Job is the biblical poster child for acute suffering. When Satan makes a bet with God that the righteous and prosperous Job will cease to praise God in the absence of worldly comforts, God takes the bet and allows Satan to torment Job, to remove his wealth, kill his children and destroy his health. Job’s pain in the wake of these stacked losses is perhaps unimaginable to many of us.
But then again maybe we, or those we know and love, have indeed experienced this kind of agony. What unfolds next in the Book of Job can teach us a lot about how, and how not, to help those in dire anguish.
After Job’s children are taken from him, his wealth evaporated and his own body riddled with disease, he is still able to speak — and he speaks a lot. He addresses God. He speaks with his wife. He argues endlessly with his friends. Everyone in Job’s life seems to have an opinion on his situation, why it happened and what he should do. Through it all, Job’s way of coping is to consistently communicate, express and process: Who is he? What is anything? Why is this happening?
Like Job, many people struggling want more than anything else to be seen and heard. This is the first lesson we can take from the book. And like Job, all too often we are surrounded by peers who, often with good intentions, want to assist or fix us when what we need at the outset is for someone to listen and validate our feelings and experience. In fact, suicide prevention training by groups like ASIST teach us to think of this in three steps: first connect with our friend/peer, then once we connect we move to trying to understand their situation, and then — and only then — look to assist.
Job’s wife is, of course, already connected to him. But she doesn’t take time to understand his needs (perhaps because she too is suffering) and skips straight to the “assist” step — she suggests he should curse God so that he will die and his suffering will cease (Job 2:9). As grotesque, and perhaps dangerous, as we find Job’s wife’s advice, we can recognize that it is uttered out of love — even if it is sorely misguided. Nonetheless, it is the worst kind of example of someone trying to assist without taking the time to process and connect with the individual nor taking the time to understand where the person is and what they need.
This leads to another important point: Most people struggling, even those voicing suicidal ideation, don’t want to die — they just want the emotional pain to cease. “The suicidal person often feels like a burden to others, sees their pain endless, and suicide not as necessarily the best option but the only option,” explains Dr. Jonathan Singer, past president of the American Association of Suicidology (AAS) and associate professor at Loyola University Chicago School of Social Work.
Taking the time to connect, often just giving the struggling person an opportunity to talk, can help subside a bit of the pain. In fact, from our experiences, and those shared with us, we know that just one word, the opening “hello” spoken by a hotline crisis counselor, can often evoke the immediate response: “You know I’m suddenly feeling a lot better right now.” People find it soothing to be heard.
Don’t Make People Feel Too Different
After the difficult conversation with his wife, Job’s friends come to comfort him. At first, they sit in silence, waiting for him to speak. This is a beautiful example of being present. And when he speaks, they first just listen. But then they, too, begin to impose their own interpretations on his pain. They insist he must have done something wrong to incur such punishment. When Job denies this, they grow frustrated — and angry:
Bildad the Shuhite: “How long will you speak such things? Your utterances are a mighty wind!” (Job 8:2)
Eliphaz the Teimanite: “Your sinfulness dictates your speech, So you choose crafty language. Your own mouth condemns you — not I; Your lips testify against you.” (Job 15:5-6)
Job’s friends here are not merely being insensitive to his pain but isolating him as well. Their words suggest he is wrong and sinful. They become villains of the book, perhaps even more so than the Satan who proposed this tortuous experiment in the first place.
We are probably unlikely to accuse someone in agony of being sinful, but the words of Job’s friends contain an important lesson for us that is more subtle: We must be extra careful to not make someone who is suffering feel too different. Emotional pain has many roots, but is often exacerbated by “othering.” It’s painful enough to feel loss — it’s so much worse when in the process you’re made to feel alone or, God forbid, culpable or inferior. It’s perhaps no accident that at the end of the book God is so angered at Job’s friends that Job himself has to make sacrificial offerings to atone for them — they cannot redeem themselves.
Job Teaches Us to Help Ourselves
Job isn’t just a book that teaches us lessons on how to be a better ally or support for others who are suffering, it also has applicable lessons for our own struggling selves. Job teaches us that even the righteous struggle — undeservedly. Job teaches us that it’s OK to not be OK. Job teaches us the importance of articulating what we’re feeling — over and over again — and how that can sometimes be a path to healing. In the end, Job’s fortunes are restored and he is even given double is previous wealth and new children. They do not replace the ones who died, but they give him joy. In this way, Job also teaches us that even at our darkest times of deep loss, there may yet be moments of light we had no ability to expect somewhere further down the road.
If you, or someone you know is in a crisis, pleas call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (Lifeline) at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or text the Crisis Text Line (text HELLO to 741741). Both services are free and available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. All calls are confidential.