Thursday, January 13, 2011

Miserable Comforters

We’ve all known one. If we are honest, we’ve all been one. A miserable comforter! Have you noticed that when you are having the hardest time, people just say the dumbest things?

Take for example, my neighbor, who showed up on the day my daughter died and thought it was helpful to offer this advice, “You just have to get yourself together and go on for those other two little girls.” Do I? Less than 24 hours after my 2-year-old’s tragic death? Really?

Or, take this example from a friend of mine who lost a child to cancer. When an acquaintance from church showed up to retrieve an empty food container (at least she was trying to help by bringing food…), she lamely offered these words, “When my dog died, I thought, ‘This is what it must be like to lose a child.’” Ouch.

You know, people try. But, they often miss the mark. Big time. I could get indignant if God had not brought to mind one of my own incompetent comments. Remembering it this week made my stomach churn. I was at my 10-year high school reunion. Mary Claire was about 8 weeks old. I was still big and tired, not quite recovered from the birth. So, as I walked in the door, I was dealing with feelings of inadequacy--as I’m sure many were. I was a ball of nerves. High school was good, bad, and awkward all at the same time. I was trying to be mature and expect everyone else to act grown-up, too. But, somehow, we all seemed like 18-year-old kids in 28-year-old bodies, still groping for our identities.

An hour or so into the evening, I got the courage to approach my 7th grade crush. I had heard that his girlfriend and soon-to-be fiancé, another classmate of ours, had recently died in a car accident. I felt so sad for him, and I wanted to offer my condolences. I saw him standing with a friend. I took a deep breath, and once I decided to move in, there was no stopping my mouth. I blurted out, “I am so very sorry to hear about Michelle.” Whew. That was ok. Not a bad start. But, then I added something about knowing how he felt because my mother-in-law was just diagnosed with brain cancer. I don’t know the exact words I used, but that doesn’t matter. What did he care about my mother-in-law’s cancer? How was that in any way related to what he was going through? He smiled at me and nodded, as if to graciously accept my feeble attempt to console him. I walked away, and I felt guilty about it…for about another 10 years, apparently!

Want to hear something exciting? God is totally onto this problem. The undesirable fact is that when we are hurting, some of the things people say to us actually end up hurting us more. God knows.

When Job’s friends offered all kinds of advice and speculation about why he suffered, he took it quietly for a while. But, he got fed up eventually. Here is what he said:

2 “I have heard many things like these;
you are miserable comforters, all of you!
3 Will your long-winded speeches never end?
What ails you that you keep on arguing?
4 I also could speak like you,
if you were in my place;
I could make fine speeches against you
and shake my head at you.
5 But my mouth would encourage you;
comfort from my lips would bring you relief.” Job 16:2-5

Did you know that the phrase “miserable comforters” was even in the Bible?? I didn’t until a year or so ago. I tell you, the day I read this passage, I just about jumped up and down! God gets it!

I would like to assume that, most of the time, the people in my life have good intentions. I know that when I have said the wrong things, I have sincerely wanted to be helpful. But, the same could not be said for the men that tried to explain Job’s suffering. There is a difference between thoughtless words and those that convey a misinterpretation of who God is. The former may be hurtful to us, but the latter is offensive to God.

Sometimes, people come to offer us comfort and end up passing judgment instead, just as Job’s contemporaries did. One woman, coping with infertility and the deep desire to have a child, described a Christian person’s response to her: “Have you considered whether you have some sin in your life that may be keeping you from getting pregnant?” Whoa! In my opinion, that statement hits below the belt and quite probably misinterprets God and His character. I don’t know everything about the Bible yet, but I don’t think that God works that way. (and my Biblical reasons for believing so may be a topic for another day…) In my estimation, this woman, who was seeking God and needed comfort, instead received judgment under the guise of godly counsel.

Job’s “friends” responded to his loss in much the same way. They tried to put God in a box, to ascribe to Him character qualities that were not based in truth. And, to put it plainly, God didn’t like it. After God made sure Job knew who He really was (see more about this in next week’s post), he rebuked the men who had been such “miserable comforters”. Read on:

“ 7 After the LORD had said these things to Job, he said to Eliphaz the Temanite, “I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has. 8 So now take seven bulls and seven rams and go to my servant Job and sacrifice a burnt offering for yourselves. My servant Job will pray for you, and I will accept his prayer and not deal with you according to your folly. You have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has.” 9 So Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite did what the LORD told them; and the LORD accepted Job’s prayer.” Job 42:7-9

I love it! God forgave those miserable comforters because of Job’s prayer! How’s that for just desserts?

God knows people don’t always say the right things when we are hurting. And, He didn’t get upset with Job for telling them so. I don’t think God would have been bothered if Job decided to part company with these folks. And, I am confident that God did not want Job’s healing to hinge on their words. As hard as it is, sometimes we have to be able to discern whether or not someone’s words are worth giving another minute of our time—even if the source is someone close to us or someone we previously thought of as wise. We must ask ourselves, “Does that comment line up with God’s truth and character as He has revealed to me in the Bible? Does it sit well with the Spirit, who lives inside of me?” If the answer is no, we must toss it out. As my husband says, “Take out the trash.” Mentally erase it and ask God to replace it with truth.

