Listening and Perceiving: Job’s Friends and Pastoral Care

June 01, 2016

Listening and Perceiving: Job’s Friends and Pastoral Care

In the biblical book of Job, we see the upright and prosperous Job reduced to abject misery as the blessings of his life—his children, his livestock, and his health—are stripped away one by one. Unlike Job and the other people in the story, readers know that God has permitted Satan to test Job, to see if his faithfulness is contingent on the good life God had blessed him with. Will he curse God now that these blessings have been taken away?

Job’s friends arrive on the scene in chapter 2, and we expect them to provide comfort and spiritual sustenance to Job. As we read, though, it becomes clear that Job’s suffering is aggravated not alleviated by their presence.

What is it, exactly, that they get so wrong? Job’s friends provide a powerful negative model of how not to care for someone who is suffering, and this provokes us to ask what good care might have looked like.


… to Others

Christian care is offered in the context of relationships. An offer of pastoral care is, first of all, an offer to listen deeply to another; to listen with an ‘as if’ quality, as if the thoughts and feelings that I am hearing are my own, yet without my own anger, fear or confusion getting in the way. Not many of us are naturally good at empathy of this quality, but most people can learn. Pastoral carers need empathy and imagination to help the other find words for their experience and suffering.

To listen to another’s story does not require that we agree or approve of everything that is said: it is their story not ours. We invest in trying to understand events from their perspective, and get a feeling for how they are feeling in the circumstances. Listening is an act of hospitality on our part, giving our time, attention, emotion and patience.

Good listening is two-way communication, and involves reflecting back, accurate paraphrase, productive question and perception check.[1] We cannot know how to respond if we have not first heard the questions.

… to God

We are able to stand in this place because just as Christ has comforted us, we in his strength are also able to comfort others, with the hope of being able to share the comfort we ourselves have received from Christ. Chaplains have skills in their particular field, but essentially the ministry is a relationship that flows from Christ.

Pastoral carers speak on behalf of God to another. The care we offer will, therefore, be reflective of our own relationship with God (or a projection of what we think it should be). We seek to share the God who is there, and to represent him accurately. But what we communicate will be our understanding of God, and we therefore need to be mindful of the danger of distortions in our own thinking, which may be transmitted to another person.

Our own devotional life influences our ministry in profound ways. Deborah van Deusen Hunsinger’s Pray without Ceasing[2] leads us to conclude that in any pastoral encounter, our first response should be to turn silently, or privately, to God in prayer: prayer for the person that we are visiting, and for ourselves, that we might have wisdom, love, and the right words.

It is meditation on Scripture, especially the psalms, that gives us our language for prayer. It is this richness that lives in us and flows from us. As we listen to God, we also respond to God in word and spirit. The language of prayer is learnt through the activity of praying. It is a heart language.

… to Ourselves

It is critical to become aware of thoughts and responses that arise within us. We all have an inclination to project onto others things we think and feel ourselves, be they strong sympathetic responses, or feelings of revulsion or condemnation. This is a natural response—it can create instant bonds, but can also contain an element of illusion. When ministering to those who are experiencing deep suffering, it is vital that we are able to distinguish our own responses from the responses of the sufferer.

Reflective practices allow the carer to dwell on their own internal and external responses. Aids to developing reflective practice include role-plays, verbatims,[3] regular pastoral supervision, and reflective Bible reading practices.

Job’s friends…

When Job’s friends appear on the scene, Job is at a very low ebb. He has lost almost everything, and is miserable beyond measure, wishing he had never been born. He longs for his friends to accompany him on his lonely and painful journey (6:14ff).

Job’s friends attempt to help by presenting him with what they think is God’s perspective, but in fact they misrepresenting God, claiming he would not allow the innocent to suffer. The reader knows there are reasons for Job’s suffering other than the punishment of wrongdoing, but from their limited perspective Job’s friends over-confidently attribute false motives to God, and thereby exacerbate Job’s suffering.

