For the despairing man there should be kindness from his friend;
Lest he forsake the fear of the Almighty.
Because I’ve been writing about the book of Job, my husband asked if I could summarize the most important ways to help someone who is suffering. I think Job 6:14 gives us the crux of reaching out to those in pain. Hesed is the Hebrew word for kindness in Job 6:14, and in the King James Version of the Bible it is frequently translated as lovingkindness. R. Laird Harris writes,
The word “lovingkindness” of the KJV is archaic, but not far from the fulness of the meaning of the word.1
And although lovingkindness is infrequently used today, it is a wonderful word— descriptive of both affection and of action, and both are needed by those who suffer.
How do you show lovingkindness to someone in despair? Here are my suggestions. I’ve alliterated the titles and given a brief descriptive phrase to help you remember each one before I go into details. As a reminder, memorization does not equate to ministry. Knowledge is only the first step.
Presumption: Don’t do it.
Partner: Be one.
Prayer: Do it.
Presence: This was the one thing that Job’s friends did right. They came to Job, and they stayed with him. If you know of, or see someone in distress do you go to that person to help? Do you stay in touch to see how he or she is doing? Job’s friends came. Job’s friends stayed. They didn’t make a one-time visit and leave. Those who are suffering can’t leave—they must wait and live it out. You are able to leave the situation, but they cannot. You can help them by staying with them through regular visits or calls or e-mails. There may be physical or material help you can give, but don’t let that substitute for emotional and spiritual help. I think it can be easier at times to give physical help because then you can leave, having felt you have done your duty! Don’t leave! There are numerous studies about the destructive effects of solitude and the alleviating effects of relationships. It can be hard to ask for help when you’re suffering, especially if you’ve met with the passive rejection of a polite excuse or have even known active rejection. People don’t talk much today about prayer partners, but consider asking someone who is suffering to meet with you once a week to pray. Meet, listen and pray.
Your ongoing presence in someone’s life tells the person you care. When someone opens her heart to you, don’t listen once and then let weeks or months go by before asking how she is doing. No matter how sympathetic your initial listening was, that gap in time speaks loudly to her that her suffering really didn’t matter to you.
You don’t have to have great wisdom or know exactly what to say. Silence is fine; you don’t have to fill up the spaces with chatter. In his commentary on the book of Job, David Atkinson understands the crucial nature of presence as he writes, “Suffering presence is the powerful ministry of silent compassion.”2
This is what Stanley Hauerwas, in a book of this title, calls ‘suffering presence’. Indeed Hauerwas quotes this paragraph from Job [Job 2:11–13] as an introduction to one of his chapters in which he tells of his own ministry to a friend whose mother had just committed suicide:
As often as I have reflected on what happened in that short span of time I have also remembered how inept I was in helping Bob. I did not know what could or should be said. I did not know how to help him start sorting out such a horrible event so that he could go on. All I could do was be present. But time has helped me to realize that this is all he wanted, namely my presence. For as inept as I was, my willingness to be present was a sign that this was not an event so horrible that it drew us away from all other human contact. Life could go on…
I now think that at that time God granted me that marvellous privilege of being a presence in the face of profound pain and suffering, even when I did not appreciate the significance of being present.
Craig Dykstra has put it well:
Presence is a service of vulnerability. To be present to others is to put oneself in the position of being vulnerable to what they are vulnerable to, and of being vulnerable to them. It means being willing to suffer what the other suffers, and to go with the sufferer in his or her own suffering. This is different from trying to become the sufferer. Presence does not involve taking another’s place. That would be demeaning. It would suggest, ‘I can take your suffering better than you can, so move aside; I will replace you.’ Instead, presence involves exposing oneself to what the sufferer is exposed to, and being with the other in that vulnerability…3
Presumption: The advice of Job’s friends was based on presumptions. They presumed to know the mind of God, and they presumed to know the heart of Job. They made Job’s suffering worse as they maligned his character, and their belief that the reason for his afflictions was a God-ordained quid pro quo relationship between sin and suffering, in my opinion, made his struggle to trust God far more difficult because Job knew his own integrity. Rather than presume, they needed to admit and affirm.
Job needed his friends to admit that Job’s affliction and sorrows were beyond their level of understanding. They should have admitted that there are times when the providence of God is beyond our understanding. Instead, they reduced suffering and God’s sovereignty down to their own terms and level. At the end of the book they are severely rebuked by God:
It came about after the LORD had spoken these words to Job, that the LORD said to Eliphaz the Temanite, “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends, because you have not spoken of Me what is right as My servant Job has. Now therefore, take for yourselves seven bulls and seven rams, and go to My servant Job, and offer up a burnt offering for yourselves, and My servant Job will pray for you For I will accept him so that I may not do with you according to your folly, because you have not spoken of Me what is right, as My servant Job has.”
