When silence and compassion are enough.
by Kathleen R. Ruckman
There are times when silence is golden, when we are at a loss for words because, simply, any word chosen would be grossly inappropriate. Often in times of illness, suffering, and despair, silence and compassion are enough. An ancient story drives home this truth.
It’s the Old Testament story of Job, a blameless and upright man who feared God and shunned evil. But God knocked a hole in His hedge of protection around Job and gave Satan permission to wreak havoc in Job’s life — to prove his integrity, refine him like gold, and leave his story for us to ponder.
Job’s calamity began swift and hard as one after another, four frightened messengers delivered horrible news. In one day’s time, Job learned his 500 yoke of oxen, 500 donkeys, and 3,000 camels were stolen in a raid by enemies; 7,000 sheep (and Job’s servants) were struck by lightening and killed; and all ten of his children (seven sons and three daughters) were killed in a violent windstorm.
Job’s response? “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised” (Job 1:21).
Satan then attacked Job physically with painful boils from head to toe. These boils caused multiple symptoms and intolerable itching, which Job scratched with a piece of broken pottery.
Then Job’s wife told him to curse God and die. Job’s response? “Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” (2:10).
Again, Job revealed his integrity, and though he cursed the day he was born, he never cursed God. Yet in the midst of it all, no human being could have suffered more.
When three of Job’s friends heard of his calamity, each traveled from a different place to see him. Because of Job’s physical condition, however, they didn’t recognize him.
So they wept and tore their robes, signifying intense mourning and anguish. “Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was” (v. 13).
They identified with their friend by staying in the dump with him; they shared his grief in holy silence.
If only they had stopped there.
But then they opened their mouths, and more havoc broke loose for God’s suffering servant. Job’s friends became so busy talking about God, they forgot about Job — except to tell him he must have sinned to deserve such punishment.
The oldest friend, the formal Eliphaz, was a moralist and based his lectures on personal observations. “I myself have seen . . . ,” he said, telling Job his sin was the cause of his suffering.
Bildad, the argumentative legalist, was like a Pharisee with the same ideas as Eliphaz. His harsh words were full of good theology but wrong for the situation.
Zophar, the youngest of the three, was a know-it-all idealist. “Know this . . .” was his approach. He also told Job, though in other words, “It could be worse.”
Elihu, a younger friend who arrived later, waited to speak until the three older friends had had their say. He also talked too much, but he was quick to remind Job of God’s sovereignty. He spoke of God’s majesty: “Listen to this, Job; stop and consider God’s wonders” (37:14).
Where friends went wrong
Job’s friends were so busy thinking about what they wanted to say that they didn’t hear what Job had to say. Their lengthy diatribes must have sounded like grating noise to Job’s ears, when all he longed for was the peaceful “sound” of silence.
They refused to accept suffering as a part of God’s plan for Job. Instead, they put themselves in God’s place as judge and knower of reasons for suffering.
Sadly, they tried too hard. They didn’t understand that there is value in everything God allows in our lives. They didn’t know their first seven days of quiet compassion would have been enough. If only Job’s friends could have left us that legacy instead of the one we remember.
Benefits of silence
So let’s suppose for a moment they did. If each day represented a benefit for silence, here are seven reasons silence is far more compassionate than spoken platitudes.
Day 1: When I am silent, I can pray. I can ask God to give my friend strength, peace, and hope — and to find meaning in the trial. I can’t pray when I’m too busy talking.
Prayer invites God’s help and quiets the heart. Isaiah tells us, “In quietness and trust is your strength . . .” (Isaiah 30:15).
Day 2: When I am silent, I can listen when my friend wants to talk, and I can better understand the degree of pain my friend is enduring. I can also develop an empathy that shares my friend’s pain.
Sometimes for healing to begin, all my friend needs is a listening ear. “Everyone should be quick to listen [and] slow to speak . . .” (James 1:19).
Day 3: When I am silent, I can weep with my friend. Nothing cleanses more than tears. And tears are important to God: He sees each teardrop that falls and records it. King David wrote, “List my tears on your scroll — are they not in your record?” (Psalm 56:8).
Day 4: When I am silent, I can meditate on God and the Bible, and I allow my friend to do likewise. Focusing on Christ is the only way to achieve peace that passes human understanding. As God himself says, “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).
Day 5: When I am silent, my presence with my hurting friend is reassuring — just like God’s faithful presence in my life. David wrote, “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?” (Psalm 139:7).
Sometimes the best “conversation” is a quiet walk. A gift, like a basket of muffins left on the doorstep, speaks volumes when I don’t have the words to say. It assures my friend that I am available. I can call and say, “I’m here for you.”
Day 6: When I am silent, I exercise restraint, which the Bible defines as wise: “Wisdom reposes in the heart of the discerning and even among fools she lets herself be known” (Proverbs 14:33).
Job said it best when he rebuked his friends: “You are worthless physicians, all of you! If only you would be altogether silent! For you, that would be wisdom” (Job 13:4, 5).
Day 7: When I am silent, I allow my friend to hear the wise counsel of God, whether through a gentle whisper (1 Kings 19:12) or in the midst of a storm. In Job 38, God speaks to Job in the middle of a whirlwind, representative of his stormy trial. Jesus is the “eye” where all is calm; He waits to speak peace to the sufferer’s heart.
God reminds Job that He is sovereign over all the universe, that Job is merely a creature and God is the Creator who knows the reasons. Job humbles himself when he sees God for who He is, and he learns simply to trust.
At the end of the book of Job, God rebukes Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar and tells each of them to bring seven bulls and seven rams as a burnt offering for their sins. Then God commands them to have Job offer their sacrifice and to pray for them on their behalf.
The fourth friend, Elihu, was excluded, perhaps because of his youth; the older friends should have known better. And “After Job had prayed for his friends, the Lord made him prosperous again and gave him twice as much as he had before” (Job 42:10).
If only Job’s friends could have sealed their seven days of silent compassion with promised prayers and support. They could have just wrapped their arms around Job in a powerful silent gesture of God’s love.
Instead, their silence was broken, and Job was battered by the lectures, theology, philosophy, and endless chatter of friends who tried too hard — friends who lost touch with their original, God-given instinct for silence and compassion.
Scripture quotations were taken from the New International Version.
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