The following is an excerpt from Anchors for the Soul with a video by John Mark Hicks. As you watch or read, gain courage to sometimes be silent as you learn about the comforting effect of silence, embrace that lament deserves to be heard despite the pain of listening to it, and understand the difference between doing and offering.
Teach me, and I will be quiet; show me where I have been wrong. How painful are honest words! But what do your arguments prove? Do you mean to correct what I say, and treat the words of a despairing man as wind? You would even cast lots for the fatherless and barter away your friend. But now be so kind as to look at me. Would I lie to your face? Relent, do not be unjust; reconsider, for my integrity is at stake. Is there any wickedness on my lips? Can my mouth not discern malice?
—Job to Eliphaz, Job 6:24–30
Watch this video by John Mark Hicks about the courage of silence (from Anchors for the Soul Video Course) or read below.
Sometimes silence is better than speaking, listening better than advice, and sympathy better than instruction. We have all fumbled for words in the presence of suffering. We visit a family at a funeral home, only to leave embarrassed by the inadequacy of our words. We take food to the home of grieving parents, but we have no confidence in what we said to them. We see a griever at church for the first time and avoid speaking to them because we do not know what to say.
My wife, Jennifer, for example, has shared her nervousness with me: “I have stood in the receiving line at a funeral waiting my turn to speak to the immediate family members. I have felt inadequate, my mouth dry like cotton, and my heart pounding as I try to mentally rehearse words that will be of some comfort to the bereaved. I feel woefully inadequate.”
We feel unqualified as comforters because we do not know what to say.
This is a healthy sense of inadequacy. Without a sense of humility, we might become arrogant in our attempt to comfort. We may actually think we could say words that would minimize the grief and lessen the pain. The reality is that no comforter can do that, though many have tried.
Job’s friends tried.
But instead of comforting, they deepened the pain. They were “miserable comforters” (Job 16:2). They tried to speak, but they worsened the situation instead of helping it. Sometimes, unlike Job’s friends, we need to have the courage of silence.
Eliphaz, the “Comforter”
Job’s three friends sat with him on the trash heap for seven days in silence (2:11–13). Job broke that silence with a heartbreaking lament, when he cursed the day of his birth (3:1). Eliphaz, displeased with Job’s lament, counseled him to confess his sin because trouble comes to the wicked (5:3–7).
Indeed, the wicked suffer the kind of trouble that Job has experienced, and God has judged Job (4:5–8). Job’s house has been cursed due to his sin (5:3), and now Job must submit to God’s discipline (5:17). Job must humble himself, confess his sin, and seek God’s mercy so that God might redeem him (5:11).
Though God has wounded Job, God may yet heal him, if Job repents (5:18). Only when Job humbles himself will God restore his wealth, children, and security (5:24–26). Eliphaz is confident about his advice: “So hear it,” he says to Job, “and apply it to yourself” (5:27).
Job is discouraged by Eliphaz’s words. Eliphaz has not comforted Job but increased his pain. Job is struggling to persevere in faith, but Eliphaz accuses him of faithlessness. Job cries out to God for relief through death. He wants his life to end without denying “the words of the Holy One” (6:9–10).
Job is still faithful, but his pain tempts him to deny God.
Eliphaz offers no sympathy. On the contrary, he assails Job’s integrity and tells him to repent of his hidden sins. Job hoped for comfort from his friends—even “a despairing man should have the devotion of his friends” (6:14). Instead, his friends are like dried up streams (6:15–17) for which caravans hope, but they disappoint when the thirsty reach them (6:18–20). His friends are “no help” (6:21).
Job is willing to listen (6:24–26), and he will be silent if his friends will say something useful. Eliphaz’s descriptions of the plight of the wicked were insinuations that Job himself was one of them. Job is willing to listen to the accusations against him, but he wants proof that the charges are true. Job complains that his friends have not really listened to him.
His words were honest.
They were the words of a person in great distress and despair. But Eliphaz had treated them as if they were nothing but hot air, or “wind” (6:26). Eliphaz listened to Job’s lament in order to judge it rather than suffer with him.
Eliphaz’s callous response evokes Job’s assessment of his heart. Eliphaz is the kind of person who would gamble over fatherless children or barter away a friendship (6:27). Eliphaz is the sort of person who turns every situation to his own advantage. Rather than help a friend, Eliphaz becomes defensive of his own traditions and beliefs, more concerned about those than he is about Job’s troubles and spiritual well-being.
Job gets to the point (6:28–30). The kindness he expects from Eliphaz and his other friends is trust. Job simply pleads with his friends to believe him; he is not a liar. He wants to be treated justly and compassionately. What is really at stake in this dialogue is not the traditions of the friends but the integrity of Job.