Job needed affirmation from them of their respect and love for him; respect, because they knew he was a godly man of integrity; and love, because he needed words and deeds that would console him and alleviate his pain in any way possible. More than anything else Job needed their affirmation of the goodness of God—and if they’d given him respect and love, I think it would have gone a long way towards helping Job trust in God.
How do you affirm the goodness of God to one who suffers? Pray for them. Listen, love and be with them. Be open and authentic about your own life and share the consolation you have received from God (2 Corinthians 1ff.). As you understand someone’s need and doubt, ask God for wisdom regarding the section of His Word that would build up, restore, clear and correct the ‘fog of war’ of suffering, and enable trust in God. If this seems to be a lot of effort and struggle expended for someone, you’re right. So many times people are crass and do harm because they don’t want to take the time or do the spiritual and emotional work involved. Giving a few words of clichéd advice may enable you to check off a duty done, but in 1 Thessalonians 1:3, Paul mentions the Thessalonians’ labor of love, and so it is. Your love lived out for someone who suffers is a reminder of God’s great love for him.
Think and pray and ask God for wisdom about what the person needs, rather than giving what you think he needs. Before you speak to someone who is suffering, do you take the time to genuinely consider who the person is and what he needs to hear? Do you listen and understand his perspective and see the individual? Or are you caught up in playing the role of counselor rather than actually being one? If your words aren’t well received, do you take the time to think over why they are not? Do you continue to try to help, or do you just leave? Consider the impact of what you say—don’t speak heedlessly or without thought—watch the response.
Assuring someone that God is sovereign is not necessarily a comforting thing. The person may already believe and know that—the spiritual battle may be believing in God’s love during a time of intensely feeling abandoned. This struggle with doubt can even be heightened in pain if the person previously knew continuous fellowship with God and worshiped Him as Job did, but now only knows and feels blow after blow from circumstances. Job’s need was to believe in God’s goodness, benevolence and personal care for him in the face of God’s inscrutable sovereignty in allowing his suffering.
Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar could never get past themselves to focus on helping Job. They remained caught up in their own fears and their own sense of insult when Job objected to their counsel. They sought to find a defect in Job to explain his suffering—not to alleviate his anguish, but to relieve their own fears. If you want to help someone who is suffering, then examine yourself before you give counsel: Am I searching for a defect in this person to explain their suffering? Am I looking for sin or for lack of spiritual maturity or for stupidity to explain their circumstances, or am I listening first and in humility asking God for wisdom in my response and words? Am I acting from my own fears? Am I trying to reassure myself? Am I doing this out of love?
It takes love to be willing to face your own fears and to help someone live through theirs. It takes love to be more concerned about how you can be of help to someone, than how you can reassure yourself. Anyone can listen to a lament, but it takes love to learn to give words of solace and care.
Partner: A key question to ask is, “What does the person need that he cannot give himself?” Ask God to enable you to discern those things only God can do—pray for those things and ask Him to act—but also ask God what He wants you to do—and do them.
In “The Right Way To Respond to Failure,” Peter Bregman writes that what we need after failure is not advice—most of us already know the platitudes—what we need is that which we cannot give ourselves, but must receive from someone else—empathy. He comments:
We tried to make her feel better by helping her see the advantage of failure, putting the defeat in context, teaching her to draw a lesson from it, and motivating her to work harder and get better so it doesn’t happen again.
But she didn’t need any of that. She already knew it. And if she didn’t, she’d figure it out on her own. The thing she needed, the thing she couldn’t give herself, the thing that Mimi reached out and gave her?
She needed to feel that she wasn’t alone, that we all loved her and her failure didn’t change that, She needed to know we understood how she was feeling and we had confidence that she would figure it out.
I wanted every leader, manager, and team member to see that, because the empathetic response to failure is not only the most compassionate, it’s also the most productive.
Empathy communicates trust. And people perform best when they feel trusted.4
His thought that empathy communicates trust is stunning—Job’s friends had no empathy, and they displayed no trust in Job’s knowledge, wisdom or integrity. They displayed no trust in him as a person that his reaction of intense grief was normal given his afflictions. While Job had not failed, his life had fallen apart and the accompanying feelings are similar. Job had more knowledge and understanding than his friends, and he is driven to tell them this when they lecture him, but Job could not give himself empathy, love and the resources to help himself and his family (remember his livelihood was wiped out).
