By Chris Hulshof
I remember the day I found out you could live with half a brain. My wife and I had just received the diagnosis our son had infantile epilepsy.
The doctor assured us there was a good part of this diagnosis. All of the bad brain tissue was confined to one side of our son’s brain.
This meant if medicine couldn’t control the seizures, then extensive brain surgery to remove half of his brain should work.
The next two years were difficult on many levels. One of the places I found comfort was in the book of Job. The book of Job saved me. It saved my faith and it saved my life.
In the opening chapters of Job, we’re introduced to Job’s three friends. They come to see Job when they hear of his sudden fall from health and prosperity.
In their encounter with Job, we see two actions that can make a positive difference in the lives of those who are suffering. However, in this same encounter, we also see one danger that only serves to amplify the pain of someone who is suffering.
1. Show up.
Job 2:11 says three of Job’s friends showed up to comfort and console him. They’d heard about Job’s troubles and so got together and traveled from their homes to be with him.
But it goes much further than just stopping by to check on him. The text tells us they ripped their robes, dumped dust on their heads, and sat in the dirt with Job.
What does it look like to show up when someone is suffering? It looks like joining them right where they are and getting dirty with them amidst their grief and sorrow.
I’ve learned there are three kinds of people who respond to your grief when they hear about it. The first type sends an email, text, or gives you a call. However, they don’t show up. For them, the text, the email, or the call should suffice.
The second group will invite you to join them for coffee one day. This group wants to define showing up on their terms. They want you to know they’re aware of what’s going on, but deep down they don’t care enough actually to show up.
They don’t want to take your grief and make it their grief. So, they won’t come and sit with you. You have to go and sit with them.
The third group is the group that defines Job’s friends. It’s the group that shows up and shows up in meaningful ways.
They come to sit in the dirt with you. These are the people that come to the hospital or show up at the funeral home. They come to see you in your now empty house.
In solidarity, they join you in your brokenness. They willingly choose to taste the tears you cry.
My wife and I remember who showed up for the two years we continually traveled between our house and the hospital. I distinctly remember the students who stopped by just to sit with us.
I know the faculty members who not only brought a meal, but also stayed with us. They didn’t just drop something off and then look for the first chance to leave.
Those who are suffering desperately want to know they’re not alone. They want to know someone else will willingly walk with them through this difficult season of life.
Showing up is hard work. This is why more people would rather send an email or invite you for coffee. But real comfort amid chaos comes when someone pulls their chair up beside yours and chooses to join you in grief.
2. Stay there.
When Job’s friends’ first meet him in his suffering, their reaction is mind-boggling. Job 2:13 says:
“Then they sat on the ground with him seven days and nights, but no one spoke a word to him because they saw that his suffering was very intense.”
These three guys sat with Job for seven days and seven nights without saying a single word. They just stayed there.
I don’t know how they did that, but I do know this wouldn’t have been my first reaction. I feel quite certain that at sometime during the first couple of hours I would’ve tried to make some light conversation with Job. The continual silence broken by tears would’ve eventually gotten the best of me.
Silence is uncomfortable. Silence amidst pain? Even more so. Yet, these men in their first seven days and nights with Job knew that nothing they could say would be of any use because his pain was too great.
So, they stayed with him, they sat, and they sobbed.
Romans 12:15 tells us to weep with those who weep and mourn with those who mourn. Often though, our first reaction isn’t to sit and weep.
Instead of weeping with those who weep, we want to say something to them. Instead of mourning with those who mourn, we feel the need to theologically instruct.
I remember only a handful of things people said to me over those two years when we were in and out of the hospital. However, I remember those who showed up and stayed there.
They stayed even when the deafening silence of conversation in the room wasn’t loud enough to drown out the noise of the hospital machinery.
3. Recognize you don’t have all the answers.
Job’s friends were good friends for three verses in Job 2. Beginning with Job 4, however, everything changes. Each of Job’s three friends can no longer sit in silence.
Job has spoken from his heart, and now they feel they must as well. So they all take turns. From Eliphaz to Bildad and then to Zophar, they each attempt to help Job make sense of his suffering.
Here’s the thing; all three of them are wrong in what they conclude about Job and his suffering. While portions of what they say to Job can be found elsewhere in the Scriptures, their wisdom is wrong when they seek to apply it to Job’s life.
We know from the opening verses of the book why Job is suffering. Job’s three friends don’t have this advantage. They each say what they believe to be true and they get it wrong.
Why are they wrong? Because they don’t have all of the answers. There’s much more going on offstage than what any of his friends realize.
That’s the danger of saying more than we should when sitting with someone who’s suffering. We feel the need to fill the silence with words and we say things that ought not to be said because we don’t have all the answers.
We should recognize that because we don’t have all the answers, the best thing we can do is listen rather than speak. Let your listening be the avenue to understanding.
If we venture beyond listening and understanding, we run the risk of speaking in error. We’ll get it wrong because, offstage, God is doing something we’ve not yet recognized.
Show up and then stay there. While you’re there, resist the urge to fill the silence with empty words.
Even if you think you have the right words, those empty words could end up being wrong words. There’s redemptive power in your presence and your listening ear.
Both of these will say acts of friendship will mean more than you’ll ever know.
Chris is an associate professor and department chair for Liberty University’s School of Divinity where he teaches courses in Old Testament survey, inductive Bible study, and theology of suffering and disability.