Lessons From the Old Testament: How to Counsel People in Pain

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. (Job 2:11-13)

The book of Job is not meant directly as a manual for counseling people in pain, but it speaks indirectly to this issue because Job’s friends did such a poor job of it.  We’ll see what they did wrong in a separate post.  But for the first seven days they did marvelously.

First, they met together and purposed to sympathize with and comfort Job.  There is power in sharing a purpose like this to help someone in pain.  Think about how you would feel if you were in the same situation and it will save you from many false steps in bringing comfort to someone who is hurting.  Your temptation is to take away that person’s pain, and you cannot.  But in that attempt you likely increase their pain.  Think instead of what you would want from someone coming to you to comfort you.

Second, Job’s friends expressed the pain they were feeling as they watched Job wrestling with pain.  There is a way we look pained when we see someone in pain and it comes across to them as pitying them.  And certainly we do pity them.  But that often feels demeaning to the one in pain and does not bring comfort.  But when we are in genuine pain with them, as evidenced by our own tears and our own neglect of our immediate needs for food or a pleasant appearance, it ministers to them.  When we are willing to “tear our clothes” and “sprinkle dust on our heads” with them, they will feel understood and not pitied.

Third, Job’s friends went silent.  They did not try to speak some gem of comfort.  They did not try to explain why Job should feel less pain.  They did not try to spiritualize his situation.  They were just there.  Just being there was comfort.  Simply mourning in silence with the one in pain is often the most effective means of helping another to deal with his or her pain.  It is our own discomfort that often moves us to talk and say silly things.  We mistakenly feel it is our job to somehow fix this person’s pain or make it bring glory to God.  We do not have the patience or the courage to shut up and let God do His work in this person’s life.  He is the only one who can “fix” them and the only one who can ultimately make sense of their pain.  Our job is just to hurt with them.  If they ask for words, then we are being called upon to speak as we think God would speak.  But otherwise, our best bet is to simply be there.

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