God affirmed Job’s integrity both before and after trouble enveloped him (1:1; 2:3; 42:7). Job does not belong among the wicked. He is a righteous sufferer. As the narrator commented after Job’s second trial, “In all this, Job did not sin in what he said” (2:10).
Eliphaz’s words were far from comforting.
They made it worse by indicting him and making him feel alone in his pain and grief. When they were silent, Job was free to cry out to God and complain about his hardships because he thought they cared about him and would understand. Instead, they judged him. They made it clear that he was alone. Job lost his last hope of comfort from other human beings when his “comforters” spoke.
Grievers tell story after story of similar encounters from well-meaning would-be comforters.
I remember when I was standing at the coffin of my wife, and a godly, devout elderly saint fumbled for words and finally said, “Doesn’t she look good?” I said nothing, but my heart sank, grieved more deeply, and even felt some anger. No! She doesn’t look good, I thought. She is twenty-five years old and dead. She would only look good if she were alive!
People want to help, even when their words cut deeply and may subtly accuse.
I remember sitting with a grieving widow whose husband died of AIDS, and the only thing she could remember from the visitation period at the funeral home was the words of a thoughtless would-be comforter, “If only we had known he was gay, we could have helped him. It’s not your fault.”
I am confident most, if not all, friends want to help, but they don’t know how to help, they don’t know the land mines, and they are sometimes quite judgmental in their interpretation of the suffering. Silence is better than saying something inept, stepping on a land mine, and interpreting for the sufferer.
This post is an excerpt from Anchors for the Soul.
The Act of Silence
Assuming Eliphaz meant well but missed the mark, what could he have done better? And what is our approach when we encounter friends and family who are brokenhearted?
Generally, the best approach is silence.
We are often too quick to speak to sufferers. We are uncomfortable with silence. Silence is awkward. Silence burdens us so that we feel like we are not helping. We feel anxious as if we are just standing there and doing nothing. We feel we must say something.
Like the proverb says, “Do you see a man who speaks in haste? There is more hope for a fool than for him” (Prov. 29:20). A lengthy silence is better than a hasty sentence.
This act of silence has three essential components:
Comfort comes more in the form of presence than words. “Being there” speaks more volumes than words could ever say. I do not remember anything anyone said at my wife’s funeral. However, I do remember who was there. Oh, well, I do remember some of the well-intentioned but inappropriate things people said. I would have preferred they had been silent. I understand their awkwardness and I have made the same mistakes. It was more important that they simply be there, and I remember their presence even though I do not remember our conversations.
For example, some of my most precious memories of the events surrounding my wife’s funeral involve the presence of people. A friend flew in from Oklahoma to be with me. My sister drove me home to Bowling Green, Kentucky, from Georgia. My father walked with me for several hours. I do not remember anything these loved ones said to me, but I remember that they gave their time and presence.
Primary comfort for the bereaved does not come through the words of others but through their presence.
Their presence at the funeral home says they are willing to join you in your moment of grief and support you through it. The fact that they sent a card is more significant than anything they wrote in the card. Consequently, it is so important that comforters make every effort to spend time with sufferers from the earliest moments. The first rule of thumb is this: be there!
Approach sufferers as listeners.
When we do, we give them permission to speak, and we sit with them in their lament, offer our presence, and share their tears. Eliphaz was shocked by Job’s words because he did not listen. He did not hear Job’s anguish. He did not give Job the opportunity to speak his heart and cry out to his God.
We must be willing to sit with sufferers and give them space to speak to God in deep anguish with all the doubts, fears, and questions those laments contain. Too often, we divert the conversation to mundane topics because we are uncomfortable listening to the grief and pains of another. Those who would console the bereaved or wounded souls give a priceless gift by listening and thereby sharing the pain rather than changing the subject to avoid it.
God listens to our complaints.
And we should welcome the opportunity to listen to each other’s as well.
It is heartrending to listen to a grieving mother talk about the child she lost to death. It is difficult to listen to a young wife talk about her deceased husband. It is painful for us to listen to the pain of others.
But when we come to support others in their grief and pain, listening is vital. We do not help when we change topics and move the conversation away from grief and pain. We only signal to the griever that we are not willing to listen and share the pain, and this drives their grief underground. When we fail to listen, we obstruct their healing.
I have heard would-be comforters shut down lament by reminding lamenters that they should not talk about God with such anger. They did not listen. I have seen an assembly gathered for worship singing the lyrics of “God Is So Good” in thanksgiving for the birth of a healthy child while the mother of a deceased infant sits in the same assembly crying her eyes out.
The church did not listen.
I have watched those sitting with the grieving change the subject when a mother began to talk about her dead son. They did not listen.
