Worthless Physicians: Avoiding the Mistakes of Job’s friends

September 30, 2015

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Abe Meysenburg

Hardly a week goes by that I don’t talk with someone who is experiencing significant pain and suffering. Providing help and counsel to people in crisis is challenging. Navigating these conversations and relationships is difficult. The landscape is filled with hidden pitfalls that can ensnare those who are trying to offer help and hope.

The book of Job offers much insight into the nature of suffering, God’s role in it, and how to (and, sadly, how not to) serve those who are in the midst of it.

Job: A Man Who’s “Suffering Was Very Great”

It may have been a while since you’ve read Job, so here’s a quick summary of the story.

Job was a righteous man, and he was greatly blessed by God. But Satan accused God of rigging the system. He said Job’s righteous living was motivated purely by the fact that he’d received great blessing in return. Satan said that if God removed the blessings from Job, he would curse God and depart from his life of integrity.

God agreed to allow Satan to remove most of God’s blessings from Job. Job lost all of his flocks and herds; he lost his sons and daughters; and he lost his health. Even his wife advised him to “curse God and die” (Job 2:9).

But Job refused. Soon after, three of his friends (Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar) showed up “to show him sympathy and comfort him” (Job 2:11). After weeping, tearing their clothes, and throwing dust on their heads as a sign of their grief, they sat in silence with Job for a solid week. At first, they offered nothing other than their presence, which was likely a great comfort to Job.

Before we get to the ways in which Job’s friends were a negative example of caring for someone who is suffering, let’s not miss this great and challenging example: when someone is hurting, it’s ok to say nothing, and just to be present.

The Unhelpful Counsel of Job’s Friends

In providing care for their suffering friend, Job’s friends’ first step was helpful. However, after Job began his lament by cursing the day he was born, he and his friends quickly entered a vicious cycle of argument and accusation.

Job’s repeated complaint can be summarized in these terms: “I am blameless and full of integrity. I want a hearing with God to prove that I am being treated unjustly. I am a victim, and God is holding out on me.”

Job’s friends’ repeated response sounded like this: “You are suffering because of your sin. God is a wise judge who knows you are wicked and foolish. He is disciplining and punishing you. Repent before Him, and you will be healed.”

Job’s friends are accusatory, listing off the specific sins of the wicked who experience the judgment of God. They repeatedly berate and browbeat their friend, emphasizing the wisdom and justice of God.

Not surprisingly, Job found little comfort in their counsel.

Job ended up saying, “As for you, you whitewash with lies; worthless physicians are you all” (Job 13:4). Some translations call them “quacks”!

Job’s friends got off to such a great start! They sat in silence with their hurting friend for a whole week! But soon after, Job ends up calling them “worthless physicians.” What happened? Where did they go wrong?

We begin to discover their errors when, after several rounds of arguments, another of Job’s friends, Elihu, entered the conversation. Elihu “burned with anger at Job’s three friends because they had found no answer, although they had declared Job to be in the wrong” (Job 32:3). Then, after God addressed Job “out of the whirlwind,” God said to Job’s friend Eliphaz, “My anger burns against you and against your two friends, for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (Job 42:7).

Avoiding the Mistakes of Job’s Friends

So, according to Elihu (Job 32:1-5), and to God (Job 42:7-9), Job’s friends made three mistakes:

1. They offered Job no solid answers or counsel.

2. They didn’t refute Job’s objections.

3. They misrepresented God’s character and nature.

How can we avoid making the same mistakes as we are providing shepherding and counsel to those who are suffering?

God’s Sovereign Goodness

First of all, we can remind those who are suffering of the sovereignty and goodness of God.

Elihu (Job 36-37) and God (Job 38-41) both remind Job of humans’ extremely limited ability to understand all that God is accomplishing in a given situation. God’s ways are higher than our ways (Isaiah 55:9). He is majestic, mysterious, and He is in control.

But their extended monologues also emphasize the goodness of God. God, in all of His infinite and mysterious wisdom, laid the foundations of the earth; causes the sun to rise and set daily; provides rain for the earth; feeds lions, wild donkeys, ostriches, and horses; and humbles the proud.

In this way, Elihu and God confront the idea that Job is suffering because of his sin. And isn’t that thought present in the minds of many believers who are in painful circumstances? They often ask, “What have I done to deserve this? Why is God punishing me?” The truth of His sovereignty and goodness reminds the hurting person that very often, they are not suffering because of their sin, but that God has a plan, and that His plan is good.

We need to be reminded that God is sovereign—He really does have a plan; He really is at work even in the midst of our suffering—and that He is good—He is at work accomplishing something good for us. This is good news, a solid and helpful “answer” to the angst of the sufferer! It’s an invitation to take our eyes off of ourselves and our circumstances, and put them back on God and His trustworthy character.

Our Need for Humility and Grace

Secondly, we can remind those who are suffering of their need for humility and grace.

Job is self-righteousness: “I’ve done all of these good works!” Job has a victim mentality: “I’m being treated so unfairly!” Job is demanding, arrogant, and prideful: “Oh, if I could only give God a piece of my mind!”

But in 33:19-26, Elihu reminds Job that although God uses pain to discipline, He also provides “a mediator,” “a ransom for man’s soul,” “healing,” and “acceptance.” What an amazing foreshadowing of the work of Jesus for us! And all of this is evidence of the great mercy and grace of God.

In serving those who are suffering, we cannot miss the call to humility and grace! The call to humble ourselves before God is repeated countless times in Scripture (see especially 1 Peter 5:5-7).

Encouraging a person who is suffering to humble themselves might sound like this: “You are not suffering because of your sin, but you are also not a sinless victim! You are a sinner in need of God’s grace at all times. He is not punishing you, but He is also not treating you unjustly. Don’t come demanding; come humbly, acknowledging your need, and relying on the grace and mercy of God.” Oh, how Job needed to hear this! It’s a solid refuting of his complaint and a beautiful reminder of the character of God.

Humility and grace confront both the idea that we suffer because of our sin, AND the idea that we are victims when we suffer. Therefore, hurting people need to be reminded of the grace and mercy of God. Failing to do this will leave those who are suffering either in a place of self-righteous defense or of hopeless, shameful despair. We can encourage those who are suffering to avoid the victim mindset by acknowledging their need for God. We can also remind them that God is full of grace and mercy, and He is not punishing them for their sin but is willing to forgive when we call on His name.

If we are going to look more like the Great Physician than worthless physicians, we are going to need the Holy Spirit to guide and empower us. May He lead us to care for others in such a way that we avoid the pitfalls of Job’s friends.

Join the Conversation

When you are suffering, which is your tendency: to view yourself as a victim or to be wracked with guilt?

How is the grace and mercy of God good news for you when you are suffering? How is it good news for people you are caring for who are suffering?

What are a few of the attributes of God that are especially encouraging for you when you are in the midst of a painful season?