How Not to Help a Sufferer
By Gavin Ortlund
Of all the Bible’s many colorful characters, none is quite so exasperating as Job’s friends. Herod might chop off your head, and Judas might stab you in the back, but Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar will hurt you with Bible verses.
Job’s actual losses take two brief chapters to recount (Job 1–2), but the tortuous dialogue that follows drones on for 35 chapters (Job 3–37). I wonder which agonized Job more: his initial suffering or the extended indictment that followed?
The problem with Job’s comforters isn’t that they’re heretics. Much of what they say is true. The problem is the moralistic worldview that governs their engagement with Job, and compels them to reason backward from suffering to sin.
It’s easy to criticize Job’s friends, but let’s be honest: We can all be like them. In fact, a good litmus test of our heart’s alignment with the gospel—whether functionally we believe in a world of grace or a world of karma—is how we respond when a Job comes across our path. Suffering pulls out our real theology like a magnet.
Here are four things in particular to avoid when with a sufferer. Think of them as four ways we, like Job’s friends, can pour burning coals on the heads of those already sitting in ashes.
1. Appeal too quickly to God’s sovereignty.
The Bible teaches that “all things work together for good” for those in Christ (Rom. 8:28) and that God can use evil for good (Gen. 50:20). However, just because this is biblical doesn’t mean it’s always tactful or helpful to say.
“God meant it for good” is said by Joseph years after his suffering, not to Joseph during his suffering. Imagine Joseph’s angst and frustration had his brothers gathered around the well to shout down in encouragement: “Don’t worry, Joseph; God means this for good!”
Similarly, soon after Paul teaches that “all things work together for good,” he admonishes us to “weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15). Before quoting the former, let’s be sure we’re willing to practice the latter.
2. Launch into a story of how God used your suffering.
It’s human nature to relate others’ experiences to our own. We can’t help but see the world through our own eyes. But one mark of maturity is learning to genuinely enter into the world of another, rather than always filtering their story through our own. This is especially important to do with sufferers for two reasons.
First, everybody’s story is different. Maybe God gave us a better house after our first one burned to the ground, or maybe we’re able to see the good side of a friend’s betrayal. But in a fallen and confusing world, it’s entirely possible your suffering friend may never get there in this life. Some sorrows won’t mend until heaven. So we really don’t know enough to be able say, “You’ll be glad this happened.”
Second, even if our stories are similar, our suffering friend may not need to hear that right now. A good question to ask is: “Is sharing my story more about meeting my need, or about serving my friend’s need?” At the very least, we should listen carefully to the nuances of a sufferer’s story before we draw comparisons.
3. Minimize the wrongdoing that caused the suffering.
I’m not sure why we tend to do this, but we do. It’s that karma instinct. We say things like “I’m sure they meant well,” or “It can’t be that bad,” or “Well, in every conflict the blame is on both sides.”
But the truth is we don’t know that someone meant well. Maybe they didn’t. We don’t know that it wasn’t that bad. Maybe it was. And blame is not always 50/50. Sometimes it’s 80/20. Sometimes it’s even 100/0. That seems to be God’s verdict on Job and his friends (Job 42:7).
When you’re sitting with a sufferer, don’t minimize the sin that has contributed to their suffering. An honest acknowledgement of evil—without any excuses or evasions—will be to their pain like water to a parched man.
4. Emphasize character formation while neglecting comfort and compassion.
If the New Testament emphasizes anything about suffering, it’s that God uses it to produce godly character in us (e.g., Rom. 5:3–5; James 1:2–4). And yet, when someone is in the midst of suffering, this probably isn’t the point to emphasize—especially if we don’t have a trusting relationship established. If the topic needs to come up at all, it should be balanced with words of comfort and compassion.
In cases of severe suffering, it can be best to avoid or minimize words altogether. This is difficult to do. We tend to share Eliphaz’s instinct: “Who can keep from speaking?” (Job 4:2). But our hurting friend probably needs our love and presence far more than our interpretations and ideas. It’s more helpful, rather than trying to relieve or even understand their suffering, to just be with them in it. Press into the darkness with them. Hang in there with them in that moment, in that space, in that pain.
In this way we can be like Jesus to the suffering, for this is how Jesus is to us. He doesn’t shield us from suffering in this life, nor does he offer trite pep talks when the darkness descends. He promises that when it comes, he will be with us. In fact, we find him most truly in our brokenheartedness:
- “The LORD is near to the brokenhearted.” (Ps. 34:18)
- “He heals the brokenhearted.” (Ps. 147:3)
- “He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted.” (Isa. 61:1)
There’s a scene in The Magician’s Nephew where a little boy named Digory meets Aslan. His mother is sick, and he wants to ask for Aslan’s help, but he’s afraid. Lewis writes:
Up till then he had been looking at the Lion’s great front feet and the huge claws on them; now, in his despair, he looked up at its face. What he saw surprised him as much as anything in his whole life. For the tawny face was bent down near his own and (wonder of wonders) great shining tears stood in the Lion’s eyes. They were such big, bright tears compared with Digory’s own that for a moment he felt as if the Lion must really be sorrier about his Mother than he was himself. “My son, my son,” said Aslan. “I know. Grief is great. Only you and I in this land know that yet. Let us be good to one another.”
What a world of comfort is bound up in those words, “I know.” Christ is close to sufferers because he is the Great Sufferer. He is the ultimate Job, stricken by undeserved calamity; the ultimate Joseph, betrayed by his very brothers. On the cross, Jesus took on our sins and absorbed the full sting of justice on our behalf, sinking down into the depths of hell and forsakenness. No one has ever suffered more; no one ever could. Such a depth of love can meet our need in the moment of pain.
To the sufferers in our lives, may we be less like Job’s friends and more like Jesus Christ.
If you would like help with your suffering or help in coming alongside a sufferer, please contact CornerStone Family Services to talk with a counselor or coach.