The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

WHEN A FRIEND'S LIFE TUMBLES IN
or "Is there anything I can do, anything at all?"

Delivered 10/19/97
Text: Job 38:1-7, 34-41
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

When a Friend's Life Tumbles In. Ever run into a time like that? Of course, you have. All of us have. An awful illness strikes, a home is destroyed, a sudden death in the family. How long would it take for you to think of a friend to whom something like that has happened? A second? Less? Probably. These things go on ALL the time. As the poet says, "Never morning wore to evening/ But some heart did break."(1) And we KNOW some of those hearts.

The book from which we read our Old Testament lesson, Job, is the story of a man whose life tumbles in. We are introduced to him in the first chapter as "blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil...seven sons and three daughters...seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred donkeys, and very many servants; so that this man was the greatest of all the people of the east."(2) Wonderful. Then he loses it all - property destroyed, business ruined, children dead, and finally his own body covered with sores. He sits on an ash heap in misery, tries to relieve the horrible itching by scratching broken pottery over his flesh, and is advised by his wife to give up: "Curse God and die."

Meanwhile, our hero's friends - Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite - hear about the horror story Job is living through, and, just as you and I would probably do, they come to the house to offer assistance. "Is there anything I can do? Anything at all?" As a matter of fact, there are some things we might learn about offering comfort and consolation to our friends from what we read here.

The first thing to note is that they came. There is such a thing as a "Ministry of Presence" that is important when disaster strikes, when someone's life is falling apart. Some communities are wonderful in responding to tragedy. Years ago, in my first church after seminary, I noted two inexplicable miracles in my Christian experience. The first had to do with money - I could never figure out how God works it so that I have more AFTER I tithe than before. I did not understand it then; I do not understand it now - I just know that it is true. The second was how it was possible that I could be called to a home immediately after a death in the congregation, dropping what ever I was doing to dash over, only to find that a dozen church members had beaten me there, half of them with a hot casserole, fried chicken, or a cake in hand. I still do not understand that. A miracle. Just as Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar did, they knew the importance of BEING THERE.

By the way, one of the ways you can be there is in the form of a LETTER OR NOTE. Years ago, following the death of my father, I received a note in the mail from Bert Yancey. As some of you may recall, Bert was a professional golfer who, by this time, had retired from the Tour and was now teaching. Bert and I were good friends - we did a daily radio show together. Christie had never played golf until she met me, so Bert taught her how to play; as a wedding present he gave us golf balls. Bert had also given my father some lessons when Dad and Mom had come down to visit. Bert's note simply said what a pleasure it had been for him to get to know my father and how nice it had been to have such a kind and gentle man as one of his students. Almost twenty years have gone by now...I still remember that letter.

A second thing to note about Job's friends once they arrived on the scene: as the scripture reports it, "They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great."(3) There were no pious platitudes or explanations about how this would somehow be "all for the best." They just SAT with him.

I recall a conversation with a colleague about a fellow minister who was routinely regarded as leaving a great deal to be desired in terms of the quality of his work. Don concluded the conversation by saying that, all the failings notwithstanding, he would never ever be able to think anything but GOOD about this fellow. You see, several years before, on the day Don's wife had heart surgery, Bob had come to the hospital waiting room and just sat - eight solid hours - so Don would not have to go through the time alone. Don never forgot it. Can you just SIT with someone whose life is coursing through troubled waters?

Back to Job. As the story progresses, we begin to learn that the legendary "patience of Job" which has become a cliché in our culture is a bit overstated. As might be expected from someone who has gone through one disaster after another, Job is VERY unhappy: "Let the day perish in which I was born...Why did I not die at birth...Why is light given to one in misery, and life to the bitter in soul, who long for death, but it does not come."(4) Job is hurting...BIG time.

What did Job's friends do? They listened. Good for them. One of the most helpful things a friend can do for a friend who is going through misery is LISTEN. In Presbyterian's Today last month, there was an article about helping people who are grieving.(5) It quoted David, a young widower with two school-age children. He said:

When you come to see us, be supportive and allow us to speak openly about our feelings. Resist the urge to speak about YOUR loss. We don't want to hear about it. This was our loss and we need to experience it in our own way. Be there to listen. Your willingness to listen is the most precious gift you can offer. The people I found most helpful made no attempt to distract me from my grief. They encouraged me to share my feelings over and over. It seemed that each time I told my story a layer of pain was peeled away and the intensity of bereavement was eased with each retelling.
Now we get to some lessons to be learned by watching Job's friends mess up. Enter Eliphaz. He takes two chapters to respond to Job's complaints and rebukes him by suggesting that it is inappropriate to question trials and tribulations which God uses: "Blessed is the [one] whom God corrects; so do not despise the discipline of the Almighty."(6)

Great explanation - all this mess is happening to you because God wants you to become a better person through it. Right! Have you ever said that to a friend whose life has just come crashing down? If you did, I hope they smacked you. For what it is worth, Job did not find Eliphaz' words helpful.

Enter Bildad (the shortest man in the Bible, they say... Bildad, the SHOE-HEIGHT...Awful! <grin>). "Wait a minute, Job. You KNOW that God is just. Nothing happens unless it is deserved. Maybe it is not your sin...perhaps it is the sin of your children...that is back of all this. One way or the other, once justice is served, all will be well again." Right.

