, No. 3 (July 2007), pp. 487-503
Ryder, Claire F. Terminal Care: Issues and Alternatives Source: Public Health Reports (1974-), Vol. 92, No. 1 (Jan. – Feb., 1977), pp. 20-29
Categories: Theology, Topics to wrestle with
Have to say I haven’t yet read the whole post – but it looks well worth the read and certainly a pertinent topic! However this book was recommended to me awhile back and it is certainly the most enlightening study of Job I have ever come across: “Understanding the Book of Job: Separating What Is True from What Is Truth” by Tom Tompkins
As to the comments related above: it is sad but necessary that at times we have to reject some of the comments that come to us via fellow Christians. On leaving a church I was once told by the church pastor “You’re walking out of the will of God for your life and everything you touch will fail”. Fortunately I had learned the difference between God’s thoughts and man’s thoughts…but it is sad that many many people continue to be heart by the erroneous words of others given in the guise of wisdom from above.