I realize Bregman’s post isn’t an exact correlation with suffering, but I thought his insight was very helpful. You see, there are times when the person you are trying to help may already know every insight or bit of wisdom you can give. What is needed is what that person cannot give himself—the kind of solace and empathy expressed so profoundly in Paul’s injunction to weep with those who weep.
What does the person who suffers need that he cannot give himself? God has placed you in that person’s life for a reason. What are your spiritual gifts and abilities and how can you help?
This section is titled Partner because it’s important not only that you minister, but that you also allow the one who is suffering to help you and to minister to you, and that you affirm and express your appreciation for him. Don’t ask the person to do just anything you think needs to be done, but ask and express genuine appreciation for something for which he or she has been spiritually gifted by God to do. This prevents any sense of patronization or superiority (which Job’s friends had in abundance) and emphasizes the mutuality of the Christian life—the interdependence of the body of Christ—both to the one who suffers and to you. It also helps the one who is suffering to realize God is there with him as others benefit and are helped by his spiritual gifts. Appreciation for someone’s character also helps immensely because the grinding nature of suffering can have the effect of making you feel very unloved and worthless as a person and as a Christian.
A few months ago a friend of mine sent me a note with a check to help with our expenses. She wrote,
I hope you know what a great inspiration you have been and continue to be in my life. The Lord has used you mightily to demonstrate to me what faith and perseverance looks like in the flesh.
That meant so much to me. That’s encouragement to go on when I’m weary—the mutual love and help Christians are meant to give to each other and to be for each other.
Beyond survival issues, seek ways to provide a respite. Last summer my friend took me on a vacation—and that’s a kindness and act of love I will always remember and cherish.
Prayer: You may be asking why prayer wasn’t listed first. I’ve discussed prayer briefly, but I listed the others first because you need to make sure you’re doing the other things as well as praying. All too often people say they will pray, and think that is the extent of the ministry of which they are capable or that is needed. Prayer is needed—very much so—and I am not implying it is not nor am I ungrateful for the prayers of others—I am. Sometimes prayer may be all you have to offer, and that’s fine. I’m listing it now to emphasize that prayer should not become today’s equivalent of be warmed and be filled. It sounds spiritual, and saying it may leave you feeling good, while the person who suffers still cries alone.
Telling people you are praying for them is helpful, but those words quickly become remote and impersonal to the person who hears them if that’s all that is ever done. Those words can underscore the feeling of those who suffer that God has become remote and impersonal, without any benevolent, loving concern or compassion for their pain. I am very appreciative of prayers for my family and me, and I have certainly needed them, but too often I have cried alone.
So pray, pray hard. Call on God to answer and help. But know that part of God’s answer to prayer may be you doing for the one who hurts.
My husband showed me a Wall Street Journal article on expressing sympathy to a person who is grieving. The author, Elizabeth Bernstein, quoted someone who stated, “…we often avoid people who are vulnerable or in need because we feel uncomfortable with their emotions.”5 For Christians, love should drive us on to face our discomfort and have the courage to withstand the storm of feelings of those in need. It’s only by entering their valley and getting to know them that you will actually be able to know what someone needs: a cup of coffee, a movie or a time of tears mingled with laughter and comfort.
Seeing Job’s despair helps us understand how our perspective and understanding of God becomes distorted in our own affliction. We know Job’s backstory—we don’t know our own. We know there was a backstory to Job’s terrible afflictions; we can be assured there is a backstory to ours, but being left alone in suffering makes the battle of faith to trust God for that backstory excruciating. Job tells of his abandonment by relatives and friends and being despised by all whom he knows. In his anguish he cries out:
“Pity me, pity me, O you my friends,
For the hand of God has struck me.
Why do you persecute me as God does,
And are not satisfied with my flesh?”
His appeal to them is heart-rending. He has been rebuked and lectured without consolation or mercy from his friends, and the solitude of his suffering was breaking Job. E. S. P. Heavenor writes:
The tragic relationship between Job and his friends appears in a clear light. Surely, says Job, the realization that the hand of God is afflicting him ought to move them to pity. Yet it was for that very reason that they could not pity him. Their inflexible creed would not allow them to do so….Job’s complaint against his friends [in v. 22] was that they were too godlike. In their attitude to his suffering, which was gradually becoming more unsympathetic, he imagined he saw a reflection of the attitude of God who seemed so callous about the weight of sorrow with which He was crushing him down to despair.6
A daughter of friends who recently went through surgery wrote:
…community is the friend of comfort.
