“Remember now, who ever perished being innocent? Or where were the upright ever cut off?” (Job 4:7, NKJV)
The book of Job is a study in what not to say to those who are suffering. After Job’s friends sat with him in silence for seven days, Job opened his mouth and complained, cursing the day he was born and wishing his life would end. Job’s friends couldn’t let his words go unchallenged, so they began to answer him. Eliphaz the Temanite was the first to speak. He made the point that innocent people do not suffer punishment. So what was Job to think? That he was evil and being punished accordingly?
We must be very careful what we say to people who are suffering. When speaking to someone in deep pain, less is certainly more. Perhaps you’ve had the miserable experience of pouring your heart out in agony to someone, only for them to tell you how they suffered more in such and such a situation. Or maybe they give you unsolicited advice on what you should be doing. I am hesitant to share my health problems with others because of the medical advice I have received from people who have never studied medicine.
We should not add to people’s pain with thoughtless words that dismiss, criticize or accuse. People who are suffering need others who will sympathize with them. They need a friend who will patiently listen, gently ask questions, and above all, understand. They need someone who will weep when they weep (Romans 12:15). They need compassion (which means to “suffer with”).
When ministering to hurting people, I have found that James offers the most helpful advice:
“Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters: You must all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry.” (James 1:19, NLT)
We must talk less and listen more. Job’s friends did not know why he was suffering, but they spoke as if they did know. Likewise, we usually don’t know why God allows people to suffer, what He wants to accomplish through it, and what the ultimate outcome will be. Since there is so much we don’t know, why do we presume to speak as though we do know? Wouldn’t it be better to simply empathize and leave it at that? But often we are like Peter on the mount of transfiguration: when we don’t know what to say, we feel that we must say something.
Nevertheless, there is a time for Spirit-anointed words of comfort.
“The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is upon me, for the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to comfort the brokenhearted...” (Isaiah 61:1, NLT)
We should pray for grace to minister healing words to hurting souls. God knows there are enough of Job’s “comforters” in the world. Let us not be one of them!