Moreover, Job’s restoration from all of his suffering happened only after he prayed for his friends’ forgiveness. If he was going to offer a sincere prayer for God to forgive them, then he probably had to forgive them himself as well. If he still harbored anger in his heart toward them for the pain they inflicted, he probably would not have been able to genuinely ask God to let it go. Maybe Job, like me, was able to remember a time when he had said something he regretted…or worse, when he said something that misrepresented the living God. Perhaps because he was able to offer mercy, he could fully receive the restoration God had planned for him. As we will study next week, that restoration was better than he could have imagined.

Listen, we all foul this up! The truth is that nobody knows what to do or say when someone is hurting deeply. We all fumble for words. Sometimes we don’t say anything because we don’t want to say the wrong thing. Ironically, we may hurt people with our silence. And, sometimes, we rely on an underdeveloped view of God or Scripture, bring our own biases and judgmental attitude to the table, and really mess up big time. There is no perfection to be had. But, God does give us some guidance when it comes to consoling others: “3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.” 2 Corinthians 1:3-4.

How can we do our very best to comfort those who are hurting? Offer first what we have been given from God Himself! What is the most valuable prerequisite for being a skilled comforter? Personal suffering. The more we have hurt and the more we have needed comfort, the more adept we will be at offering comfort to others. But, it still won’t come naturally. We must always approach this subject with a little fear and trembling.

This week I had the sacred privilege of visiting the home of a friend who is grieving a late miscarriage…the death of her child….only a week ago. This was holy ground. I wanted to tread lightly. When I walked in the door, this precious mother, armed with Kleenex, a journal, and a handful of index cards plastered with Scripture verses, hugged me and cried. “I have been going around the house clinging to Scripture,” she said. “It is the only thing that comforts me.” I had to suck in the flood of tears waiting to gush out of my eyes. I suddenly felt an unfathomable camaraderie with her searing pain and her grief process. I had experienced it. And, it was as if I could transport myself back there in a nanosecond. I did shed some tears, and I think she knew I cared. But, I was careful not to talk too much about how her pain made me feel. This was about her today! And, her pain was brand new and unique simply because it was hers. This was holy ground.

I had a very different experience leaving this friend’s home than I did leaving the high school reunion nearly a decade ago. This time, I wasn’t worried I should have said something different. I had weighed my words, relied on the Holy Spirit, and used the comfort I had been given—straight from God—to comfort this weary, broken-hearted mama. This time around, I have a much more rational grasp on what I have the power to do and what is out of my control. And, I actually think I may have helped.

In this case, I had a very similar experience to draw from, but there were still many differences. My loss was a two-year-old, hers a 20-week-old fetus. Our ethnic cultures are different. She and her husband describe themselves as private people. I…well, I am obviously not! I am using these differences to make an important point: You don’t have to have been down exactly the same road in order to comfort someone. You need only draw from the gifts God gave you when you needed them! Look back at 2 Corinthians 1:3-4. It says that God comforts us in ALL of our troubles so that we can comfort those in ANY trouble. Did you catch that? We can comfort those in ANY trouble with what God has given us. It’s kind of a “pay-it-forward” system.

No matter how inadequate we feel, we can be confident we will be equipped to help others because God promises to personally comfort us in ALL of our troubles.

He comforts us with His presence, guidance, and control.

o “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” Psalm 23:4

He comforts us with His promises.

o “My comfort in my suffering is this: Your promise preserves my life.” Psalm 119:50

He comforts us through His Word.

o “I remember, Lord, your ancient laws, and I find comfort in them.” Psalm 119:52

Best of all, God assures us the comfort we need will come directly from Him.

o “Shout for joy, you heavens; rejoice, you earth; burst into song, you mountains! For the LORD comforts his people and will have compassion on his afflicted ones.” Isaiah 49:13

o “I, even I, am he who comforts you.” Isaiah 51:12a

In other words, as believers (especially as we live, grow, and suffer ourselves) have exactly what it takes to be “first-class comforters”…instead of miserable ones!


Nicole said...

With tears running down my face, Thank You for sharing! I am encouraged by your strength.

Choices said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jenna said...

Moreover, Job’s restoration from all of his suffering happened only after he prayed for his friends’ forgiveness.

This means so much to me! A dear friend lost one of her twins just 8 weeks after Miss C's (and my own son's) birth. A brief 16 days later, her second son died. Nine years later, she still talks of how God killed her sons. She's never forgiven God, accepted his path nor moved out of that place of deep, deep pain.

I continue to pray for this friend and that she (like you) will find the strength to forgive, grieve and continue on.

Just as your 2 daughters learn from your strength and triumphs, I want her 2 young daughters to see their mother as victorious.

Thank you for continuing to share God's blessings through your life!