When a person is suffering, they sometimes need a pat on the back or a get well card. They also sometimes need an encouraging verse of Scripture. But one thing that suffering Saints always need is presence. When you don't know what to say or write to that suffering friend, then don't say anything. Just be there. It will make all the difference.
The Ministry of Presence
If you’re at least 35 years old you probably remember a lady by the name of Erma Bombeck. She was one of the most successful syndicated columnists during the mid to late 1990’s.
Erma ran a syndicated column about the normal affairs of life for mothers and wives and housewives. She used her sense of realism and humor to encourage women, allowing them a vicarious opportunity to say what they thought; back then, most women weren’t necessarily invited to speak their mind.
Although Erma was loyally and lovingly committed to her husband and children, her frank honesty raised eyebrows. For instance, her book, “Families Who Play Together Get Irritated With Each Other” got a lot of attention!
It was her book entitled, “The Grass is Always Greener over the Septic Tank” which made her a household name.
She spoke for millions of women when she sarcastically opined, “If a man watches three football games in a row, he should be declared legally dead.” Women had found an advocate . . . who dared to say what they were thinking.
Erma Bombeck died from cancer in 1996. When she found out she was dying, she wrote a column that someone emailed to me several years later.
The column is entitled, “If I Had to Live My Life Over”
- I would have listened more and talked less.
- I would have burned the pink candle sculpted like a rose before it melted in storage;
- I would have taken the time to listen to my grandfather ramble on about his youth;
- I would have shared more of the responsibility carried by my husband;
- I would never have insisted the car windows be rolled up on a summer day because my hair had just been fixed;
- I would have sat on the lawn with my children and not worried about grass stains;
- When my kids kissed me impetuously, I would never have said, “Later . . . now go wash up for dinner;”
- There would have been more “I love you’s” and “I’m sorry’s” . . . but mostly, given another shot at life, I would seize every minute; we only have one shot at life and then it’s gone.”
- I would spend more time thinking about what God had given me than what I didn’t have.
Ironic isn’t it? Some of the best lessons about life are learned in the face of death.
In a previous study, I asked members of our church to send me their own personal lessons, learned after their lives experienced that “39 Seconds” of radical change – that period of time we have referred to as the length of time it took for Job to hear the messengers who came, one after another, telling him that he had lost everything and nearly everyone.
My request prompted several people to write; one woman’s story included her husband being killed while a crime was being committed; another person struggled with the loss of his father who died suddenly.
One young man in our flock learned some profound lessons as a result of unexpected changes.
He and his friend had been dropped off by a small super cub airplane in the wilderness of Alaska to hunt moose. They were experienced hunters and had carefully planned the expedition, including all the gear they would need for their hunt as well as a satellite phone. At the last minute they’d decided to rent the phone and bring along.
On their last day of the hunt, he spotted a bull moose and fired off one round. The moose didn’t go down but instead started toward him. He reloaded his shotgun and fired, and then felt intense pain. He looked down and noticed the gun had literally broken in half – one half had crashed back into his face, severely lacerating his face and crushing one of his eyes.
After the accident and the rather amazing rescue by Army soldiers and an Army helicopter – thanks to that satellite telephone – while going through intensive surgery, recovery and still wondering about his impaired vision, he wrote out a list of questions:
Questions that would produce life-lessons in the face of suffering and his close call with death;
- What am I doing?
- Where am I going?
- What does God want me to do?
- What does God have in store for me?
- What should I do with God’s blessings?
- What should I do with God’s trials?
- Will I become resentful?
He concluded his thoughts by adding, “My only hope is the righteousness of Jesus Christ . . . I am of little strength . . . Lord, please, help me.”
How do you answer someone who asks such profound questions? How do you become a part of God’s solution in the life of someone immersed in sorrow – to someone who has recently been diagnosed with something terminal and would love to have another shot at life?
I want to encourage you at the very outset of this chapter that everyone in the body of Christ qualifies to be an expert assistant to the suffering.
You don’t have to be brilliant – persuasive – articulate or experienced.
You can simply be involved in what we’ll call, The Ministry of Presence. Through the ministry of presence, you can have a tremendous influence on the hurting. You don’t need to be ordained or certified.
You don’t have to be anything – but available. It’s still true; the greatest ability is availability.
Let’s watch it happen in the life of Job, a man shrouded in deep sorrow.
By the way, these last few verses of Job chapter 2 show us exactly when – and how – the counselors of Job got it right.
