Ministering to the afflicted
When Job was afflicted, his friends loved him to the extent that they got alongside him and sat with him for a week in silence and then wrestled with him over the issues raised by his sufferings. Job’s friends were full of good intentions; for the sake of their friend, they gave themselves to Job for an extended period of time. They are a rebuke to those who stand aloof from the afflicted.
Danger: Comforters at work
Yet Job’s friends stand as a warning to all who offer counsel to the sick and the dying. By their mistaken approach, they increased Job’s sufferings and added to his anguish. Despite their good intentions, fear of God and grasp of Scripture, they did more harm than good. How often do we who seek to comfort the afflicted, actually increase their anguish by wrong counsel, despite the best of motives? Where did Job’s friends go wrong?
God explains ‘My wrath is aroused against you… for you have not spoken of Me what is right, as My servant Job has’ (42:7). Their knowledge of God was deficient. They applied to Job the Deuteronomic principle of blessing for obedience and cursing for disobedience, without considering other possibilities.
God said of Job that ‘there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, one who fears God and shuns evil.’ God told Satan that Job was afflicted ‘without cause’ (2:3); yet his friends insisted his suffering must be due to wickedness. Once again, God’s judgement is more merciful than man’s.
For thirty-five chapters Job and his friends wrestle with the problem of suffering. His friends had much to say about God, some of which was sound; but they were theorising. Job also said much about God but he wanted more; he constantly appealed directly to God; he wanted a face to face with God. In the end, his desire was granted: ‘Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind’ (38:1).
If we are to minister to the afflicted, we need to learn of God so that we are able to speak of the mind and will of God aright, lest we do more harm than good. After the failure of his friends to comfort Job, the Lord spoke to him. Let us learn from the example of divine comfort.
God at work: Counselling
How then did God counsel Job? God said, ‘Now prepare yourself [gird your waist] like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer Me. Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?’ (38:3-4).
- The Lord exalted Himself and put Job in his place
Stand like a man; be a man; stop playing at being god. Each question God asked, exalted Himself and put Job in his place. ‘Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?’ (38:4). Humble yourself to answer God and let God be God.
Our society has put itself in the place of God. God says, ‘You shall not kill’. Yet millions of unborn babies are murdered each year; society discreetly practices euthanasia; infanticide is increasing – doctors are allowed by law not to feed sick babies when rejected by parents. Increasingly, those thought to ‘burden society’ are encouraged to end their own lives. But only God has authority to give life and to take life.
In God’s message to Job, 38:36 is pivotal. ‘Who has put wisdom in the mind? Or who has given understanding to the heart?’ Before this verse (38:4-34) God asks Job questions about the created universe – the sea and the sun, the weather and the stars. After this verse (38:39-39:30) God asks questions about animals. The distinguishing characteristic of man is the capacity to think; the potential for wisdom and understanding. God made man in His image and holds us to be morally accountable to Him; to think and act responsibly before Him, with intelligence and integrity, dignity and sobriety. Stop blaming others; stop blaming circumstances. Answer to the God who put wisdom in the mind.
- The Lord spoke to the man’s conscience
For thirty-seven chapters, Job wrestled with the problem of suffering; then God ministered to him and resolved the issue. Yet God said nothing about his sufferings. God spoke entirely about Himself. The answer to suffering is in the knowledge and love of God Himself.
God is under no obligation to explain to us why we suffer. He knows the reason why. It is sufficient for us to know that God Most Merciful is the ultimate cause behind all that comes to pass.
For Job, as for us, the issue is ‘Why is this happening to me?’ In speaking to Job, God changed the question to ‘Who is putting me through this?’ When people suffer, they do not need to know the reason why they suffer, but they must know who is ultimately behind their troubles – God Most Merciful.
God tells Job repeatedly that He is God the Creator and Sustainer of all things, thus putting Job in his place. This is God’s world which He sustains and over which He reigns, doing His will, achieving His purposes, for His glory. And God re-iterates His message to Job again and again until it penetrates Job’s conscience. Here God speaks to the man’s conscience, until he cries out, ‘Behold, I am vile; what shall I answer you? I will lay mine hand upon my mouth’ (40:4).
God with us
Suffering poses many issues as much for the carer as for the afflicted. Our afflictions are a trial of faith and have the capacity to destroy our faith. Yet when we suffer, what we need above all is God Himself; we need His felt presence.
Job’s friends talked endlessly about God; they theorised about God. Job talked directly to God; crying out for a face to face with God. That is what we need when we suffer. ‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for You are with me’ (Ps. 23:4). In the day of trouble the reality of the presence of God is all that matters.
The experience of the felt presence of God in suffering left Job stunned and overwhelmed; his objections were silenced; his complaints dried up; his sin exposed; his voice silenced; his heart humbled at last to let God be God. As Job put it, ‘I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees You’ (42:5).
It’s not that eye-gate is better than ear-gate. Job is contrasting theorising about God with the experience of His felt presence. ‘Thus says the Lord who created you: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by your name; You are Mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you. … I am the Lord your God; I have loved you; I am with you”’ (Is. 43).
That is what we need in life and in death – the presence and the peace of God. God Himself counsels the dying. Through suffering God humbles us and draws near to us. As Ezekiel put it, ‘Then you shall know that I am the Lord.’ That is what our people need to experience in the day of affliction.
As the Lord told Paul, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.’ And Paul responded: ‘Most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong’ (2 Cor. 12:9-10).
Arthur Bentley-Taylor retired in September after sixteen years as pastor of Emmanuel Church, Workington. He now attends Spicer Street Church, St Albans.