As I’ve reflected on trusting God and seeking His presence when life doesn’t make sense what keeps coming to mind for me is that we aren’t called to do these things alone. We climb the mountain tops and tread the shadowy valleys with others. We all have fellow travelers. Who are yours? Family? Friends? A church community? Coworkers? For me, today, these include a close friend who is dealing with life-threatening health problems and another whose daughter was assaulted. A third has unexpectedly lost her husband. It seems like all any of us can do right now is to sit in stunned silence.
When tragedy strikes I think most of us want to say or do something to make things better, but often words aren’t the answer. Just look at Job’s response to his friend Eliphaz:
Now you too have proved to be of no help; you see something dreadful and are afraid.Job 6:21
I wonder if Job hasn’t picked up on something fundamental. Maybe our words aren’t only an effort to comfort or encourage. Maybe they are our way of dealing with our own underlying fear that we could be next. I know that I need to be slower to speak (James 1:19), but maybe I’m not the only one.
Sharing Silence and Suffering
Speech wasn’t the first response of Job’s friends, though:
When Job’s three friends . . . 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.Job 2:11–13
While teaching us how to help our friends who are in pain isn’t the point of the book of Job, these verses do offer us food for thought. Before the friends speak, they grieve for and with their friend. Their actions echo mourning rituals found not only in the Bible, but throughout the ancient Near Eastern world, from Egypt to Syria. Their tears and torn garments are a way of identifying with Job in his grief and loss.
The sprinkling of dust evokes the idea of death:
For dust you are and to dust you will return.Gen 3:19
In Job 2:12, though, the sprinkling of dust not only points to the death that is every person’s fate, it also points to the friends’ willingness to suffer with Job. Here, C. L. Seow observes that the specific Hebrew expression for the sprinkling is used only one other time in the Old Testament:
Then the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “Take handfuls of soot from a furnace and have Moses toss it into the air in the presence of Pharaoh. It will become fine dust over the whole land of Egypt, and festering boils will break out on people and animals throughout the land.Exod 9:8–10
The “festering boils” that result from Moses’ action are described with the same Hebrew word that is used for the sores that cover Job from head to toe in Job 2:7 (šeḥîn). These parallels suggest that the friends aren’t simply participating in a typical mourning ritual (Josh 7:6; Ezek 27:30; Lam 2:10), but that the sprinkling of ashes is their symbolic way of asking God to afflict them with the same sores. They don’t only share Job’s silence. They are willing to share his pain.
How are we responding to our friends’ pain? Are we willing to share that pain or are we trying to comfort them with trite theology? Are we responding out of love or reacting out of our own fear? Maybe we should consider starting with practices that transcend time and culture: shared silence, companionship, and a willingness to walk in their darkness. In these, we let them know that they aren’t alone. We listen without judgment, allowing their genuine, heartfelt expressions. We lift them into the presence of God and may, with time, become a source of His comfort in their lives.
Or maybe we are the ones struggling. How are we responding? We see in Job, the Psalms, and Lamentations that we can express our anger, fear, disillusionment, and loss. That may be appropriate, but sometimes we need to sit silently in God’s presence, making room for Him to speak into our circumstances.
What other practices might we engage in when we struggle or a friend grieves? How else might we show God’s love and our support to those around us? I’ll talk about one possible approach in an upcoming post, but in the meantime I’d love to hear your thoughts!
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All Scripture citations are from the NIV unless otherwise noted. Copyright 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.