Suffering presents us with a theological problem: If God is good and all powerful, then why does he allow people to suffer?
It is a fair question.
Here’s another one: What is the best way to help a friend who is suffering?
It is important not to confuse these two questions.
Like Job’s famously unhelpful friends did.
Job’s experience, of course, is the classic biblical case study of suffering. It teaches us practical realities about suffering and, more powerfully, eye-opening truth about God.
But today, let’s focus on Job’s three friends who entered the story as comforters. They started well by sitting silently with Job on his ash heap for seven days. It was their finest moment.
By all accounts we are most helpful when we are simply present with a loved one who is suffering. To stand with a friend in prayer, encouragement, and practical assistance is powerful ministry.
Most of us get that right at the onset of a crisis. We’re there. We express love, support and offer hope. So far, so good. But after a while we might start offering extra “help” (as I have at times.) Have you tried…? I have a friend who…
Job’s friends did too. They began to wonder why God had allowed such catastrophe in the life of good guy like Job. They figured that Job must have offended God and deserved punishment. When Job didn’t agree his comforters became accusers.
Job became “exhibit A” in a problem of suffering rather than their suffering friend who needed comfort.
Sometimes there is a connection between suffering and sin, but not always. Do we really think we can discern the cause of another’s troubles? It’s true that there might be a time for professional counseling or tough love to help a friend get beyond a crisis. But to confuse such “help” for comfort is to qualify as a miserable comforter.
Jesus was the perfect comforter. He had unfailing compassion for suffering people regardless of the theological implications of their situations. He healed, delivered and ministered in love. If challenged he defended his actions, but never at the expense of the sufferer. He had no problem correcting theological error, but he saved that for the appropriate audience, the Pharisees, and the right place, the temple.
Interestingly, it was Job who gained profound theological insight as he struggled in his own suffering, and he received God’s approval for persistent faith. His friends, analyzing things in problem solving mode, got frustrated and made God mad.
“It was my role to identify with others’ pain, not relieve it. Ministry was sharing, not dominating; understanding, not theologizing; caring, not fixing.” Brennan Manning in Abba’s Child
How have you experienced or observed confusion between comforting one who is suffering and wrestling with the problem of suffering? Has God met you in powerful ways in your sufferings?