Now when Job’s three friends heard of all this adversity that had come upon him, they came each one from his own place. Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite; and they made an appointment (a pact) to come together to sympathize with him and comfort him (2:11)
They dropped everything, contacted one another and said, “Let’s go to our friend in need and comfort him.”
The first friend mentioned in the text is Eliphaz. He’s mentioned first, more than likely because he was the oldest.
In each of the cycles of speeches made by these three men, and later by a fourth man who joins them, it’s always Eliphaz who speaks first.
He alludes to himself in chapter 15 as a grey-haired aged man, much older than Job’s own father. If Job was around 50 years of age – with 10 grown children – Eliphaz may have been anywhere from 75 to 80 years of age.
William Henry Green, Conflict and Triumph (Banner of Truth Trust, 1999) p. 57; first published in 1874
Add to that the fact that verse 11 of chapter 2 informs us that Eliphaz was a Temanite. Teman was famous for its wise men and their profound sayings of the east.
Jeremiah the prophet alluded to that when he wrote, “Is there no longer any wisdom in Teman? Has good counsel been lost to the prudent? Has their wisdom decayed/or vanished? (Jeremiah 49:7)
Obadiah verse 8 also referred to the wise men of Teman.
His name meant, “God is fine gold” and he would have been, more than likely, a powerful chieftain from this area of southern Arabia.
John E. Hartley, New International Commentary on the Old Testament: Job (Eerdmans, 1988), p. 85
Wealthy enough to travel - revered and respected in his own right – he is one of Job’s friends.
Of all the other men, Eliphaz will deliver not only the first, but the longest speeches. God will later, in chapter 42, refer to him as the representative of the other counselors.
Adapted from Roy Zuck, Job (Moody Press, 1978), p. 20
So, picture in your mind a grey haired man; a man of wealth, dignity and experience arriving at the scene of his friends despair.
The next man is Bildad the Shuhite (verse 11).
Bildad doesn’t show up anywhere else in the Bible, although other documents speak of Suhu, located on the Middle Euphrates river. This was the region named after Abraham’s youngest son, Shuah.
It’s possible that Bildad and Shuah knew one another and, if so, Bildad could have gleaned incredible life-lessons about the God of Abraham from Abraham’s youngest son.
What we do know is that Bildad was a friend of Job. That alone speaks highly of him, serving as an excellent reference for his own character.
The third and final friend mentioned is Zophar the Naamathite (2:11).
Zophar means “young bird” and he probably was the youngest member in this trio of friends. He originated from Naamah – a region most likely named after the great-great-great-great-great- granddaughter of Cain.
Many believe that Zophar’s home was between modern day Beirut and Damascus.
NICOT, p. 86
Keep in mind that Job lived during the days of the patriarchs. Many of these men were his contemporaries. It is likely that Job was known and respected by all who followed after the God of the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
These three friends heard the devastating news – which took some time to reach them – contacted one another – which took even more time to correspond back and forth – and agreed to come together to encourage Job.
One author said that if you one friend who would drop everything and come running during your time of need – that would be wonderful; but to have three friends like that, was truly amazing.
Adapted from Mike Mason, The Gospel According to Job (Crossway Books, 1994), p. 49
Frankly, we have no idea how long it took to find Job. Perhaps they first came to his home and asked for him. Maybe it was one of the remaining servants of a now windswept and desolate estate who pointed the way to the city dump.
The implication here is that someone indeed pointed Job out to them because of their shocked response. When they lifted up their eyes at a distance and did not recognize him, they raised their voices and wept (2:12).
Perhaps it was Job’s wife who led them to where Job was sitting in the ashes at the town garbage heap.
The text indicates that someone had to point him out – he was unrecognizable – “Look, that man, sitting over there, that’s Job.”
“It can’t be . . . that’s impossible!”
The Hebrew text (Hiphil perfect) implies that it wasn’t so much that these men doubted it was Job, it was simply that this man sitting on the ash heap did not look anything like Job.
“How can this man be the same man we last saw?”
“It’s true” their guide pointed at him from a distance; “that man with his cracked skin and open sores – that man scraping away at himself, moaning in unspeakable pain, suffering from fever and nausea, whose beard is now tangled and matted, his eyes sunken, encircled with dark bands – that man whose clothing is tattered and caked with blood and dirt – that indeed is Job . . . your friend.”
Job’s Three Friends Responded in Five Actions:
1. They raised their voices and wept (v. 12).
The Hebrew text informs us that these men literally wailed in grief and shock.
2. They tore their robes (v. 12).
Just as Job had done earlier to represent his broken heart, they also tore their robes in like manner, from the neck downward toward their hearts – representing the brokenness of their own hearts.