That IS the way it works, isn't it? In your experience? Good people are rewarded with health, happiness, and a higher and higher standard of living. Evil people suffer untold tortures. Ministers ride in new Mercedes'; drug dealers hitchhike. Uh-huh. We would LOVE to have a world where justice prevails...and so would Job...but empirical observation says forget it.

A corollary to that would be a reminder to avoid concluding that everything that occurs has an explanation which satisfies us and can be explained on a bumper sticker. The Presbyterians Today article I mentioned earlier quoted a person who experienced two miscarriages within a short period of time. She said,

"I received all kinds of advice from friends, family and co-workers. Most of it was useless." Her recommendation: "Suppress any temptation to say, 'It was for the best,' 'It wasn't meant to be,' 'At least you can get pregnant,' or 'You're young; you can try again.' And please don't say, 'There was probably something wrong with the baby. This is nature's way.'"
The message here is to resist the impulse to give Bumper Sticker answers. Job would say they do more harm than good. If you feel you MUST say something (and as nature abhors a vacuum, so we seem to abhor silence), say things that validate feelings and convey your care: "I'm sorry..." "This must be very painful for you..." "What can I do?" "I want to help..." "Please call me at any time..." And be specific. Candy Lightner and Nancy Hathaway offer these insights in their book, Giving Sorrow Words:(7)
You might ask, Is there something I can do! But be prepared for the answer to be, "There's nothing anyone can do." In that case ask, What would you like me to do? And if that doesn't work, make specific suggestions. Do you want to talk? Would you like some company? Do you need to get out of the house? Would you like to walk around a lake? Would you like to take a drive? Would you like to see a movie? Sometimes your questions can help them clarify their needs.
We move on. Friend Zophar, who has apparently heard more than he wants to of Job's complaining. He tells his pal flat out that whatever has happened, he DESERVES! No pussy-footing around on this one. You made your bed, now lie in it. Now THERE is a word of comfort!

In a strange way, Zophar's analysis is shared by many who endure awful tragedy. At a recent funeral for a suicide victim, the minister (who happened to be a close family friend for many, many years) reflected the concern no doubt shared by other friends and family: "Is there anything I could have done or said to have prevented this?" His conclusion was "Probably not," but the question still haunted him, as it no doubt will especially haunt this woman's husband and 12- and 14-year-old children, whether it ought to or not. Ten years ago, Tammy Faye Bakker - another theologian from the school of Zophar - suggested the reason that Hurricane Hugo hit Charlotte was because of the mean treatment her husband Jim had gotten in that city's press. A Charlotte disaster because Charlotte deserved it. However, Tammy Faye failed to explain why the hurricane damaged the steeple of First Presbyterian Church while leaving the Charlotte Observer building untouched. No question, some tragedies are needless and preventable; others are not. No matter. Keep your theological judgments to yourself.

Job is still not satisfied (nor could I imagine that you or I would be either). His friends continue to offer pious rationalizations, but none persuade him. On and on this goes. And, for what it is worth, there is a lesson here as well: namely, that tragic situations are not quickly put behind us. Those who know say it takes someone who has lost a spouse or a child as long as three years before they experience more good days than bad. Sometimes it takes months before even the most routine chores can be handled adequately. The word is, when a friend's life tumbles in, BE PATIENT.

Back to Job. If God is behind this misery our hero is going through, then Job wants the chance to confront this Deity, if not to have an opportunity to plead his case, then at least to hear some rationale for all this pain and suffering.

Cut to the climax. Job gets his wish - a meeting with the Almighty. But instead of an explanation, Job gets an explosion:

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements -- surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?
Clouds, rain, lightning, lions, ravens. On and on an indignant God goes...three chapters worth, not of answers, but wilderness appreciation...until finally Job whispers, "I spoke foolishly, Lord. What can I answer?" By the end of story Job could say, "I despise myself [I am ashamed], and repent in dust and ashes."(8)

The conclusion of this intriguing story is that you had better be careful about coming to a conclusion about this intriguing story...or ANY intriguing story, for that matter, especially the story of a friend's life that has come tumbling in.

There are approximately 2.1 million widows and widowers in this country. Of those, more than 550,000 have young children to raise.(9) How many others have had lives come crashing down because of a disastrous fire or flood? How many more have been devastated by the premature end of a career? Whether they are grieving because of these events or some other, they need the gentle support of their friends...you and me.

When a friend's life tumbles in. Is there anything I can do, anything at all? Yes, there is. Be there, in person or with a note. Listen. Offer specific suggestions of things you can do. Be patient. Be incredibly careful about easy explanations. Then one final bit of advice: pray. I wonder if Eliphaz, Bildad or Zophar ever prayed for Job. I hope so. When a friend's life tumbles in, lift them up to the Lord in prayer. Ask God to give them strength and stamina; ask for the presence and power of Jesus Christ in their lives; ask for the sustenance of the Holy Spirit. With the help of kind and caring Christian companions, the one whose life has tumbled in can get through the rubble, pick up the pieces, and begin to live once more.

Amen!


1. Tennyson, "In Memoriam"

2. Job 1:1-3

3. Job 2:13

4. Job 3:passim

5. Victor M. Parachin, "When a Friend Needs You: Eight ways to help people through the experience of grief," Presbyterians Today, Sept., 1997, pp. 27-29

6. Job 5:17 NIV

7. Lightner & Hathaway, Giving Sorrow Words : How to Cope with Grief and Get on with Your Life, (New York, NY : Warner Books, 1990)

8. Job 42:6

9. Parachin

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