Dealing with a Friend’s Grief: The Art of Saying Nothing

And they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.  (Job 2:13)

When dealing with a friend that is grieving over devastating loss, sometimes the best thing to say is nothing and the best thing to do is just being there.

Job’s friends get a lot of criticism for how they spoke to Job and well they should. Even God Himself was not happy with their counsel: “My wrath is kindled against thee, and against thy two friends: for ye have not spoken of me the thing that is right, as my servant Job hath” (Job 42:7b). Three of Job’s friends were clearly wrong in how they handled his grief and we are quick to point that out. What we are not as quick to point out is how we, too, can be like Job’s friends when dealing with our own friends in crisis.

Sometimes grief just needs a sounding board. (That means they talk, and we just listen.)

At the end of the seven days of silence, it was Job who spoke first, and he cursed the day he was born: “Let the day perish wherein I was born, and the night in which it was said, ‘There is a man child conceived’” (Job 3:3). This was his grief talking. Grief is not rational, it’s emotional. Can anyone really blame Job for feeling this way? His whole life was in ashes. He’d literally lost everything. Why would he not despair? At this point in Job’s agony it would have been best for his friends to have remained silent another seven days. When someone is feeling this emotionally overwrought, the best thing a friend can do is let the grieving person speak while you offer a shoulder to cry on. (The only exception would be if the person was threatening to bring harm to themselves or others.)

Proverbs Says More about Silence than Speaking

I have spent the past six years reading a chapter of Proverbs a day. For the first year and a half every time I read a verse about the fool, I could practically see my picture next to it. Sometimes I still do. What I have noticed in my years of reading that book is that Proverbs seems to have more to say about listening than it does speaking. It even goes so far as to say that when a fool holds his tongue he is esteemed as wise:

“Even a fool, when he holdeth his peace, is counted wise: and he that shutteth his lips is esteemed a man of understanding.”  (Proverbs 17:28)

Silence is golden – especially when someone is grieving. But silence is not an end in itself. A fool keeps silent because he has nothing to offer (Proverbs 24:7). He has nothing to offer because he really doesn’t listen well: “Speak not in the ears of a fool: for he will despise the wisdom of thy words” (Proverbs 23:9). He’d rather just listen to himself talk: “A fool uttereth all his mind” (Proverbs 29:11a). Contrary to the fool, the wise man reserves his words (Proverbs 29:11b). He listens intently to God and he listens carefully to others. If he is silent it because of his habit of measuring his counsel against the wisdom of God’s Word. He does not waste his time offering others his opinion. When he speaks, he speaks according to God’s wisdom.

Age and Influence do not Always Equate to Wisdom

While three of Job’s friends did a lot of talking, there was a fourth who’d come along to comfort Job in his grief who didn’t speak at all until toward the end of the book. His name was Elihu. Like a wise man, he waited before he spoke (Job 32:15), and when he did, it was according to God’s wisdom. He began by stating his anger against Job and his three friends for two reasons: 1) because Job “justified himself rather than God” (32:2) and 2) because Job’s other friends “had found no answer, and yet had condemned Job” (32:3). Then he makes a bold observation: “Great men are not always wise: neither do the aged understand judgment” (Job 32:9). In other words, influence and age do not automatically make someone wise. At the same time, youth does not exclude a person from wisdom.

Grief Needs to Meet the Majesty and the Goodness of God

After expressing his frustration with Job and his three friends, Elihu speaks for five chapters and his words are not empty. Job wanted to know why these things were happening to him and he wanted his “day in court” to plead his case. Elihu reminded Job of God’s majesty and goodness. He also reminded him of God’s sovereignty and power. It is what someone in grief needs to remember in the face of devastating loss. Because grief can lead us to strange and confusing places if we let it. We know Elihu was right to confront Job and to say what he said because immediately after Elihu speaks, God speaks and picks up where Elihu left off – and in the same manner! Elihu was never rebuked or corrected for what he said. God honored him by continuing his line of thought.

While It’s Natural to Ask “Why,” It’s Better to Ask “Who”

This is the approach Elihu took and the one God blessed. Who controls every detail of my life – including my calamities? Doesn’t Scripture say: “the steps of a good man are ordered by the LORD?” (Psalm 37:23) Who has my best interest at heart? Doesn’t Jeremiah 29:11 tell us: “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope (ESV)? Who knows my grief better than the Man of sorrows, the Man acquainted with grief, the Great High Priest Who knows “the feeling of our infirmities?” (Isaiah 53:3; Hebrews 4:15)

Timing is Everything

“Whoever sings songs to a heavy heart is like one who takes off a garment on a cold day, and like vinegar on soda.”  (Proverbs 25:20, ESV) Someone who is grieving doesn’t want to hear us quote a bunch of verses. Most of them don’t want to hear anything except maybe the words: “I am praying for you.” A person in grief will need some time alone, but they also need the assurance that they are not alone, that others are praying for and thinking about them. Speak only when the time is right (Proverbs 25:11). How will you know when the time is right? Most of the time the grieving person will let you know. They’ll be the ones to open up and start talking, and usually the person they go to is the one who spoke the least and listened the best.

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