3. They threw dust over their heads toward the sky (v. 12).
This custom merely identified with Job in his great sorrow. Since he had been unable to bathe and had grown filthy, they would join him by soiling their own hair and clothing.
4. They sat down on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights (v. 13).
Seven days and nights was the customary period for mourning the dead.
- The Men of Jabesh Gilead mourned the death of King Saul for seven days. (1 Samuel 31:13)
- Joseph mourned for his father Jacob for seven days after Jacob died in Egypt. (Genesis 50:10)
These men are not simply mourning Job’s condition they are mourning the death of Job’s children.
And that’s not all. Even though the seven days of mourning for the loss of Job’s family and servants eventually expire, out of great respect for their friend, they hold an impromptu, private memorial service in honor of Job’s intense suffering and pain.
5. With no one speaking a word to him, for they saw that his pain was very great they remained silent (v. 13).
When Job’s Counselors Got it Right!
1. They identified with his sorrow;
If Job’s hair and clothing is dirty, we’ll get dirty too; if Job is sitting on the ash heap at the town dump, we’ll sit out here with him, too.
We’ll refuse to worry about all the stares and questions from people who come to watch.
2. They joined him in his grief;
Earlier in verse 11 we’re told that these friends came to sympathize with him.
The Hebrew verb means much more than a quick hug. To sympathize, or console, means to literally to “shake the head or to rock the body back and forth” as a sign of shared grief.”
NICOT, p. 85
You might do that today when you hear the news of someone’s 39 seconds of unexpected suffering. All you can do is cover your mouth with your hands and shake your head and rock back and forth in stunned silence and sorrow.
That’s what they did with Job for seven days and seven nights.
You don’t find Job crying alone; here’s four grown men, crying together at the city dump.
Another key word in verse 11 is the word comfort, and additional motive in their coming to visit Job.
Someone who comforts is someone who seeks to share the pain as well as lend a hand to physically and tangibly provide aid to the sufferer.
Isaiah used the word to refer to a mother tending to the needs of her helpless child and thus comforting him. (Isaiah 66:13)
This is the person who tenderly cares for the needs of the grieving; whether it’s tending to literal wounds, or cooking a meal, or cleaning a house or caring for another child or cutting the grass or paying the rent . . . these actions provide true comfort.
This also represents true religion. False religion says, Be warmed and filled.
True comfort, in the Biblical sense, puts on overalls, swings a hammer, washes dishes, writes a check and carry’s over a meal.
True comfort in this text is seen in three friends sitting down at the dump, in the ashes, surrounded by rotting garbage, with Job.
Have you ever been to the town dump? Have you ever driven out to a landfill to drop off a truckload of trash? Drive over sometime . . . and try to take a breath. If the smell of rotting garbage and the screeching of birds doesn’t make you want to drive away in about seven minutes, I can’t imagine seven hours. I certainly can’t imagine staying there for seven days.
You’d probably not even consider eating a meal out there, or curling up to sleep through the night.
They did . . . for seven days and seven nights.
3. They showed respect for his grief
They are mourning with Job over the death of his children and servants. They are mourning the loss of financial assets, a home and businesses.
They aren’t watching him weep. They raised their voices and wept (verse 12).
Anyone who exercises the Ministry of Presence does that.
Have you ever noticed that no one is ever invited to a funeral; invitations are never mailed out.
Adapted from Charles Swindoll, Job: A Man of Heroic Endurance (W Publishing, 2004), p. 50
Word spreads, and true friends just show up. And if they can’t come – they send flowers, notes or cards to communicate to the sufferer, “Listen, count me in; I want to show my respect and awareness of your grief . . . and I’m weeping with you.”
4. They allowed Job to speak first;
Don’t miss this . . . underline it in your mind . . . they let Job speak first.
Warren Wiersbe applied this passage in Job by writing; “The best way to help people who are hurting” is just show up; say little or nothing; don’t try to explain everything because explanations never heal broken hearts.
Adapted from Warren Wiersbe, Job: Be Patient (Victor Books, 1991), p. 21
How quickly do we speak when in the presence of someone suffering . . . as if our words of wisdom will provide an explanation to take away the pain.
Ministers of Presence wait . . . watch . . . weep . . . and then listen.
5. They earned the right to speak by their faithful presence and concern
Abraham Lincoln once admitted that he often regretted his speech, but he’d never regretted his silence.
And here’s the good news; in order to exercise a Ministry of Presence, you don’t have to have everything – or anything – figured out. The grieving aren’t looking for answers at the moment anyway.
