Then Eliphaz the Temanite answered:
‘Can a mortal be of use to God?
Can even the wisest be of service to him?
Is it any pleasure to the Almighty if you are righteous,
or is it gain to him if you make your ways blameless?
Is it for your piety that he reproves you,
and enters into judgement with you?
‘Agree with God, and be at peace;
in this way good will come to you.
Receive instruction from his mouth,
and lay up his words in your heart.
If you return to the Almighty, you will be restored,
if you remove unrighteousness from your tents,
if you treat gold like dust,
and gold of Ophir like the stones of the torrent-bed,
and if the Almighty is your gold
and your precious silver,
then you will delight in the Almighty,
and lift up your face to God.
You will pray to him, and he will hear you,
and you will pay your vows.
You will decide on a matter, and it will be established for you,
and light will shine on your ways.
When others are humiliated, you say it is pride;
for he saves the humble.
He will deliver even those who are guilty;
they will escape because of the cleanness of your hands.’
Then Job answered:
‘Today also my complaint is bitter;
his hand is heavy despite my groaning.
O that I knew where I might find him,
that I might come even to his dwelling!
I would lay my case before him,
and fill my mouth with arguments.
I would learn what he would answer me,
and understand what he would say to me.
Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power?
No; but he would give heed to me.
There an upright person could reason with him,
and I should be acquitted for ever by my judge. -- Job 22:1-4, 21-23:7
What would you do if one of your good friends, maybe even your best friend, a person you looked up to, loved, respected and considered one of the really good people on this earth, suddenly lost everything including their family, their home, their livelihood, all their possessions and their health all at once? Wouldn't you run to them to try to comfort and help them in any way you could, even when you yourself felt overwhelmed by what had happened to them? That's what most folks would do, in a heartbeat. The guy named Job's friends were no different -- well, pretty much so.
Job was accounted as a righteous man. He was well-off financially, had a lovely family, lots of flocks and herds, a nice house, the whole schmear. Suddenly he found himself totally bereft -- house gone, flocks and herds gone, his family gone (except for his wife), and even his health left him. It was as if he were a lab rat, with as much say in the matter as a lab rat has as to whether or not he chose to participate. What he did have left, though, was friends to sit with him, talk to him, sympathize with him, cajole and encourage him, and offer advice, like good friends will do when another friend is in difficulties. Their names were Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar but they are better known as "Job's comforters," a phrase that has come to represent friends who appear to sympathize but whose "help" seems to be finding a place to lay blame for the whole thing. Now a good friend will never let you off the hook when you're at fault, but they will also give you the benefit of the doubt. Job's comforters really didn't; they were busy trying to get to the root of the problem as they saw it, namely, that Job done all kinds of wicked things and that God's only alternative was severe punishment. Job wasn't buying it because Job had faith in God and he knew he was innocent of all the charges his so-called friends laid on him.
It's hard to be accused of something I haven't done. It's bad enough when I did do it, but how much harder when I am innocent and no one will believe me. There have been times when it felt like even God had turned away and believed the accusations. I may not have had to suffer the way Job did, but just because I didn't lose everything, have boils and single-minded friends to contend with didn't mean I didn't suffer. Some wise person once said something to the effect that the worst problems in the world are mine because I have to deal with them and not someone else's problems. I didn't need friends to tell me it was God's punishment; I didn't believe God would punish me for something I hadn't done, just as Job didn't, but he wanted to plead his case anyway, and, I guess, so did I. I can't claim to be a perfect Job, but I hope I'm not a perfect Eliphaz (or Bildad or Zophar) either.
Job's story is probably an attempt to answer the old question of why bad things happen to good people. Job's comforters, like Eliphaz, probably represents the thinking of most people who need to have someone to blame when things seem to go so horribly wrong. Did a baby die? A poor family lose its house and all its possessions in a tornado or flood? Did a beloved wife and mother become terminally ill with a disease with no cure? Why would God exact such punishment on people who had done no harm and who simply wanted to live their lives as best they could? "It's God's will." I've heard that at countless funerals; I didn't really believe it then and I don't now. Maybe that sounds heretical or unChristian, but I have a high opinion of a God who not only created ethics but upheld covenants, even when those with whom the covenant was made didn't do their part. Sometimes bad stuff happens, but it is, as it was for Job, an opportunity to try the strength of my faith that God will always be there, in good and bad, and I simply have to recognize that and trust it. Job did, and in the end, he came out more wealthy, more healthy, more blessed with family and possessions than he had had before.
In my life I can choose to be a Job, with his faith and trust that God would hear his defense and find in his favor, or to be an Eliphaz (or Bildad or Zophar) who looks for why God would so punish someone and try to tease that reason out of the one who is in trouble. I can be a friend who encourages a friend to be honest, and I hope I can appreciate the friends that do the same for me. I can rejoice in the downfall of societal icons who are praised one day and whose indiscretions become front page news the next or I can remember that sin has its own punishment, no matter how great or unimportant the person and that there but for the grace of God go I. My choice now is how to respond to sin, disaster, trouble and pain -- mine and the world's. Job? Eliphaz? (Bildad? Zophar?) Which one is really me at any given moment.
In trouble or prosperity, God's still there. That's the one thing I can count on, even if friends (or so-called friends) insinuate otherwise. Good thing I have good friends. They may not always share my beliefs but they keep me honest, respect me enough to be honest with me, and remind me of God's presence simply by their own presence in my life.
Job should have been so lucky.
Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, September 8, 2012.