Saturday, August 6, 2011

Wrong Response to the Suffering of Others

A Wrong Response to the Suffering of Others

Have you ever expressed your emotions surrounding some difficulty you were experiencing, and the listener gave a “quick solution” answer? How did you feel? Responses such as  “God will take care of you,” or “God has a reason for this,” or (sometimes not verbalized)  “You must have some kind of sin in your life,” or “If you had only ____, you wouldn’t be experiencing this.”

God has given us a powerful case study of ineffective responses to those who are suffering in the book of Job. In Chapter 3, Job had gotten to the lowest point he had experienced so far. He began to express his emotions to his three friends who had been sitting with him silently for 7 days. Wisely, those first seven days they saw “his suffering was too great for words.” (Job 3:13).  After seven days, Job, in his desperation to express what he was feeling, began speaking, wishing he had never been born. He states “What I always feared has happened to me. What I dreaded has come to be. I have no peace, no quietness. I have no rest; instead only trouble comes.” His friends began to respond with ineffective words. Eliphaz used two types of responses typical of how we might respond to someone struggling in the midst of a difficulty. He reported what he saw that has happened in the past (which contains truth), and he gave his theory about why Job was suffering (which contained partial truth).  Neither of these responses really helped Job.

Job 4:3-6 Eliphaz said “In the past you have encouraged many a troubled soul to trust in God [true]; you have supported those who were weak [true]. Your words have strengthened the fallen; you steadied those who wavered [all true]. (5) But now when trouble strikes, you faint and are broken [true]. (6) Does your reverence for God give you no confidence? Shouldn’t you believe that God will care for those who are upright?”

In Job 4:3-5 Eliphaz expressed truth–a description of the behavior he had observed in Job. As counselors, we often explore the behavior of the person. But rather than move from that exploration to giving an empathic response, Eliphaz began to speak his own thoughts and ideas.

In verse 6 he expressed two ideas that were his own theories. His first idea assumed that Job’s negative emotional responses meant he had no confidence in God.  Eliphaz didn’t express exactly what he believed Job should be believing God would do, but his second statement alluded to God taking care of Job materially and physically.

Obviously, in the midst of losing everything, including his health, Job didn’t see evidence of God taking care of him. Eliphaz’s second idea “that God will care for those who are upright” was an incomplete understanding of God and how He works. The theology of suffering in the Old Testament Jewish community that was commonly taught was based on the idea if you avoided sin, you would be blessed. Eliphaz continued to flesh out this idea in Job 4:7-11. No doubt there are numerous passages in the Old Testament when God states that blessing will come to those who obey him. However, the idea of what a ‘blessing” is may have been misunderstood. There are numerous servants of God who experiences long periods of not being “blessed” materially or physically (Abraham, Joseph, and Moses, to name a few).

Even if Eliphaz had only spoken his observations (verses 3-5), he still did not respond to the emotions of suffering Job was experiencing. Job responds with resistence to Eliphaz’s comments. Job 6:5 “Don’t I have a right to complain? Wild donkeys bray when they find no green grass, and oxen low when they have no food. (6) People complain when there is no salt in their food. And how tasteless is the uncooked white of an egg!”

How could Eliphaz have responded to Job’s suffering? An empathic response would have been something like “Job, your suffering is beyond what any man could deal with. This must the most difficult thing you have ever experienced in life. I can’t imagine the depth of despair and hopelessness you must be feeling.”

As Christian counselors, we must evaluate our responses to those who are suffering, and be sure we don’t fall into the trap Eliphaz illustrates.

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