You can be positively inspiring by your silence; truly ministering without one word . . . offering the gift of sacred silence.
Now before we leave this profound scene where three dignified, wealthy, revered men sit in the dust with their weary, suffering friend, let’s apply some practical lessons regarding this profound Ministry of Presence.
How to Ensure an Effective Ministry of Presence
1) Reject the view that quoting scripture will eliminate sorrow.
This thinking pontificates, “You haven’t represented truth if you haven’t quoted scripture.”
While the Apostle Paul declares the sufficiency of scripture to meet every need, the Book of Proverbs encourages the timely use of it.
Solomon recorded, “Like apples of gold in settings of silver is a word spoken in timely circumstances.” (Proverbs 25:11).
In chapter 15 and verse 23, he wrote, “A man has joy in an appropriate answer; and how delightful is a well-timed word.”
Don’t walk into the presence of some Job and say, “Guess what I read this morning in my quiet time . . . man, this verse was perfect for you; oh, by the way, I got you this coffee mug with a smiley face on one side and a picture of the cross on the other.”
The Bible isn’t a band-aide; so don’t go around, sticking your favorite verse on the suffering, believing it will somehow eliminate their pain.
Scripture is not an aspirin for the suffering; “Here, take two of these with a cup of tea in your new smiley face mug and call me in the morning.”
Physical injuries take time to heal . . . so do internal injuries of the heart.
What the sufferer needs is the truth of scripture demonstrated in and through your life as you minister to them with your presence, first and foremost.
2) Refrain from the temptation to say something profound.
You might think you have to come up with that special nugget of truth in order to help; that you’ve got to be able to summarize the work of God in a sentence or two.
The truth is, suffering often exposes us to the mystery of God . . . not an explanation from God.
Romans 11:33 – How unsearchable are God’s judgments and unfathomable His ways
1 Cor. 2:16 – For who has known the mind of the Lord that he will instruct Him?
Proverbs 25:2 – It is the glory of God to conceal a matter
Here we are, running around trying to glorify God by explaining while He intends to be glorified by concealing.
We’ve got to learn to say, “I have no idea what the Lord is doing – but I know He loves you and I want you to know I love you too, and I’m here for you in everyway possible.”
Christians naturally have a hard time not coming up with answers. Especially pastors. Imagine somebody calling me up, pouring out their story of suffering and then asking me for an explanation. How good do you think it’ll go over if they hear me say, “Man, I haven’t got a clue . . . I am completely stumped.”
They’d probably start a petition to have me replaced.
By the time you get to the end of Job’s story, Job had demanded that God provide an explanation; instead, God responded with His attributes.
Job wanted a premise to support God’s action; God declared His power behind the action.
3) Refuse any expectation of eliminating grief by your insight or wisdom.
If you haven’t learned it by now, learn it here in this scene. You don’t eliminate sorrow, you share it.
Sharing sorrow has a unique way of lightening the load.
First, get rid of the idea that mature believers never grieve; that solid Christians never break down and cry.
If that were true, Jesus Christ was shallow; when He showed up at the tomb of Lazarus, He literally “burst into tears.” (John 11:35)
Lalanne – I added this footnote Fritz Rienecker & Cleon Rogers, Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament (Regency, 1976), p. 245
4) Resist the perspective that you must speak in order to express love.
When the Lord finally showed up at Lazarus’ grave, he could have preached a sermon on His love for Lazarus. He could have made sure everyone knew how much He cared for His friend.
But when He chose to weep instead of speak, the people said to each other, “See how He loved him.” (John 11:36)
The Ministry of Presence is so powerful because you don’t have to say anything. You just stopped everything and drove two hours to be by the side of the sufferer.
In Chuck Swindoll’s commentary on Job, he quoted from Joseph Bayly’s book entitled, “The Last Thing We Talk About.” Joe and his wife Mary Lou, lost three of their children. They lost one son following surgery when he was only 18 days old. Their second son died at age five from leukemia. They lost a third son at age 18 after a sledding accident. He writes, “I was sitting, torn by grief. Someone came and talked to me of God’s dealings, of why it happened, of hope beyond the grave. He talked constantly, he said things I [already] knew were true.
I was unmoved, except I wished he’d go away. He finally did.
Another came and sat beside me for an hour and more; listened when I said something, answered briefly, prayed simply and left. I was moved. I was comforted. I hated to see him go.
Swindoll, Job, p. 53
That’s the power of presence. You don’t have to be brilliant, articulate, scholarly, seasoned or winsome.
You just show up . . . and effectively begin to offer the amazing Ministry of Presence.