Comfort in Times of Loss

I wrote this for my class after a student passed away suddenly. Out of respect for privacy, I’ve removed the young man’s name.

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Ever since last week, we have endured the pain of loss. I cried with you—perhaps even cried on your shoulders—as we said goodbye to our beloved J—. At his funeral, his brother said, “Tonight, let’s not ask why, but rather ask who.” Who was J—? The answer to that simple question is what drives me to tears, because J— was a brilliant, adorable, joyful young man. If it were not for who he was, then we surely would not feel such deep and abiding pain when we think of him. We feel cheated—cheated out of our worldly time with our little squirrel—and the agony of that realization leaves us wondering how we can ever find comfort in this unfair world. I have to tell you—we can’t. If we look to the world, then we’re looking in the wrong place, because there’s nothing in the world that can soothe our hearts. We have to go beyond the world; we have to reach out to God. He’s the only one who knows how to comfort us when we are in tremendous pain.

We’re all a bit like Job in that respect because Job’s a man who knew tragedy. He lost his wealth, his servants, and his children. He was covered in sores from head to foot. By the time his three friends came to comfort him, they didn’t even recognize him. They wailed and wept and sat down in silence for seven days to mourn with him. Job knew misery, and yet, he’d done nothing wrong. God said that Job was blameless and upright—he was a good man…a good man who suffered badly.

Let’s just imagine that: his friends coming to comfort him. There’s Job, sitting not in his comfortable home, but rather upon a heap of ashes—garbage…dung…who knows? He’s sitting there scraping his crusty sores with broken pottery. The friends are still far away, so they squint to see a little better. One asks, “Is that Job? Is that really Job?” As they come closer, they realize that their friend is worse than they ever could have imagined. Job’s tears have etched trails through the filth on his cheeks. His serrated skin is peeled back in patchy layers. Job pretends not to notice when one friend turns and heaves because of the stench of Job’s rags. Another friend clenches his eyes shut just to refresh his vision, wondering if his eyes had deceived him. He looks again…just to be sure…and he’s devastated to see that his eyes are true. Job has lost everything…even his dignity. And when he finally opens his mouth, he curses the day that he was born. He rages against the night that allowed him to grow in his mother’s womb. Job knew pain and suffering in a way that I pray none of us ever will. But just like us, the thing that Job needed most was comfort. He desperately needed comfort.

His friends decided to give it. How do you think they made the attempt? Any guesses? Well, let me describe a few of their comforting responses:

  • Eliphaz accused him of being a dirty sinner. In fact, if Job wasn’t a dirty sinner, then surely his kids were. After all, God only destroys those who deserve it. Eliphaz reassures Job that if he’ll just repent, God will hear his pleas. Surely that will comfort Job.
  • Bildad, buddy number two, calls Job a big blow-hard…a wicked old wind bag. In fact, in Bildad’s logic, God hates evildoers…God obviously hates Job…and so it makes sense that God hates Job because Job is an evildoer. Again, we have a friend who advises Job to repent.
  • Now, Zophar tries a little different approach to comfort his friend. Zophar declares that God is just too mysterious for Job to ever figure out. In fact, a stupid person will get understanding just as soon as an ass is born a human being. At the very least, Zophar is calling his friend stupid. I’ll leave any other latent insults to your imaginations. Zophar recommends that even though Job doesn’t understand God, he should change his ways, because obviously, he’s doing something wrong.

So much for friendly comfort. But I think that’s one clear point of the Book of Job…to show us that our well-intentioned friends want to help us, but it’s hard for them to say the right things. As we float around in murky pools of grief, sometimes we find ourselves angry, sad, or exhausted; sometimes we even feel guilt when we realize that we are smiling or enjoying ourselves. Our friends, no matter how sweet they are, cannot call us away from the deep eddies that swirl us into continued sorrow. Grief is nothing if not authentic, and we’re only human. It’s hard to leave something as visceral and primitive as suffering.

God, though, is never content to leave us there, drowning. And just like He did for Job, He will show up for us as well, and he won’t sound anything like Job’s friends. When you are hunched over catching your tears in the palm of your hand, God won’t tell you that you’re a dirty sinner, and he certainly won’t call you an ignorant moron. Know why? Because He not only sees you, but He sees His Son as well. As Christians, we carry the image of Jesus within us. Thus, here is a critical difference between us and Job; make no mistake about it. God calls Job “a blameless and upright man,” the narrator declared that “Job did not sin,” and although Job’s friends accuse him of sin, God declares that they spoke falsely. I think that we all agree that we don’t generally go about announcing that we are blameless, upright, and sinless. But here’s the sweet part—Christ is. We are made righteous by our faith in Christ. It is not for us to boast on our own merits, for we have done nothing to bring ourselves into that state. Jesus suffered on our behalf in order that we might be brought into accord with God. God sees us because the light of His Son illuminates us. So, you are indeed worthy of God’s comforting presence…just like Job.

There are Bible translations that say after God appeared to him, Job repented. If that’s what happened, then Job should have just listened to his friends’ advice from the get go; if that’s what happened, then was God wrong in calling Job blameless and upright? That’s a troubling question. If you will allow me, I want to give you an alternative reading to that ending of Job that allows Job to feel the weight of comfort rather than the weight of repentance.