Community is the friend of comfort. Sometimes we find others who have been in the community of suffering, but sometimes we need those who have not been through deep suffering to love us enough to enter ours. While pious words present a façade of spirituality, there is no comfort there for pain. Perhaps we could say lack of community is the ally of pain.
The New Testament depicts our lives as Christians living together through affliction and suffering. In Romans 12:15, Paul said to weep with those who weep. In Paul’s opening words in 2 Corinthians, he wrote about the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort who had comforted him, so that he in turn would be able to comfort the afflicted with the comfort he had received from God. Those who suffer need prayer that God will console them with His Holy Spirit, and they need consolation from their brothers and sisters in Christ. There may be truths that need to be spoken, but they need to be applied and reassured with love, comfort and understanding.
I realize I’ve quoted Paul’s words to weep with those who weep, three times—this makes the fourth! This wasn’t by design; this was an unplanned emphasis that came from my mind and my heart, and I think happened because what I’ve needed most in my times of suffering has been a friend—a friend who would stick closer than a brother.
We do fail each other, but we should not take refuge in that as an excuse. It is, instead, something of which to repent. In his commentary on Matthew, R. E. Nixon wrote, “Deeds must be the test of words and the true indication of character.”7 Christians should not be nonchalant about their lack of love. Never forget the commandment Jesus gave the night before He was crucified.
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”
“This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. You are My friends if you do what I command you.”
If this is the command of the Lord Jesus, then why do we treat it so lightly?
Part of the U.S. Rangers’ creed is, “I will never leave a fallen comrade behind to fall into the hands of the enemy.” I see that in Paul as he writes and instructs and encourages and exhorts and pours out his life into other believers from a heart full of love for Christ and for His people. Not only Paul, but did you know that all the authors of New Testament letters exhort and command Christians to love? Here are some examples: James 2:8–9, 14–17; 1 Peter 1:22; 1 John 3:16–18; and Hebrews 6:10, 13:1–3. The New Testament gives a portrait of Christians going through affliction together, and instructs and commands us on the rescue and recovery operations God has called his children to do for each other. We can’t leave one another to fall into the hands of the enemy.
The providence of God at many times is inscrutable to us. We are called to trust Him and persevere—but at the same time in His compassion He knows we hurt. As God works out His sovereign will there are many things going on that only He understands and that we cannot grasp. In this life we walk in eternity and in the temporal. We are to be companions with each other, and through the love we show for one another we provide a flesh and blood witness to His goodness even when our circumstances would tell us otherwise and tempt us to doubt Him.
God is sovereign, and God is good. God is there, and God loves you. In those times we do not understand His ways, we need each other to affirm who He is when doubt enters. The world becomes increasingly impersonal; become a part of someone’s life and invite that person to become a part of your life. Do not stand above and throw words into someone’s valley; we are all at level ground, and we all need each other. In love persevere. Your perseverance in love helps your friend to persevere in trusting God.
For the despairing man there should be kindness from his friend;
Lest he forsake the fear of the Almighty.
Job and his friends, Ilya Yefimovich Repin: Public Domain.
Small Candle: ChristianPhotos.net – Free High Resolution Photos for Christian Publications
Depression-loss of loved one: I can no longer find the source, but I believe this is in the Public Domain.
The Pilgrim’s Progress: The Owner of the Castle Was Giant Despair, John Liston Byam Shaw: Public Domain.
Betende Hände, Albrecht Dürer: Public Domain.
The Pilgrim’s Progress: Emmanuel’s Land Window at Emmanuel Church in the City of Boston: ElizaJR, Public Domain.
1R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, Jr., Bruce K. Waltke, eds., Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Moody Press: Chicago: 1980) vol. 1, 307.
2, 3David J. Atkinson, The Message of Job, (Inter-Varsity Press, Downers Grove IL: 1991) 31, 30–31.
4Peter Bregman, “The Right Way to Respond to Failure,” HBR Blog Network, Harvard Business Review, March 10, 2011.
5Elizabeth Bernstein, “When a Friend Grieves, How to Get Sympathy Right,” The Wall Street Journal, January 25, 2011.
6E. S. P. Heavenor, “Job,” The New Bible Commentary: Revised, D. Guthrie, J. A. Motyer, eds.,
A. M. Stibbs, D. J. Wiseman, contributing eds., (Inter-Varsity Press, Downers Grove IL: 1970) 432.
7R. E. Nixon, “Matthew,” The New Bible Commentary: Revised, third ed., D. Guthrie, J. A. Motyer, eds., A. M. Stibbs, D. J. Wiseman, contributing eds. (Inter-Varsity Press, London 1970) 826.
Original content: Copyright ©2011—2012 Iwana Carpenter