After experiencing loss and physical affliction Job is visited by three friends--Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar--who, after sitting with Job for seven days, try to speak words of comfort to him.
These friends are largely unsuccessful in this task. Job eventually calls them "sorry comforters" (16.2) and God eventually condemns their words.
Why did the words of Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar go so wrong?
Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar largely engage Job in a theological debate. Perhaps nothing more needs to be said. Is theological debate of any help to those who are suffering? Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar should have continued to sit with Job, silently and in solidarity with him. The minute they open their mouths things start to go wrong.
But what makes it worse is the particular theology the friends try to force upon Job. As noted in yesterday's post, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar believe in the theology of retribution, that God rewards the faithful and punishes the wicked. And given that Job is suffering Job must be wicked. So the friends set about trying to convince Job of his wickedness beseeching him to confess and repent so as to return to God's favor.
Basically, the friends try to blame Job for his suffering. It's all Job's fault. He's brought this upon himself.
No wonder Job calls them "sorry comforters." With friends like these who needs enemies?
How did Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar end up saying such cold, unsympathetic and brutal things? Why are they blaming the victim?
What went wrong?
What went wrong, according to Gutiérrez, is that Job's friends put theology before human experience. The friends begin with an abstract, intellectual theological system--the system of retribution in this instance, but any system is the point here--and then apply that system to human experience. The friends are trying to do theological algebra with human suffering. And this leads to cold, unfeeling, and inhuman words coming from the mouths of Job's friends. Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar suffer from what I've called orthodox alexithymia.
In contrast to the theological method of his friends, Job begins with and stays true to his experience. Human suffering is primary and regulates the quality of theological reflection. And by staying true to his experience--by privileging his suffering--Job is revealed to be the only one who speaks truthfully about God.
The speeches of Eliphaz and his companions take certain doctrinal principles as their starting place and try to apply them to Job's case...These men are competent, even if mistaken, theologians; they are convinced of their teaching but they are unaware that it has nothing to say to suffering human beings...The ineffectual nature of theology in dealing with suffering is powerfully articulated by Job:
[By contrast] Job likewise feels sure, not of a doctrine but of his own experience of life...There is something out of kilter in the doctrine being expounded to him.
Job is trying to understand how God is just to one who is suffering; he therefore refuses to don the straitjacket of the theology set before him...Over against the abstract theology of his friends he sets his own experience (and, as we shall see later on, the experience of others, especially the poor)...[Job] refuses to believe that the love his Lord has for him must necessarily follow the course outlined in the teaching that his friends have been setting before him with such arrogant assurance, perhaps because they are afraid of being left defenseless in the face of life if this teaching should collapse.
Job 16.2-6This is, perhaps, the most poignant and powerful statement about the limits of theology in the face of pain: "If I speak, my pain is not relieved; and if I refrain, it does not go away."
“I have heard many things like these;
you are miserable comforters, all of you!
Will your long-winded speeches never end?
What ails you that you keep on arguing?
I also could speak like you,
if you were in my place;
I could make fine speeches against you
and shake my head at you.
But my mouth would encourage you;
comfort from my lips would bring you relief.
Yet if I speak, my pain is not relieved;
and if I refrain, it does not go away."
Will our long-winded speeches never come to an end?
And what ails us that we keep on arguing?
Job's words are a criticism of every theology that lacks human compassion and contact with reality; the one-directional movement from theological principles to life really goes nowhere...Instead of speaking ill of the God in whom he believes, [Job] challenges the foundations of the prevailing theology...[Job] is convinced that the theological method of his friends leads nowhere but to contempt for human beings and thus to a distorted understanding of God."Job's words are a criticism of every theology that lacks human compassion."
May you, like Job, be such a critic.