Ministering to the suffering heart.

I am studying the book of Job with a sweet sister and the last few weeks of study have revealed a fascinating perspective about ministry which I have never noticed in previous readings of this wonderful book. (I love that God's Word is ALIVE and ACTIVE!)

When someone is suffering, there is not only “a time to speak and a time to be silent (Ecclesiastes 3),” there is a WAY to speak! As Ephesians 4:29 commands, “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for EDIFICATION that it may bring GRACE to those who hear it.”

Jobs friends started well as we see in chapter two.
When Job’s three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, 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. 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. 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.

This is a beautiful beginning!
But it did not last.

Once Job shows vulnerability, confessing his sorrow, frustration, and woe, his friends do not maintain their silence, their sympathy, or their comfort. They open their mouths, not to comfort, but to criticize. And often, they wrap their critique in biblical truth.

For example, Zophar replies to Job:
Can you search out the deep things of God?
Can you find out the limits of the Almighty?
They are higher than heaven— what can you do?
Deeper than Sheol— what can you know?
If you would prepare your heart, and stretch out your hands toward Him;
If iniquity were in your hand, and you put it far away,
And would not let wickedness dwell in your tents;
Then surely you could lift up your face without spot;
Yes, you could be steadfast, and not fear;
Because you would forget your misery,
Though you were dark, you would be like the morning.
And you would be secure, because there is hope;
Yes, you would dig around you, and take your rest in safety. Job 11

Zophar spoke truth and his doctrine was sound. So what was his error? He spoke with judgment and condemnation instead of love. His words were as a noisy gong or clanging symbol. (I Cor 13)

If only Zohar had said, “Job. Brother! Friend! I cannot imagine the sorrow and pain you are experiencing right now. I have never suffered as you are suffering, so I do not understand. There is nothing I can say to make it better or restore what you have lost so I will do the only thing I can. I will pray for you, and I will encourage you with God’s promises.”

What a difference that would have made!

But alas, he did not approach his friend in this gracious manner, causing Job to respond like this:

Then Job answered and said, “No doubt you are the (only) people, and wisdom will die with you!
But I have understanding as well as you; I am not inferior to you. Indeed, who does not know such things as these? Job 12:1-3

I love this glimpse into Job's human nature. Do you hear his sarcasm?

He has been enduring the arrogant, less-than-helpful, and ignorant critiques of his friends since chapter four and he is running short on patience.

Job responds to his friends for several chapters, but this is my summation of what he said.

“Um, guys? Remember how God describes me? There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job; and that man was blameless and upright, and one who feared God and shunned evil. (Job 1)
I do not need a theology lesson right now. Everything I own has been stripped from me, and everyone I love, except my wife, is gone. 'I have no peace, no quietness; I have no rest, but only turmoil.' I do not need doctrine. I need friends. I need you to listen … empathize … and pray for me. I am not asking you to fix what happened or diagnose me. Just LISTEN. Encourage me. Remind me of God’s promises and the truth in His Word. I know Him, I love Him, I trust Him, and I am counted as righteous before Him. He has allowed these trials for a reason, and though I do not like it, or even understand it, I know that He is God and I am not - so I will praise Him in the middle of the storm. He will take care of me as He has always been faithful to do. All I need from YOU - is friendship. Can you do that?”

The memory of learning the important difference between these methods of ministry when I was in college is vivid. I remember the class, the professor, the conversations, and the Scriptures used to teach us how to minister to someone who is suffering. I am incredibly embarrassed to admit that it took me well over a decade to fully embrace and apply the lessons learned, but the Lord has confirmed them over and over again through the many counseling experiences He has allowed me to be a part of through the years.

If I start banging the Bible over the head of a hurting sister sitting across from me, saying, “You know what Scripture says! DO IT!” I create an atmosphere that lacks compassion and grace. But - if I listen - seek to understand her pain - ask questions to draw out her heart - and tell her how sorry I am, I build trust. And once that happens, my sister is willing to hear me speak God’s truth, even when it is hard to hear.

Paul confirms this in I Thessalonians 2 when he says, For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging that you would walk worthy of God who calls you into His own kingdom and glory.

When we encourage and comfort a wounded, suffering, hurting person first ...
embracing them
listening as they express their sorrow
weeping with them
praying with them
serving them ...
we create trust - and connection - and THEN we can speak the truth of Scripture in a way that will be received with acceptance and grace. And this is always the goal! For without the beautiful truth of God's love, forgiveness, and mercy, our words are empty and without purpose. Hurting people need Jesus. It is our job to place them before Him - and then let Him do His work.

We are not perfect. Sometimes we wound and disappoint others out of simple ignorance, not malice. Other times it is our pride that causes thoughtless, ineffective, and hurtful comments to penetrate the heart of a suffering friend. Praise God that He offers to give us wisdom in abundance, without rebuke, as many times as we ask, so we may know when to speak and when to be silent, and when to speak words that edify and give grace. 

"Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth, keep watch over the door of my lips!" Psalm 141:3

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