Whenever I heard the story of Job as a kid, I’d get a giggle out of the term “miserable comforter” often ascribed to our titular forefather’s friends—Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar. It just seemed so funny to me! Later I learned it was because this is what we call an “oxymoron”—a phrase with contradictory terms in conjuncture. How could they be both miserable and comforters?
Of course, one way to look at this phrase is that they were miserable at comforting, but as I’ve grown up—and particularly as I’ve approached motherhood in the latter months of 2020—I’ve found I like the other interpretation better: people who try really hard to comfort you but in a way that just makes you feel miserable.
Turns out there is no shortage of people like this in the world…and they can smell a vulnerable first-time mom a mile away. No sooner did I first breathe my expectancy than I found myself bombarded by an endless stream of miserable comforts from well-meaning people.
“You think you’re tired now? Just wait until the baby’s born!”
“Oh, you’re going to enforce discipline? Make your kids eat what you cooked for dinner? Haha. We’ll see about that.”
“You’re going to want to get rid of your kid sometimes. You’ll even hate them on occasion. You think you won’t? Trust me. You will.”
Phrases like this dragged me down, down, down in the first trimester of my pregnancy. I started to feel exceedingly hopeless, dejected, like I was failing at something I’d barely begun…a bit like I’m sure Job must’ve when insisting on his pure intentions with God only to be smacked down with “Oh no, you’re hiding wickedness. You’ll see. Trust us. There’s evil in there somewhere. We know better the truth about your life.”
Miserable Comforters – Don’t Seek One!
The more I think about it, the more prevalent I realize miserable comforters can be. From friends of addicts gently ribbing them about how they’re going to suffer without that cig or drink and probably backslide getting on the wagon, to well-intentioned family members trying to “prepare” you for the next stage of life but actually making you dread it, to influencers of all shapes and sizes in our lives whose attempts to “console” us through their “hard-won wisdom” actually makes us just want to give up on what we’re striving for.
The thing is, miserable comforters, like Job’s friends, can sound really spiritual and righteous. If you look at the story on the surface, these dudes sound like they KNOW what they’re talking about. In fact, the first article I ever wrote as a tender 15-year-old for a Christian publication was about what great friends they were. I still remember the blush of shame when a spiritual mentor pulled me aside to gently explain I missed the point of the record entirely and that Job’s three friends talked a wise-sounding talk but completely missed the heart of God.
As always, we have the wisdom of Jesus to help put records like these in perspective. Look at the fruit among Job and his friends! Look at the fruit in your own life. Does the advice and direction you receive inspire you to do better, to succeed, to improve, and in turn, are your responses heard, considered, and worked into the conversation—is this an iron-sharpening-iron relationship? Or is it possible you’re surrounded by miserable comforters producing a harvest of despair, dejection, and hopelessness, where your replies are simply met with a condescending “You say that now” or “We’ll see about that” or “Sure, sure”, much like Job’s friends?
If you find your relationships err on the side of miserable comforter over iron-sharpening-iron that prunes for true growth, there’s one healthy thing you can do: time to set some boundaries! Where people’s opinions, and even their lived experiences, are weighing you down, you have the authority and the right to disinvite them from that space. Let them know kindly, lovingly, but firmly that their advice or input is not solicited and that you would like to avoid the topic in the future. If the person will not respect that boundary and continues to offer their opinion, it may be time to consider stepping out of the relationship. With prayerful wisdom and guidance, you can navigate this situation, even if it feels sticky and uncomfortable!
Miserable Comforter – Don’t Be One!
Also worth considering is, do we inadvertently—or even intentionally—take on the role of the miserable comforter ourselves? Do we take measures to fully hear and consider another person’s heart and stance in conversation, or are we obsessed with being heard for our “righteous” stance, our “pious wisdom”, to the point that we can’t even consider that there is a good reason our own Job is claiming a pure heart?
We must watch our own harvest and see what fruit we’re producing. I don’t think anyone wants to face God, now or on the Day of Judgement, and be rebuked for misrepresenting truth or hanging a millstone around someone’s neck—even with the purest intentions or certainty of self-righteousness. Who wants to hear from the Creator’s mouth, like Job’s three friends, “My anger burns against you…for you have not spoken of me what is right”? My heart stumbles just imagining hearing that from God!
Rather than being righteous and knowledgeable in our own eyes, let’s ensure we’re listening and taking all angles of a matter into account. Let’s not be quick to turn smug with a remark about how we know better; let’s be considerate of the conduct and position of others, so that we don’t incur the same kind of rebuke Job’s friends did—being miserable comforters ourselves and heaping up pain on their hearts instead of the comfort we seek to give.
How do we know for sure if we’re being a miserable comforter? I’m reminded of a lesson someone taught me as a freelancing editor: If your feedback makes someone want to give up on writing, you’re doing your job wrong. Similarly, if our breed of “comfort” engenders hopelessness, a sense of failure, shame, and broken-heartedness—essentially rubbing salt in the wound—then our approach most likely isn’t rooted in love or the other person’s betterment. We must search our hearts and motives and ask God to lead us to a place where we offer comfort and exhortation for the real betterment of the other person. Not for any selfish, self-assuring, self-aggrandizing reasons, etc.
Be a Godly Comforter—The Example of Proverbs
The Book of Proverbs offers so much great insight for wise living! One subject that comes up in multiple places, such as in chapters 11 and 25, is the concept of a word spoken at the proper time or with kindness. These things are likened to gold apples in silver settings or honeycomb that refreshes and soul and heals the bones. These are powerful images and allegories to show just how the right words, spoken at the right time, can lift someone else up!
And honestly, isn’t that what we should want to do? Even when counseling someone toward or away from a path, decision, belief, etc., we want to be constructive in our critique, not tearing them down with “the hard realities of life.” This usually serves to do nothing in the end but crush their spirit—which Proverbs also tells us “dries up the bones.”
What a marvelous contrast that is to the kind word that refreshes the bones! So let’s ensure that even if we have a bit of life-wisdom to share, we aren’t selling it in a such a way that it leaves those around us dispirited and broken-hearted. Let’s offer comfort with the right motives and in the right ways, means, and times—for the betterment, encouragement, and sound living of those around us! And let’s also ensure that we are receiving comfort and advice from those who want those things for us and are delivering them in a way that doesn’t break our spirit, but instead exhorts us to be prepared, wise, and well-planted.
Instead of the rebuke Job’s friends faced, let’s strive for the environment where God’s truth is shared in the most enriching way possible and His light represented accurately.
Godly comforters—may we know them, and may we be them!