In the middle of the dialogue between Job and his three friends the failed comforters, Job says to them, “O that ye would altogether hold your peace! and it should be your wisdom” (13:5). As Dr. Don Collett, professor of Old Testament at Trinity School for Ministry, has reflected, it would have been better for the friends to remain silent, than to impugn the character of Job and in so doing incite the Lord’s wrath for not having “spoken of me the thing that is right” (42:7). Silence has a pastoral value, clearly illustrated in the opening chapters of Job: the three friends sit with the suffering for seven days, rending their clothes, and sprinkling dust upon their heads in wordless sympathy (2:13-14). Any who have ever tried to comfort someone who is afflicted can testify to the ministry of presence. Few if any words need to be spoken.
Having taught Job in a Bible study and recently taken a class on Job with Dr. Collett, I have spent a good deal of time thinking about what the book of Job has to say to me as a pastor when I visit and counsel the sick and the afflicted. What follows are my reflections on how the book has spoken to me in my vocation as a pastor. It is my hope that they will be useful to other pastors or anyone else who endeavors to be a true friend and comforter.
After magnifying the value of silence, I should add that silence is not always desirable as a pastor. The afflicted are often looking for encouragement and hope. The trouble is that pastors can often dispense false hope and empty platitudes. Visiting someone sick in hospital, it is all too easy to say, It will be okay. You’ll get better. The sick may or may not get better. The nature of Christian hope is for God himself, not infinite extensions of mortal life by medicine.
Job’s friends wanted to tell Job that if he accepted his adversity as punishment for sin, then he would be delivered and restored. One of the three friends, Zophar, tells Job that if he puts away his iniquity, then “thine age shall be clearer than the noonday; thou shalt shine forth, thou shalt be as the morning” (11:17). Job’s friends offer a religious formula for how he can escape his suffering. I wonder how many times I or my colleagues extol the utilitarian virtues of Christianity, and instead of offering a faith in the living God peddle an empty religious formula? You will not escape adversity and suffering just because you are a Christian or your faith has awakened and deepened. As Job discovers, his suffering is to a certain extent inexplicable, and simplistic explanations for that suffering under the pretense of religious language will not resolve his adversity.
What can pastors say that might give encouragement and hope to the afflicted? The answer to this question is twofold, and the first part of the answer might seem out of place. Pastors in their role as preachers and teachers need to be honest about the transitory nature of this life. Medical science will never succeed in extending mortal life indefinitely, nor is this even desirable. In our society, death often sounds accidental. We hear frequently about how someone “lost his battle with cancer.” The hard truth is that, in the long run, this “battle” is not winnable. Such honesty is probably out of place by the sickbed unless mediated in a very gentle and loving way, but it is decidedly in its place in the pulpit and the teaching lectern. Job knows how to speak about life with such existential honesty: “Man that is born of a woman is of few days, and full of trouble” (14:1). Even Bildad seems to get this right when he remarks early in the dialogue: “Man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward” (5:7). The sons of Adam do live in the valley of the shadow of death. Acting as if adversity in body, mind, or estate is exceptional helps no one.
The Book of Job presents the reader with a good handful of exegetical conundrums. For example, what does one do with the apparent disparity between the Job of the prologue and the Job of the dialogue? What does one make of God’s speeches? And why is that Job is reprimanded by the Lord, repents and “abhors” himself, but is told that he spoke rightly of the Lord (42:6-7)? It would be difficult to defend the veracity of all Job’s words in the book. Calvin even went so far as to say that the words of Job’s friends are generally more in accord with truth, except that they misapply them to Job. Wherever one comes down on these issues, one incontrovertible thing is that Job never stops talking to God.
Job complains of his friends and his adversity, but he never loses sight of the truth that his real complaint is with God. In this sense, Job is, to use Martin Buber’s phrase, in an I-Thou relationship. Simply dealing with Satan, or the friends, or the suffering will not ameliorate Job’s situation. He needs to hear from God. It seems to me that this is an attitude pastors ought to encourage in those they counsel. It’s not that they should advocate for more complaining (though a bit of existential honesty might be in order), but rather the afflicted should be encouraged to see their suffering in the light of God. To paraphrase Fr. Leander Harding, the Christian priest is called take the hands of his people and put them into the hand of the Master.
The gravity and power of the psalms is found in what appears to us as the audacity to speak and pray to God from the midst of adversity and suffering. The question for pastors is how we encourage people to put themselves into the place of Job, so they see that God is really the one to whom they may need to complain and from whom they need to hear.
Job, as we know, was restored at the end of the book and received double his material riches, but there can be little if any restitution for the death of children. As wonderful as ten additional children are, they are no substitute for the former ten. To me if the book ended with the mere restoration of the material wealth and the additional children, it would be a profoundly unsatisfying ending, but the real epiphany and healing is found in the words of Job: “I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee” (42:5). The vision of God is what corrects, redeems and restores, and this vision is what all need in the midst of suffering. The question for pastors is how we help direct people to the Lord amid pain. As Gregory the Great writes in his monumental commentary on Job, “For our peace begins in longing for the Creator, but it is perfected by a clear vision” (Moralia, VI.53).
This fine article inspires me to make two comments. First, I cannot recommend too highly Victor Austin’s recent book, “Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest’s Wife, and the God Who Gives and Takes Away,” published by BrazosPress and available on Amazon. Second, I keenly remember leading a summer class at Saint Thomas Fifth Avenue NYC on Job, when a young woman, an aspirant for Holy Orders now ordained, summarized the entire book for me in one phrase, a cry by Job to the LORD: “You’re killing me; but I cannot live without you.”