There’s a Hebrew word—nacham—and it appears over one hundred times in the Bible. It appears seven times just in Job. In six of those instances, the English translation turns nacham into comfort; yet, when it comes to that final time—when Job responds to God—translators say repent is a better translation. Now mind you, I don’t want to eradicate the word repent from every modern translation. Repentance has its place in our lives. I do, however, want you to think about what it would mean to have God show up when you are in a deep moment of tragedy…that moment when you just need peace to settle upon your bones and your flesh. What would it be like to be comforted by God? What would it mean to have God speak all the right words straight into your pain?

I would say that for Job, that feeling was the very antithesis of what Job felt when he was with his friends. In fact, Job called his friends, “miserable comforters.” It must have been truly refreshing to have God show up and grant him shalom (which means peace) in his despair. That’s because when God saw Job suffering—the very man whom God deemed upright—God didn’t demand repentance, but gave Job the consolation that only God can give. Job longed for comfort, and he pressed God to hear his case not only that he might be vindicated, but that he might finally receive peace for his mind and his body. When God shows up, Job finds the peace that his friends could never deliver.

Maybe, though, you might be thinking, “The Book of Job is probably 4,000 years old. Times have changed. Job wasn’t even a Christian.” Fair enough, but God remains heavily invested in comforting those who love Him. Remember the story about Lazarus in John 11? Jesus knew what He was about to do—that He would raise Lazarus from the dead. I mean we can agree on that point, right? No one here thinks that it was some kind of a surprise to Jesus that He was going to wake Lazarus? Alright, then why did Jesus weep? When Mary came to him, we are told that Jesus was deeply moved in the spirit and troubled. Why is he troubled? He knew that Lazarus would rise. Then, John writes that Jesus wept. Why? I mean, He knew that a miracle was about to “fix” everything. Here is God…on Earth…walking with His grief-stricken followers…knowing that He was about to bring them relief, but He is troubled and He’s crying. Only a compassionate God does that, because He feels the pain of his friends. How much differently would we read that story if John had written that Jesus came and waited to raise Lazarus until every person had repented of their sins? Picture that! “Now Mary and Martha, I have a great surprise for you, but first I need you to stop all that wailing so you can repent of sin.” That doesn’t sound like my God.

I’ve given you two instances of God comforting his followers—Job’s story is from before Christ, and Lazarus’s is from Christ’s time. I want to give you one more story to show you that God is not looking for repentance from His disciples during their times of mourning. Repentance is intrinsically woven into the life of a Christian, but it is not what is demanded from us when we are grieving. Give me one more opportunity to show you exactly what God wants to do for both you and me in this here and now.

Christ died on the cross, and afterward he suffered. He rose again and told his followers that He could not stay. He knew that they would be devastated, so He made them a promise: I will not leave you orphans…I will send the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, [who] will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you” [John 14:26]. Remember that Hebrew word, nacham…the one that could mean repent or it could mean comfort depending on translation? Well, now I want to give you a little Greek. The Advocate (who is the Holy Spirit) is a Greek word—parakletos—which means intercessor, consoler, advocate, or—yes, you guessed it—comforter. It’s one Greek word with lots of possible English translations. I personally prefer Comforter to Advocate because it sounds more personal to me. But isn’t it interesting that God didn’t send a judge or an accuser to press his friends for repentance when He knew very well that they would be deep in grief at the loss of their rabbi? Instead, He sends the Holy Spirit—the Comforter—to console them.

It’s in that very same passage that Christ says, “In that day you will know that I am in My Father, and you in Me, and I in you.” For that very reason, we are able to comfort one another even now. Remember I said at the beginning of this lecture that our friends will do and say the wrong things, even when their intentions are simply to help us through our grief? I also said that our friends are not capable of comforting us the way that God can. I haven’t changed my mind on that. What I need you to understand is that when your friends do succeed in comforting you, it’s not because they are worldly-wise or excellent grief counselors. My loves, you have to hear me on this one thing—someone in whom you find goodness, is someone in whom you have found God. Let me restate that in better words—Jesus said, “Why do you call me good? …No one is good—except God alone.” God has exclusivity on goodness. That simple truth will comfort you because everywhere you find goodness, you’ve found God. It doesn’t matter if it is in an atheist, an agnostic, or a non-Christian. The truth remains true; it doesn’t matter if the other person believes it or not. In this post-modern world of relativism, we are encouraged to find multiple truths. But in this case, there is only one truth, and the moment you accept that, the peace of God will embrace you.

Our flesh wars with the Spirit, and so it is our flesh that must repent of any evildoing. The Spirit that God gives—that eternal Comforter—does not repent. When we cry out to God from the depth of that Spirit—His Spirit—He hears us not as a judge waiting to condemn, but as our Father, who longs to console us. That’s why He showed up and addressed Job; that’s why Christ cried when he saw his friends weeping for Lazarus; that’s why he sent us the Holy Spirit when Jesus left our physical world.

We are not promised a life free of tragedy and grief. No one knows that better than us. We have, after all, just lost one of our own. I know that we have pain, but I also know that God hears us and bears that pain with us. He longs to talk to us, to cry with us, and to comfort us. In God, you’ll find a place to keep your memories of J— safe and alive. You’ll find peace in smiling again, and you’ll find joy in reminiscing about your old friend. I won’t say that you’ll never cry again, but when you do, God will hear the cries of your Spirit, and He won’t be content to watch from afar. He’ll want to be right in the midst of your pain…comforting you always.

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