If you have ever spent any time reading the book of Job, you will probably agree with me when I say that Job had a pretty lousy group of friends. Throughout the course of the book of Job, we watch Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, and eventually Elihu, taking their turns to blame and accuse, adding insult to injury to the plight of Job. Job had already lost so much; the last thing he needed were his friends to act the way they did.
They made mistakes. They said things they shouldn’t have said. They were real and authentic with Job, but it was more harmful than helpful. But in our scathing assessment of these friends’ behavior, we can easily overlook where Job’s friends went right. There’s one thing Job’s friends did well and, in fact, they likely did it better than the best counselors and pastors of our day.
“Now when Job’s three friends heard of all this evil that had come upon him, they came each from his own place, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They made an appointment together to come to show him sympathy and comfort him. And when they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him. And they raised their voices and wept, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads toward heaven. And they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.” – Job 2:11-13
Let’s take some time to unpack what we see happening here:
First, “they came each from his own place.” Certainly all of these men had their own schedules, their own comforts, their own work to attend to. But these men made a decision to leave those things behind for the sake of being there for their friend Job.
“They made an appointment together.” There was no generalized offer of help, or a vague, “I’ll be praying for you man,” but a determined resolve to offer something to Job, “to show him sympathy and comfort him.” These three friends set out to do something. When the friends arrived in Uz and found Job, they visibly mourned and wept, certainly with him, tearing “their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads toward heaven.” They made Job’s suffering their own and they bore their dear friend’s burdens.
It is not only what Job’s friends determined to do, but also what they determined not to do that we can learn much from. Upon the visible signs of mourning these men demonstrated, “they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him” (emphasis mine). This was a common full expression of mourning in the Old Testament (see Ezek. 3:15), but I am compelled by their desire to listen well.
In his new book Being There, Dave Furman addresses these verses and sums it up profoundly. “There is a kind of ministry that is without words” (p. 48). Often we think that to truly minister to someone, we must swoop in and fix the issue. But what if, instead of offering our lessons, our insights, our theology, and our reasonings, we simply offered our ears? This is what Job’s friends set out to do.
Of course, we know that these friends made many mistakes. There were plenty of episodes of unchecked accusation, pride, and shaming that occurred in the following days. And when we find ourselves in this position, we will make mistakes, too. We will say the wrong things sometimes. We will offer unhelpful reasoning. But this does not mean we should not pursue the opportunity to demonstrate the power of the gospel in our listening.
I recently sat across the table from a dear friend who shared with me a major new circumstance that jolted his entire life. He was deeply stricken by the devastating news he had received and had little time to process it prior to our meeting. It was a hard conversation. I remember staring into my lunch plate, my mind reeling from the news, trying to come up with the perfect response that would calm all fears and bring hope to my friend. Then I caught myself and realized that I truly had no answer to fit the bill. So that’s what I said, or rather, didn’t say: “I wish I knew what to say, but I have to be honest, I have nothing to say.”
This was good for him, and for me, to hear. Because now my focus turned from telling to listening. It was good for my friend to hear that he wasn’t a pastoral project, that he wasn't going to get the runaround with a “6 Steps” formula to feeling better. It was also good for me, because I realized this wordless ministry is Spirit-dependent and sweet. It is good for the pastor’s ego for him to not have all the answers. From this point on, I listened. Nothing was resolved by the cultural standard, but my friend left encouraged and I left more compassionate for my brother in Christ.
The best ministry Job’s friends showed him was the listening, not the telling, they did. They were, as Furman notes, “a silent presence of encouragement.” Of course, hurting people need wisdom, they need counsel, they need rebuke, and they need the gospel proclaimed. But all of this must flow out of a posture of listening. I want to be the kind of listener that Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar were. The best opportunity you have to proclaim the gospel to a hurting friend, or a struggling couple, or a discontented spouse is not a polished answer, but a resolve to listen.