Alexandra T. Armstrong – Guest Author
I am a miserable comforter. At least that’s what I’m told.
Of course, the epithet references three friends of Job who came to visit him in his time of testing. They sat with him wordlessly, at first. After 7 days, when Job was ready to converse, they began to assign him blame for the death and disease that befell his household. Job is appalled. By the end of the story, we know God is too.
The generally accepted take-away from this account is good friends show up and shut up. I beg to differ.
First, let me say, I have never assigned blame for any tragedy to a grieving victim. Does anybody do that unless they’re out of their mind? (More often people blame themselves for accidents or misfortunes and need counsel away from that thinking.)
Now that I’ve put that disclaimer out there, let me confess the miserable thing I do. I comfort other believers with Scripture. Unapologetically. Because that’s what it’s for.
I’m weary of comparisons to Job’s three friends. They didn’t have the written word of God and spoke hurtful distortions out of ignorance. We can speak soothing truth with confidence because we have the Scriptures. There’s nowhere else to go if what you need is the peace that passes understanding.
Since it’s hard to argue with that, I’m told it’s really a matter of timing. Apparently, there are times when the sure promises of God are not socially appropriate. But if we don’t need to know our every circumstance is His intentional will for us and He is working them all together for our good even when life is blistering, when do we need it? I don’t think those truths are meant to sustain us when we’ve merely misplaced our keys or broken a fingernail.
If showing up and shutting up is the gold standard of comfort, what can believers offer that the Rotary Club can’t? Casseroles? The ministry of the gospel is a spoken ministry and suffering is a gospel matter.
Our gospel hope is the only way to put foundation under the feet of those who have been swept off them. How can it be kinder to let a brother or sister flounder in their misery?
I’ll grant some may prefer to flounder. At least, people keep assuring me those people are out there though I have never met one. Still, I’d rather let someone tell me to hit the bricks with Jesus than let fear of that be prescriptive for how I treat every believer. Rather than assume every child of God wants to curl up in a fetal position and plug their ears to His word when life gets painful, I’ll risk assuming they know they’re being tested and welcome encouragement and strengthening from a source they know to be powerful and alive.
Several times I’ve been rewarded for taking such a view.
Recently a friend, whose husband has battled cancer three times, called me to say tests detected a suspicious spot on his liver. I listened to her fears. I sympathized with her as any woman would. And I prayed for them during that phone conversation. Among my requests was that God’s word would be their delight so their spirits would not perish in their affliction. (Psalm 119:92) When I finished, my friend said she would make that verse her own request to God. She didn’t accuse me of insensitivity.
That gentle method of sharing Scripture with hurting people surprises those who caricaturize all effort in that direction as “beating people over the head with a Bible.” They don’t believe it can be accomplished gently. As sad as that is, the thing believers absolutely must stop doing is lumping Scripture into the category of “cliche’s and trite phrases”. The person who refers to Scripture used to comfort the hurting as “cliche” or “trite” reveals more about themselves than they probably intend. And it makes those with a higher view of Scripture who hear them say it want to beat them with a Bible after all.
As one who’s experienced a bit of life’s devastation, I know the tempting whisper of the Enemy to “curse God and die” in those experiences. He doesn’t consult our timetable for processing our grief but strikes when we’re weakest and most vulnerable – compounding the pain. That’s exactly when we need the body of Christ speaking truth to us, not keeping fearfully quiet. Because I know that, and because I believe God’s authoritative word is unrivaled consolation, I’ll remain some folks’ idea of a miserable comforter.