Job tells his friends what sort of friends he needs them to be: friends who will stick with him, comfort and console him, making things better not worse. He asks them to take pity on him by offering sympathy. He objects to being harangued, to their harsh treatment and aggravations (e.g. 6:14-30, 13:4-5, 16:1-6).

But Job’s friends are not listening. They hear his cries, but they do not hear him. They neither comprehend, nor seek to understand, his disillusionment with his faith; his sense of alienation and isolation; his terrible nightmares, and shattered dreams.

Lastly, Job’s friends seem not to hear their own fear. They are not thinking in terms of how to help Job reconnect back to God, rather they hijack the conversation with their own anger, fears and prejudices. They minimise the personal losses Job has experienced, dismiss his claims, heap on shame and blame, and catastrophise the breach in his relationship with God. They fast-forward the conversation and too hastily offer judgements and ‘solutions’. Their approach is life-extinguishing rather than life-giving.


As we listen to God, to others and to ourselves we piece together information from different perspectives and build up a picture. The one-to-one ministry of chaplaincy revolves around helping a sufferer see this picture for themselves and find a way forward.


Until the time of tragedy, Job believed that God was faithful; he was close and dependable. Job’s experience was one of prosperity and blessing and he nurtured his experience of relationship with God through prayer and sacrifices.

After the string of tragedies in his life, Job continued to honour God. However he was now presented with circumstances that were at variance with his previous balance of faith and blessedness, and he experienced God as silent and distant, as if having abandoned him.

While Job’s foundational beliefs about God were being challenged, he needed caring companions. Instead, he was further hurt by his friends’ change of attitude towards him as they attacked his integrity and became his adversaries.

…the friends’

Job’s friends had a simplistic and mechanistic view of God: suffering must always be punishment for sin. There was some truth in this, but it was not the whole truth, and it led them to draw faulty conclusions and disregard Job’s suffering. They lacked the compassion to see that Job had legitimate grounds for his misery, regardless of the cause.[4]


Readers of the book of Job have a privileged perspective, revealed in the prologue. They know that God is sovereign over the affairs of humanity, and understand that Job’s faithfulness is being tested through suffering even though he is a God-fearing man of perfect integrity.

God has not abandoned Job—he listens to him and answers him. In his reply, God discloses his awesome power, the vast gulf between creator and creature, and puts Job in his place: he has no right to impugn God’s justice. God’s justice is beyond question in Job, and is consummated in the epilogue where Job is once again showered with blessings, and the friends face God’s anger.

Listening and perceiving

How could Job’s friends have done better? They needed to be ‘below’—prayerfully seeking to understand God and represent him truly to Job, and admitting their ignorance when they reached the limit of their understanding. They needed to be ‘beside’ Job—comprehending his situation and suffering. And they needed to be ‘present’—sympathetically sharing with Job in his experience of suffering in order to comfort him and give him hope.

Christian care must always have at its heart a desire to see people made whole and reconnected to their creator. There is no simplistic wisdom on how to do this.

Ministry begins with God, and listening to God through meditating on his word and cultivating a life that allows the flourishing of Christian practices and the pruning of anything that leads away from Christ. Next comes listening to ourselves and developing good self-awareness, being honest about our faith, and understanding our own needs, fears and anxieties, hopes and dreams. Thirdly, ministry involves developing a capacity to listen deeply to another person, absorbing the facts of their situation and their experience of it. Good care will take different perspectives into account and build a realistic collage that helps the carer to know how best to minister in Jesus’ name to this person.

[1] Deborah Van Deusen Hunsinger, Pray Without Ceasing: Revitalizing Pastoral Care (Eerdmans, 2006), pp69 -77.

[2] Ibid.

[3] A verbatim is a transcript of a pastoral encounter (or part thereof), as remembered by the pastoral carer/chaplain. Verbatims are used in the training of pastoral carers and chaplains to help observe and identify to them their own and others’ emotions and reactions within a pastoral encounter.

[4] Christopher Ash’s pastoral handbook written on Job is a helpful resource for exploring these themes. Out of the Storm: Grappling with God in the Book of Job (Regent College Publishing, 2006).

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