WHEN JOB RESPONDS TO ELIPHAZ’S second speech, his opening words are scarcely less tempered than those of his opponents—though doubtless with more provocation (Job 16-17): “I have heard many things like these; miserable comforters are you all!” (Job 16:2). Ostensibly they have come to sympathize with him and comfort him (Job 2:11), yet every time they open their mouths their words are like hot, bubbling wax on open sores. From Job’s perspective, they make “long-winded speeches” that “never end” (Job 16:3). Job insists that if their roles were reversed he would not stoop to their level; he would bring genuine encouragement and relief (Job 16:4-5).
There is a way of using theology and theological arguments that wounds rather than heals. This is not the fault of theology and theological arguments; it is the fault of the “miserable comforter” who fastens on an inappropriate fragment of truth, or whose timing is off, or whose attitude is condescending, or whose application is insensitive, or whose true theology is couched in such culture-laden clichés that they grate rather than comfort. In times of extraordinary stress and loss, I have sometimes received great encouragement and wisdom from other believers; I have also sometimes received extraordinary blows from them, without any recognition on their part that that was what they were delivering. Miserable comforters were they all.
Such experiences, of course, drive me to wonder when I have wrongly handled the Word and caused similar pain. It is not that there is never a place for administering the kind of scriptural admonition that rightly induces pain: justified discipline is godly (Heb. 12:5-11). The tragic fact, however, is that when we cause pain by our application of theology to someone else, we naturally assume the pain owes everything to the obtuseness of the other party. It may, it may—but at the very least we ought to examine ourselves, our attitudes, and our arguments very closely lest we simultaneously delude ourselves and oppress others.
Most of the rest of Job’s speech is addressed to God and plunges deeply into the rhetoric of despair. We are unwise to condemn Job if we have never tasted much of his experience—and then we will not want to. To grasp his rhetoric aright, and at a deeper level than mere intellectual apprehension, two things must line up: First, we should be quite certain that ours is innocent suffering. In measure we can track this by comparing our own records with the remarkable standards Job maintained (see especially chaps. 26-31). Second, however bitter our complaint to God, our stance will still be that of a believer trying to sort things out, not that of a cynic trying to brush God off.