Lousy Listening: Job’s Miserable Comforters

The old Henny Youngman line seems appropriate here: “They’re not a complete loss. They can always serve as a horrible example.”

The book of Job is typically looked at as being about suffering. Lately, though, I’ve been reading and thinking about it from the standpoint of listening. Job’s companions listen the same way that I think many in the church listen to one another. To put it bluntly, we’re terrible at it.

This is particularly problematic because our spiritual lives and our spiritual growth are accomplished in relationship, and if we cannot listen, our relationships are stunted. If I feel like you don’t hear me, I feel isolated and abandoned, and abandonment, to the Jews, was the epitome of despair and the worst state one could be in. Isolation was death, but listening is integral to community and therefore life.

But something broke down with Job’s companions, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. Their listening skills were so poor, they antagonized Job rather than comforted him. Perhaps had they listened well, they might not be known as “miserable comforters” most of the time now.

As I see it, here’s what they missed:

  1. They Leapt to Solve the Problem
    One of the temptations that we have so often in listening to someone’s problems is to try to offer solutions to them. Sometimes that’s what people are looking for, but often it’s not. Job’s companions over and over said, “Stop sinning and repent to God, and all of this will stop.” Job even comes close to saying, “I didn’t ask you for solutions!” (6:22-23)
    It’s often held up as a male/female difference, but it’s often true all around. Unasked for fixes aren’t always helpful when listening to one another.
  2. They Made Accusations
    There is certainly a time for confrontation (c.f., Matt. 18), but listening and accusation are pretty antithetical to one another. If listening is where we bring together, accusation and confrontation is a place where there is an obvious break. “You’re probably…” and “You’re just…” and “You’re doing/did…” are all ways of pushing the other away rather than inviting him in and caring for him.
  3. They Jumped Too Far Ahead Too Fast
    A good listener should be capable of drawing the other person and her story forward bit by bit, but Job’s miserable comforters tried to leap to the end when Job wasn’t ready to go there (not to mention that the end they jumped to wasn’t accurate). Listening requires that we stay close to the speaker, to be present with what she’s saying. To move too far beyond her narrative makes you the central figure rather than her. Job’s friends weren’t about Job. They were about “THE TRUTH”, which unfortunately really meant that they were about being right – about themselves being right – about themselves.
  4. They Got Defensive
    Job wasn’t exactly at his best. Some of what he said was agonizingly painful and enraged. When his friends failed to help, he told them so, though perhaps not in the kindest manner. Those friends, however, responded back with their own anger. Eliphaz accused him of arrogance. (15:9) Zophar admits that he feels insulted and says he can’t help but argue back. (20:3) Once you have to defend yourself, however, you’re no longer with or for the person you’re listening to, which makes listening futile. Zophar knew his hackles were up, but he didn’t set his offense aside for the sake of the relationship and of his friend, furthering the wedge between them.
  5. They Spoke Out Of Their Anxiety
    I’m admittedly making some assumptions here, and perhaps I’m wrong, but I note that the first seven days of this interaction were actually in silence. (2:13)  That was the most successful part of the exchange. Once Job spoke, however, they couldn’t help but say something in response. It’s as if they couldn’t bear to just let it sit anymore. That feeling of having to say something, of not being able to let things be, of having to fix something, it seems to me like it might have been a product of their own anxiety. Once they started speaking out of their anxiousness, though, at least some of their speech was to make themselves feel better. Once again, they were for themselves, at least in part, instead of for their friend.
  6. They Did Not Allow for Job’s Emotions
    Look, when we’re hurting or angry, we say stupid things. We don’t think rationally. “I should never have been born”? That’s pretty extreme. Rather than acknowledging, “Job is really hurting, and he’s speaking out of that pain,” the trio said, “You’re wrong, and let us show you why.” They didn’t let him be a little crazy despite the fact that almost everything around him had gone insane. A little understanding might have helped.
  7. They Simply Lost Empathy
    They had empathy at one point. They saw that Job’s pain was great, and they wept with him. (2:13. C.f., Rom. 12:15) Once they began their discussion, however, they no longer were weeping with him. They didn’t laugh with his jokes (admittedly at their expense). They didn’t get angry at the injustice he felt. They didn’t hurt with his loss. Listening requires that we be with the person, and that means emotionally especially. Again, there are appropriate times for confrontation, but there are also times where what is necessary is communion of hearts.
Listening is a skill that I suppose one could write entire books on. Many have, and many are worth reading. The more we are together in spirit, which is surely in part fostered by hearing one another’s hearts, the further along the journey we can go. When we love our brother well, maybe we can grow to love God in even greater measure.
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