HOW TO HELP THE HURTING
By Dr. Clyde Woods
Counselors need to be slow to advise and honest when all the answers are not known. The heart of the book of Job is a series of dialogues between the suffering Job and his erudite friends who came to counsel, sought to help and strayed to condemn. From their apparently failing efforts we can learn both positive and negative guidelines to assist us in our attempts to counsel estrangement.
The psychologist Frank B. Minirth suggests that Job’s friends erred in four major ways. (1) They were talkers, not listeners. With much true and eloquent, yet impractical advice, Job’s friends were too directive, too fast, too legalistic and too dogmatic. (2) They did not convey a proper attitude. Failing to be understanding, they became harsh and cruel accusers, not counselors. (3) Their discourses evidence pride, a downfall for any counselor. (4) They had an inadequate concept relation with man (Christian Psychiatry, 1977, page 190).
In a similar vein, Mark R. Littleton, in his book, Sitting With Job, describes as "mistakes of human wisdom" four areas "where Job’s comforters’ went wrong." (1) They said that Job must have sinned. (2) The three counselors proved their assumption on incomplete evidence. (3) When Job argues with them, the three counselors became indignant. (4) In the heat of their argument, Job’s friends forget their original purpose.
The efforts of Job’s friends were, of course, flawed by their mechanistic distortion of retribution theory. Far beyond saying that righteousness brings blessing and wickedness brings curse, which is scriptural in principle, they went on to argue that all suffering is the result sufferer’s sin (i.e. that sin, and only sin, brings suffering). This distortion, although widespread in both ancient and modern times, is a sinister and devastating lie. As Littleton adds, it becomes a reason to reject hurting people, turns God into an arbitrary gift dispenser, forces people into a works’ mentality, fails to promote true accountability and even limits the power and person of God.
To these observations I add a few practical suggestions for those who wish to help their friends who are hurting. If we want to build the church, we must help the hurting. If we want to help the hurting, we must recognize that caring alone is not enough. Job’s friends have been unfairly castigated as lacking compassion. These three men, busy professional leaders in their own societies, set aside their many duties and traveled over great distances at their own expense, hazarding the considerable discomfort and outright danger of such extended journeys in ancient times, in order to be with their friend in his distress. When they arrived, they sat and watched in silence for seven days in attempt to understand Jog’s misery (Job 2:11-130). As counselors, these men were made from the rigid stuff. We rarely commit ourselves to this degree in our efforts to help others. Yet Job’s friends failed. Caring sis vitally import an, but we will not succeed just by caring.
If we want to help the hurting, we must let them express their pain without feeling threatened. Perhaps mistaking his friend’s caring silence for genuine empathy and understanding sensitivity. Job voiced the desperate lament recorded in Job 3.
The intensity of his angry complaint shocked and offended his friends. They saw his outburst and his whole situation as a threat to their personal faith, and thus, they became overly defensive. When Job greatly needed the compassion of a loving heart, the friends developed within themselves a tremendous need to "straighten him out", to "solve his problem" with rigid control, and above all, to silence the offending heretic.
In this way the friends lost all semblance of objectivity, and their judgmental attitude compounded Job’s already overwhelming sense of helplessness. Should we ask others to share deep and painful feelings only to tell them they should not feel that way, thus adding the element of guilt to their pain?
If we want to help the hurting, we must listen to what they say rather than focus on how they say it. People in real spiritual distress will not likely be cool, calm and collected. Job himself admitted his words were "rash, but with due cause" (Job 6:2-7). In helping the afflicted, we should try to fix the problem, not the blame. This principle is illustrated in Numbers 11:11-15 where Moses, apparently on the verge of a complete mental breakdown from the inordinate pressure of his leadership role, issued a veritable tirade against the Lord. Interestingly, the Lord neither rebuked nor condemned, but instead offered real help for Moses’ two voiced needs by providing subordinate leaders and delicious quail as food for the murmuring people (Num. 11:16-32).
If we want to help the hurting, we must be willing to say, "I don’t know." These three little words are simple enough, yet Job’s friends were totally incapable of saying them. An authentic helper must be willing to admit his own inadequacy. If not, he will feel compelled to force oversimplified solutions. Treating Job as a case study for counselors, William T. Kilwen states in Biblical Concepts for Christian Counseling, "How often Christians, suffering from depression have been perfunctorily told to keep their eyes on the Lord, confess their sin, renew their faith, be obedient to God, stop giving in to their feelings". This is sound advice, but it may not be the specific counsel appropriate to the situation. Where we do not know, we must not say. It is far better to be supportive, listen and seek to comprehend.
Finally, if we want to help the hurting, we must recognize that genuine healing comes from within and from above. Our most skilled and informed efforts can but enhance and promote the recovery process. In Job’s case, this process developed despite the friends’ insensitivity and falsehoods. In fact the friends’ harsh ineptitude forces the tortured Job increasingly to pour out his heart in prayer and to seek solace from the Lord. When the Lord ultimately restored Job. He rebuked the friends for misrepresenting Him, but mercifully accepted their repentance and Job’s intercession for them (Job 42:7-9).
The Bible does not say what happened afterward to Job’s friends. Because they genuinely cared, one may hope they later reflected happily on their friend’s recovery, their own inner growth and the sovereign Lord’s mercy.