Life + Culture

How to Be a Miserable Comforter: Two Ways We Fail the Hurting

How to Be a Miserable Comforter

People in pain often say painful things. Acute pain, whether physical or psychological, is not a balanced experience. It’s a dominating experience. Such pain shoves its way to the front of our priorities and almost always distorts our perspective. When it’s flaring, we tend to say things that we wouldn’t otherwise say, and in ways we wouldn’t otherwise say them.

What’s crucial for any comforter or counselor is to discern whether angry or exasperated or despairing words are coming from an afflicted person’s soul-core (their deeply held, life-governing beliefs) or from their soul-sore (a flaring pain temporarily distorting a person’s perspective). There is a huge and important difference.

The Sores of the Soul

The book of Job is a case study on how severe affliction feels and distorts our perceptions. Job’s anguished screams are raw and real. They are disturbing. When Job’s friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, came to “show him sympathy and comfort him” (Job 2:11), here’s how the most godly, wise man in the ancient east (Job 1:3) expressed his devastation:

  • “Let the day perish on which I was born, and the night that said, ‘A man is conceived’” (Job 3:3).
  • “Why did I not die at birth, come out from the womb and expire?” (Job 3:11).
  • “Or why was I not as a hidden stillborn child, as infants who never see the light?” (Job 3:16).
  • “Why is light given to him who is in misery, and life to the bitter in soul, who long for death, but it comes not, and dig for it more than for hidden treasures?” (Job 3:20–21).

“The dead are better off than I am and I wish I’d never been born.” There’s not much gospel in that perspective. There’s no expressed gratitude for prior blessings, or faith that God might have higher, hidden purposes that someday would work for a yet unknown good. Just horror.

Did these words accurately represent Job’s deepest beliefs? No. Like David in Psalm 22:1 and Heman the Ezrahite in Psalm 88:14, Job’s words were shrieks of pain. Like the puss of infection oozing from the sores on Job’s body (Job 2:7–8), words of desolation were oozing from the sores on his soul.

How to Be a Miserable Comforter

The book of Job is also a case study on how not to counsel. The three comforters are legendary for their errant theology (Job 42:7) and soul-physician malpractice (Job 16:2). They had an overly simplistic explanation for evil: God rewards righteousness with prosperity and iniquity with destruction. This resulted in their misdiagnosing Job’s spiritual state: “C’mon, Job, confess your secret sin.” Job’s evaluation was eloquent: “miserable comforters are you all” (Job 16:2).

Numerous things made these men “miserable comforters,” but let’s look at two particular mistakes, ones we are also prone to make: misapplied truth and ill-timed reproof.

Misapplied Truth

Some things these men said were theologically spot-on. Eliphaz is a good example — Paul even quoted him when writing to the Corinthians (Job 5:13; 1 Corinthians 3:19). Eliphaz was the first to offer Job “comfort,” and among the things he said was this:

“Behold, blessed is the one whom God reproves; therefore despise not the discipline of the Almighty. For he wounds, but he binds up; he shatters, but his hands heal.” (Job 5:17–18)

Now, as a statement, this is clearly true, as Psalms, Proverbs, Hosea, and Hebrews attest:

  • “Blessed is the man whom you discipline, O Lord” (Psalm 94:12).
  • “My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline or be weary of his reproof, for the Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights” (Proverbs 3:11–12; Hebrews 12:5–6).
  • “Come, let us return to the Lord; for he has torn us, that he may heal us; he has struck us down, and he will bind us up” (Hosea 6:1).

But the statement being true did not make it right. In its context (Job 3–4), it’s clear Eliphaz assumed Job’s afflictions were God’s merciful reproof for a hidden sin for which he should repent (Job 4:7–8). But Eliphaz’s assumption was wrong. It’s true, God’s corrective discipline is redemptive. But Job’s suffering was not God’s corrective discipline (Job 1:6–12). Eliphaz misapplied this truth and therefore damaged Job.

We must take great care. Presumption, which can spring from the bias of our experience, as well as from the ignorance of our inexperience, can result in misdiagnosing a problem and misapplying biblical truth. And this only adds insult to injury.

Ill-Timed Reproof

Job himself articulated the second mistake:

“Do you think that you can reprove words, when the speech of a despairing man is wind?” (Job 6:26)

Job’s comforters heard his bleak, imbalanced, frustrated, hopeless, bewildered words and figured what he needed was a good dose of correction.

Reproof is merciful therapy for a soul-core problem (2 Timothy 4:2), because wrong beliefs lead to damaged lives. But reproof is salt in the wound for a soul-sore problem, because the sufferer’s words are cries for relief, not statements of belief — what Job calls “wind words.”

It’s easy to critique Job’s comforters because, unlike them, we have the advantage of seeing the big picture. But in our real-life situations, how often have we made the same mistake and given ill-timed reproofs?

I think I most often make this mistake in parenting. Many times I have quickly reproved a child for angry, defensive, or accusing words, assuming they came from a rebellious soul-core, only to discover later that they oozed from a soul-sore. I harshly reproved when I should have carefully probed and applied the balm of patient, gracious, kind, forbearing, servant-hearted, quick-to-listen, slow-to-speak love.

Skilled Comforters Are Slow

Discerning the difference between soul-core words and soul-sore words is no easy thing. Human souls are complex and wounds are messy. Skilled physicians are not rash; neither are skilled soul-physicians. They are quick to listen carefully and slow to diagnose carefully (James 1:19). They take time to ponder before answering (Proverbs 15:28).

And when skilled comforters do speak, they speak appropriate (Proverbs 25:11), life-giving (Proverbs 10:11), nourishing (Proverbs 10:21), wise (Proverbs 10:31), and restrained words (Proverbs 17:27).

Becoming a skilled comforter takes time. But if we are willing to love patiently and forbearingly (1 Corinthians 13:4, 7), and not presumptuously trust our own understanding (Proverbs 3:5), we will likely avoid the miserable mistakes of Job’s comforters. For, as John Piper once said, “Restoring the soul, not reproving the sore, is the aim of our love.”

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