The Do’s and Don’ts of Comforting

Do you find it challenging to know what to say or how to respond to people who have experienced a great loss?  We may mean well, but if we’re not careful we can easily stick our foot in our mouth.  Sometimes, in painful situations, it is better to not say anything at all, then to try to comfort those who are grieving only to offend or hurt them further.

Too often, we are like this guy:











In our passage of scripture today, we meet the “Three Amigos.”  Job’s three friends meant well and did some things well, but they also made some big mistakes with what they said. There are about 30 chapters of their distorted dialogue.

11  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.  Job 2:11

Who were these three amigos?  Eliphaz was the oldest. Eliphaz based his speeches on two things: his own observations of life (“I have seen”—Job 4:8; 5:3) Eliphaz put great faith in tradition (15:18-19), and the God he worshiped was an inflexible Lawgiver. “Who ever perished being innocent?” he asked (4:7); and a host of martyrs could have answered, “We have!” And what about our Lord Jesus Christ? Eliphaz had a rigid theology that left little or no room for the grace of God or a bigger picture.

Bildad must have been the second oldest of the three since he is named second and spoke after Eliphaz. In a word, Bildad was a legalist. His life-text was, “Behold, God will not cast away a perfect man, neither will He help the evildoers” (8:20). He could quote ancient proverbs, and like Eliphaz, he had great respect for tradition. For some reason, Bildad was sure that Job’s children died because they also were sinners (8:4)! The man seemed to have no feeling for his hurting friend.

Zophar was the youngest of the three and surely the most dogmatic. He speaks like a schoolmaster addressing a group of ignorant freshmen. “Know this!” is his unfeeling approach (11:6; 20:4). He is merciless and tells Job that God was giving him far less than he deserved for his sins! (11:6)

Now, let’s look at what they did well.   What you can you or I do to help people in grief and loss?  Two big DO’s and one big DON’T

DO Show Up.  Be there.  

11  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.  Job 2:11

Upon learning of Job’s difficulties, three of his friends came to sympathize with him and comfort him. Later we learn that their words of comfort were not helpful—but at least they came. While God rebuked them for what they said (Job 42:7), he did not rebuke them for what they did—making the effort to come to someone who was in need.  When someone is in need, let’s go to that person, but let’s be sensitive about how we comfort him or her.

Cancer survivor and author Nancy Stordahl, says, the worst thing you can do in someone’s time of grief is to, “not show up at all to offer a shoulder for someone to cry on because you’re scared you might say the wrong thing. Don’t worry too much about what you say; just speak from your heart and be ready to listen. And it’s perfectly okay to admit that you don’t know what to say or do. Your presence alone says a lot in and of itself, and your job is not to fix things anyway even though you want to.

And remember silence is so under-rated. Sometimes there are no words.

Sometimes silence isn’t ‘silent’ at all.”

Job’s friends left their businesses and families and set out to be with Job.  Our presence has power!  Let’s agree to be there for people who are hurting.  Let’s show up and show our love and support.

The second response we can have or what we can do is….

DO Feel as They Feel. (Empathy)

12  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.
13  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 2:12-13 (NIV)

Sympathy is to feel sorry for but empathy is try to put yourself in their shoes, to enter their pain.

Job’s friends showed grief with Job, they entered into grief with him by crying with him, tearing their robes and sprinkling dust on themselves. These were all signs of grieving in that time period and they joined with Job in his grief.

Then they sat for seven days!  Why did the friends arrive and then just sit quietly? According to Jewish tradition, people who come to comfort someone in mourning should not speak until the mourner speaks. Often the best response to another person’s suffering is silence. Job’s friends realized that his pain was too deep to be healed with mere words, so they said nothing. (If only they had continued to sit quietly!) Often, we feel we must say something spiritual and insightful to a hurting friend. Perhaps what he or she needs most is just our presence, showing that we care. Pat answers and trite quotations say much less than empathetic silence and loving companionship.

Try to feel what they feel but, “Try not to say, I know how you feel.

No two people are alike. No two experiences are alike, so no, you probably don’t know how the other person truly feels.

Instead say, I want to try to understand how you feel, tell me how you feel, I am here to listen. And then let the person share. This is not about you and your feelings. But of course, if the person wants to hear about your perhaps similar experience, by all means share. Take the cue from them.” [i]

Pastor and grief counselor of over 30 years Jim Rigby says,

“If you hear someone say, “I know how you feel” at a funeral, take them to the side and politely say, “no you don’t.” This is usually the opening for the “comforter” to talk about a loss they have suffered in their own past. It is painful to watch a grieving person have to listen to someone else’s past problems at such a painful time. Remind the comforter “this isn’t about you.”

The point is to let the grieving person know we care. We do that, by letting them set the tempo and the agenda of our conversation. And, in all my years of doing this work, I’ve never found words that are as helpful as loving and attentive silence.”

People we love and care for will suffer, have grief and loss.  What do we do? Be present, care, listen and try to feel as they feel.  We’ll look at more of what NOT to do in the next post.


Additional Souirces:  Bible Exposition Commentary (BE Series) – Old Testament – The Bible Exposition Commentary – Wisdom and Poetry.
Life Application Study Bible.

About dkoop

Lead Pastor of Upwards Church: Leander & Jarrell, TX
This entry was posted in Job - When Life Knocks You Down and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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