"When Job’s three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite, heard about all the troubles that had come upon him, they set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathize with him and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was."
Many years ago, when I was still a young pastor, I faced one of my first significant challenges in leading a community. This challenge came in the form of grief. It was the first funeral that I had ever officiated.
I felt somewhat ill-equipped for the task that lay before me. What would be my approach to comforting the bereaved family as a young pastor? Should I be encouraging, or would this trivialize the legitimacy of their grief? Should I mirror their sadness, or would this seem disingenuous because I barely knew them? And what would I say? What does one say to an older person who just lost the companion with whom she’s spent her entire adult life?
My goal was to bring my youthful vigor to the situation, while dispensing of wisdom that seemed far beyond my years. I began to think about words I could say that would be both comforting and profound. I consulted all of the older seasoned pastors who were in my life. I questioned and carefully interviewed them concerning the procedures and protocols associated with funerals. I took painstaking notes on everything they shared. I even made notes to myself, to be sure to contextualize their counsel by tailoring it to my personality and my unique pastoral goals.
Over a few days, my fear began to abate and my confidence began to rise. I am certain that I did an admirable job in officiating my first funeral. But, truthfully, when I look back (I don’t remember many of the details surrounding this event), I now realize that while the advice I received from my older colleagues was invaluable, it also missed the point altogether.
The Book of Job is the Bible’s oldest book. Yet it raises questions that are just as relevant and timely as this morning’s newspaper. Job raises perplexing age old questions like: “Why do bad things happen to good people?”. This story raises another compelling question on the other side of suffering: “How does one comfort a person who has lost everything?” The wisest of preachers cannot provide satisfactory answers to these two critical & existential dilemmas, but there is a compelling clue to the answer of the second question that makes the first question answerable—or at least bearable.
“The text states that when Job’s friends heard about his misfortune they did three powerful things:
They dropped everything to come to his aid.
They met together and agreed to go and sympathize with him.
They saw him in a pitiful state and wept with and for Job.
But what was the greatest thing that Job’s friends did for him in his grief?
“Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was.”
Imagine. Seven days. Seven nights. No words. Job didn’t need speeches, anecdotes or cliches. Job needed friends who would simply be there with him and help him bear the weight of his intense sorrow. Job’s friends were ingenious in their silent approach to comforting their friend. I call this “perfect attendance”. They had nothing to say. They just ‘attended’ (sat in silence). Job’s friends only failed him when they opened their mouths—seeking to conjecture why calamity had befallen their beloved friend.
As a pastor, it took me awhile, but I soon figured out something profound about grief and calamity. I learned that hurting people don’t need songs, words, or human answers. They simply need attendees. Who’s hurting in your life? Reach out to them, and for God’s sake, be quiet! Crying is allowed, and human touch is appropriate, but attending is perfect.
How do you handle grief and calamity when it touches those you love? Join the discussion in the comments below.