Job was a righteous man who found himself afflicted with terrible calamities: the loss of property, children, and even his health (Job 1:1-2:10). Job had three friends who came to visit him: for seven days they sat with him in silence, knowing his suffering was great (Job 2:11-14). But then they began to open their mouths to challenge Job’s premises, views, and understanding regarding his sufferings and the way the world works; it is at this time that Job chastised them for being miserable comforters (cf. Job 16:2). Unfortunately, Job’s experience is far from unique. People, even Christians, often prove miserable comforters in times of distress.
We can understand the challenge. Calamities or distressing circumstances are unpleasant. We do not want to see anyone experience such things. We “feel” for the person who is in the midst of calamity or distress, and we want to find a way to communicate that concern. We want to say the right thing in the right way, but we also want to honor God and His purposes. We have the best of intentions. And yet all too often what actually comes out of our mouths makes things worse, not better. Let us consider many things often said to those experiencing calamity or distress both in light of what is revealed in Scripture as well as how it might sound to the hearer.
“God will not give you more than you can handle.” Many Christians feel this sentiment is appropriate in light of God’s promises to believers. But is this statement true? Many appeal to 1 Corinthians 10:13, but Paul there speaks of how far He will allow man to be tempted, and does so to establish that no Christian has the right to say that they were so tempted that they had to sin. If there is a temptation to sin, God will provide the way to escape it. The Scriptures do not suggest that “God will not give us more than we can handle” in terms of calamity, trial, or distress; instead, the Scriptures declare God’s faithfulness. God is able to strengthen and sustain the believer so as to endure whatever calamities or trials they may experience (1 Peter 1:3-9, 4:19). Imagine if you were in the position of the one going through trial: how would such a statement truly build you up if you feel overcome by what you are suffering? It can sound as if an indictment for not being strong enough. We do better to pray for them that God comfort, strengthen, and sustain them through trial.
“Your trial is God’s will for you.” For many the sovereignty of God provides great comfort in distress; feeling as if one’s difficulties are just the result of chance would be difficult to stomach. Christians also derive comfort from Romans 8:28: all things work together for good for those who love God. In this way Christians attempt to encourage those enduring suffering by telling the person that such is God’s will. And yet the same Paul, in the same letter to the Romans, declared how God’s ways are inscrutable (Romans 11:33). God may allow us to suffer; we might find “silver linings” in our trials and sufferings; and there might be times when God specifically wills for us to endure a specific trial. But on what basis can we be so confident that God has thus specifically willed that person to suffer in that situation? The one experiencing trial may be suffering the consequences of the poor free will decisions of another, reaping the consequences of past behavior, experiencing a trial from Satan like Job did (Job 1:1-2:10), or suffering for a thousand other reasons that may not involve God’s direct and specific willing for it to take place. Furthermore, how does such a statement reflect on God? God loves me, and He manifests His love by imposing great trial and suffering upon me? Is that consistent with what God has made known about His purposes (cf. Romans 8:31-39)? May it never be! We do better to pray for them for God to give them what they need to endure the trial and manifest His love for them.
“I know what you’re going through.” We feel for the person enduring trial or distress, and if we have experienced something similar, we are easily tempted to tell the person that we know what they are enduring. We would like to think it is comforting, and there is some comfort in recognizing that one is not alone in their suffering (1 Peter 4:9). Nevertheless, no matter how similar we might think our experiences might be, the statement is always false. We cannot know exactly what they are enduring: their situation is not exactly the same, and they are not us, and we are not them. We do better to prove willing to listen and provide comfort.
Many other examples could be enumerated. We do well to note how all of these responses are generated out of a desire to say something; how often does our desire to speak in such circumstances say more about us, our insecurities, and our theological challenges than it does about the person actually enduring trial? We want them to come through the trial and feel better; we would feel relief for them, and we would not have to endure the awkwardness anymore.
We will prove miserable comforters any and all times we are really seeking to make ourselves feel better than showing care for the person going through trial. We do not always need to speak; our presence, a hug, hospitality, and the willingness to listen without having to respond can provide great strength and comfort to the one enduring trial (Job 2:13, James 1:19). We will experience awkward feelings; we will hurt to see those whom we love experience such things; we do well to accept these feelings for what they are and to pray to God about them so we can more effectively minister to the one going through the actual suffering (1 Peter 5:7). Above all things we must pray to God in Christ for the one suffering trial, asking the Father to comfort, strengthen, and sustain the person through their suffering, for it is God who provides the ultimate comfort in affliction (2 Corinthians 1:3-7). Let us not prove to be miserable comforters; may we instead truly build up and uplift those enduring trial, strengthening the body of Christ to the glory of God!
Ethan R. Longhenry