What Not to Say
A look at what happens when using good theology goes awry
I hung up the phone in shock. I had called looking for comfort, maybe some sympathy. A man who had been a pillar in my life and a spiritual father to me had passed away suddenly within hours after arriving at the hospital with a persistent headache. I was devastated, and all I could think to do was call my best friend.
As I relayed the news, my friend was quiet. When I finished, the first words I heard were some of the most painful ever: “Now you know what it feels like.”
Years later I’m still not sure what point my friend was trying to make or why it seemed appropriate to make it at that time. What I do know is that those words hurt. Badly. I hung up the phone and prayed.
Sometimes it’s extremely difficult to know what to say to someone who is suffering. We try to be encouraging and helpful and to point out truth; yet it’s so easy to end up hurting that person even more.
But there’s a special category of terrible things to say to which we Christians are particularly susceptible: truth without wisdom. This category surfaces in the book of Job with the introduction of Elihu.
The Arrogant Young Theologian
When Job’s friends showed up and eventually argued with him for 27 chapters, claiming God gives people only what they deserve, Job refuted all their arguments until they stopped talking. That’s when Elihu is introduced in chapter 32.
An arrogant, brash young theologian, Elihu probably was with Job and his friends from the beginning, sitting with them for seven days and listening to their reasoning. When he decided to enter the conversation, he condemned Job’s friends for their ineffective arguments, claimed he learned his words from God Himself, and repeatedly belittled Job while pridefully extoling his own wisdom. Though he showed proper cultural deference by waiting for his elders to speak first (Job 32:4), once he opened his mouth, it was clear he thought little of Job and his friends.
However, Elihu’s discourse cannot be dismissed lightly. He gave four arguments in rapid succession against Job’s perspective on his suffering, starting each one by quoting Job before he attempted to argue against him; and each argument was based on undeniably true theology. That is, until he attempted to apply the theology to Job.
Elihu spoke truth about God. But he twisted it in a hurtful way. It’s as if he failed to realize how truth spoken without wisdom or compassion can hurt people who are already suffering.
In his first argument, Elihu claimed God afflicted Job to get him to confess some secret sin. It’s certainly true God uses suffering to teach and correct us, as Elihu said; and God rejoices in restoring those who repent (33:19–30). He does discipline us as a father disciplines his children in order to produce the “peaceable fruit of righteousness” (Heb. 12:3–11).
However, suffering is not always related to discipline. Elihu did not apply this truth accurately. Suffering isn’t always because God is correcting us or teaching us a lesson. Sometimes we suffer simply because we live in a sin-cursed, broken world. Sometimes we suffer because of natural consequences. Elihu’s words stung with the incorrect implication that God is the source of all suffering and that He might cavalierly hurt us to get His messages across.
Elihu’s second argument was straightforward, though even less helpful. He started by praising God’s justice and claiming God would never pervert justice. God, he argued, balances the scales of good and evil, giving everyone what his behavior deserves, never causing a godly person to suffer. Suffering and punishment are what evil people deserve. Consequently, Elihu contended that Job must be terribly wicked to be suffering so much. Elihu’s version of God’s justice is essentially what many people today call karma.
It is true God punishes sin (Ex. 34:6–7). His righteousness demands it (Rom. 6:23). However, we also know today that God punished our sin by pouring His wrath out on Jesus in our place. God never afflicts us with suffering to punish us for sin. Whatever we suffer as Christians, it is not punishment.
Elihu’s third argument claimed God did not answer Job because He never answers wickedly motivated prayers. This is true. When God says no to a prayer, it’s because the prayer doesn’t align with His character or will for us. God won’t answer the prayers of the wicked who pray for things against God’s will. But His silence did not mean Job was wicked. Elihu even implied Job’s suffering was God’s answer.
God not only hears prayer, but He also hears every cry and responds in the most righteous way possible. (See Genesis 21; 1 Kings 21:25–29; Jonah 3.) He hears our well-worded prayers and our guttural cries. And if we are truly Christians, there is no sin that can sever us from God’s love and faithfulness (Rom. 8:35–39).
In his final argument, Elihu told Job something many of us have heard again and again: God deserves to hear only praise, not questions or arguments. This view mixes truth with foolish application. It is true God deserves to be praised—and for all the reasons Elihu listed. He truly is all-powerful, incomparably greater and more majestic than anyone or anything. And someday He will receive all the praise He is owed from all creation.
But for Elihu to claim Job’s questions about his suffering were inappropriate because God deserves to be spoken to exclusively in hushed, theologically accurate tones was wrong and hurtful. God actually wants to hear all our questions and concerns (1 Pet. 5:7). It is not inappropriate to suffer loudly and emotionally as we wrestle with God. In fact, it’s probably better than parroting cold truth while harboring bitterness toward the Lord.
Truth With Wisdom
Bible scholars go back and forth about whether or not God introduced Elihu as His advocate. In chapter 42, God did not include Elihu when He said He was angry at Job’s friends because they spoke things of Him that weren’t true.
Does that mean everything Elihu said was correct? I don’t think so. The trouble with Elihu was that some of his theology was right, but his application was terrible. Elihu is a prime example of speaking truth without wisdom.
My three boys often fight (as boys do). Frequently, I’ll hear one say something like, “You’re so stupid! Horses don’t wear people shoes!” In those moments, my wife and I like to remind our kids gently that sometimes it’s better to be kind than to prove you’re right.
Hurling truth at someone with animosity is unwise. Of course, we want to stand for truth. But when a friend struggles with why God allows him or her to suffer so much, truth must be wrapped in kindness, mercy, and love.
Usually, we don’t need to explain the reason behind someone’s suffering, if indeed we think we know it. Our hurting friends might do better to have a buddy who sits with them among the ashes for days on end, silent and close, representing the presence of Jesus.
God did not answer all of Job’s questions when He finally spoke. Yet the book of Job ends with the uplifting reminder that God loves us, is present with us, and knows what He is doing—and, of course, that He is always good.