It is not the comforter’s task to lead a discussion but to become a silent listener.
We follow their lead and we are willing to listen, even when our pain is increased by what we hear. When the griever laments, do not rebuke or correct their beliefs. We listen silently and we listen actively so that the sufferer has permission to say anything that comes to mind. When the griever is ready to speak, we are ready to listen.
If they want to sit in silence, we sit with them.
Our presence gives the griever permission to share their heart, even if it is anger, and to speak to God (or speak about God) with bitterness and impatience, just as righteous Job did. We give the griever permission to remember and to cry. As uncomfortable as it makes us, it is an important aspect of healing for those who are hurting. We are God’s instruments of comfort, and just as God listens, so should we.
In the context of presence and silence, there is an added benefit to intentionally listening. One who is experiencing extreme distress can often become numb to anything but the depth of their pain. Well-meaning friends and family will ask them if they need anything or if they can do anything for their loved one. And oftentimes the response is either a “no,” an “I don’t know of anything,” or simply a blank stare.
The griever is unable to consciously think about their own needs or wants.
When we listen intentionally, we just might “hear” what the griever needs. They may talk about how worried they are about other family members or random things such as how they have dry-cleaning to pick up or that their car needs gas or an oil change. In these moments, we can learn what they may need us to “do” for them.
My wife can remember that when she lost her daughter (Leah) to stillbirth, an older woman from the church came to her house and weeded all of the flower beds. She didn’t ask for that but realized that she had probably said something about the yard being a mess since she had been on strict bed rest for weeks prior to her loss. This leads us to the third movement of silence: action.
Comforters are not restricted to passive acts like silence and listening. Indeed, comforters must also take matters into their own hands and act on behalf of the sufferer. They can do something for the sufferer that eases the burdens surrounding grief. This type of action usually does not involve very many words.
Many times comforters unintentionally avoid this call to action by expressing their desire to help. They might say to the sufferer, “If there is anything we can do, please let us know.” While this is surely well-meaning and deeply felt, the hurting will likely never ask (unless there is some kind of deep intimacy between the people involved).
Often, those sitting on the ash heap can’t think clearly enough to know what they need done.
In fact, unwittingly, the comforter places a further burden on the sufferer by placing the initiative in their hands. Now, the bereaved has to think of what it is that they need and decide if it is appropriate to ask for it. They may worry about the imposition and feel guilty if they do ask for help. Even when there is such a close relationship between two people that neither would mind asking or being asked, it still places the burden on the griever to initiate the action.
If you have been listening well, you might already have several ideas of what you could do. And if you haven’t had the opportunity to spend significant time with them, you can think about things you could do for them. Show up at their house and say,
“I am here to mow your grass.”
“I am here to clean your house.”
“Here’s tonight’s dinner.”
They might politely object because we have been trained to do things for ourselves and to be self-sufficient (even grieve alone without help), but the helper will act, nevertheless, by gently persisting. At the same time, it is probably best to stay in close contact with the griever’s intimate family and friends in order to help in appropriate ways, and when the griever says “no,” we should listen and perhaps try again later.
I don’t know who changed the oil in my car, who paid for a plane ticket, or who cleaned my room, but those acts relieved the burden of my grief because it took away some of the worries and stresses of daily life. One dear sister in the church regularly announced to my family that she was going to take care of Joshua for an evening and released us to do something together as a family.
When my sister’s husband died, several ladies were at the house to clean, arrange food, and facilitate guests. These acts are more comforting than any words anyone could ever speak.
Actions express love.
They identify with the one suffering because those who support them imagine what it is like to be in their shoes and then seek ways to help with everyday needs. We do things for them they cannot do for themselves, or we do things for them that in the midst of grief may be tremendous burdens (e.g., washing clothes, etc.). When we lift their burdens, we show our love and sympathy. And it is comforting.
What do we say to sufferers? The first thing we say is nothing. As awkward as it feels, we must have the courage of silence. Otherwise, we may make the mistake of Eliphaz or stumble over words that will only be remembered for their stupidity rather than for their comfort. Silence is the first task of the comforter, and this includes presence, listening, and action.
Silence is only significant if we are also present.
We can be silent at a distance, but that is no comfort. Be silent, but also be there. Be silent and listen. Be silent, but also do something to ease the burdens of life. Through the silent acts of presence and listening, we may have a clearer idea of what we might do that is truly needed. Then, we can also silently act.
This is Chapter 1 from Anchors for the Soul by John Mark Hicks. You may also be interested in the Anchors for the Soul Video Course and the companion workbook, Journaling Through Anchors for the Soul.
Subscribe to HIM Publications here to get blogs like these delivered to your inbox.