When I was a teenager, I thought I understood the purpose of the book of Job. In my mind, Job modeled how to calmly and uncomplainingly accept everything God allows to come your way. My takeaway was that I should strive to be as mellow as possible about my trials, and I’d recognize I had achieved this when I didn’t even feel upset if something painful came my way.
This reading fell apart when I did a closer reading as a young adult. Job is full of eloquent declarations of faith … and an awful lot of complaining and wishing he was dead or had never been born at all. I struggled to figure out what my new takeaway should be. Was Job an admirable role model, complaints and all, or did he make mistakes I should try and avoid?
Interestingly, the takeaway became clearer when I stopped looking at Job himself and started looking at those around him. My focus shifted away from how I should respond to my trials, and instead towards how I should respond to the trials of those around me. It no longer mattered if Job’s responses were right or wrong; what mattered is how I fulfill my covenant responsibility to mourn with those that mourn. The book of Job is full of spectacular failures, as well as beautiful and simple successes, of ministering to those in our lives that are suffering.
I’d always considered Job’s trials to be his physical ailments, poverty, and lost children, but there’s more to his grief that I had missed. Francine Bennion points out that Job’s framework for understanding suffering in the world had been severely tried. Though most of Eliphaz’s words were cruel and unfair, he highlighted an important truth when he declared, “Behold, thou hast instructed many…Thy words have upholden him that was falling, and thou hast strengthened the feeble knees. But now it is come upon thee, and thou art troubled” (4:3-5). Job thought he understood how suffering worked, but whatever his views were before, they proved inadequate for his current pain.
And oh, did he struggle with this blow to his worldview. After his trials came, Job felt like God wasn’t listening to him (19:7), and that when he tried to gain an understanding of what was happening to him, God was silent (23:5). I find his pleadings heartbreaking, in part because so many of us have experienced similar pain. So many people in our lives experience suffering that lacks tidy answers. Sexual assault, infertility, divorce, faith crises, unemployment, loss of a loved one; the list goes on and on. The trials themselves are incredibly painful, but the deeper pain often comes because it hurts to not understand God’s role in the trials (10:1-16).
So, what does Job teach us about assisting others as they rebuild their relationship with and understanding of God?
A substantial chunk of Job is dedicated to his friends trying to tell Job why he shouldn’t feel the way he does. They reproach him for his despair, invent reasons why his suffering was his own fault, and basically tell Job they understand God better than he does. Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t help. While it is tempting to provide tidy answers to someone that is suffering, reframing your understanding of how God acts in your life is a very personal process, and the answers are often very personal in nature.
So if that doesn’t help, when can we do?
I love the example President Rosemary Wixom shared in the April 2015 General Conference of a woman rebuilding her testimony after she experienced a faith crisis. She didn’t return because someone found the perfect words to answer her questions – instead, she explained that, “My parents knew my heart and allowed me space. They chose to love me while I was trying to figure it out for myself.” In addition, her ward family gave her a place where she could contribute on her own terms and loved her while she did the studying and soul-searching necessary to rebuild a testimony.
Although Job’s friends ultimately failed him, they led out with this principle. I love that when they came to him, they wept and sat with him in silence for a week after his losses occurred (2:13). I will always be grateful to the people in my own life that have simply mourned with me during my trials. I’ve forgotten the words of counsel my bishop eventually gave me when I was suffering the consequences of someone else’s use of agency, but I will never forget how powerfully I felt God’s love for me when that bishop took out a box of Kleenex and wept with me. And when I was experiencing a painful faith crisis, my Relief Society president came to my house to listen to me without judgment. She didn’t offer me tidy answers or try to explain anything away – she offered me the safe, loving place I needed to rebuild my testimony without having to wrestle with feelings of shame or isolation from my ward family. Ultimately, personal pain requires personal revelation from God. Frequently, our role is to provide loving space while our loved ones search for it.
I’m also fascinated by how Job’s life improved in the end. Most importantly, God did provide answers on His own timetable. But the community also came together to restore what he lost. In Job 42:11-12, we read, “Then came there unto him all his brethren, and all his sisters, and all they that had been of his acquaintance before, and did eat bread with him in his house: and they bemoaned him, and comforted him over all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him: every man also gave him a piece of money, and every one an earring of gold. So the Lord blessed the latter end of Job more than his beginning …” (emphasis added). I had never caught this before – that God’s later blessing of Job came partially through the small offerings of those that cared about him. It increased my desire to reach out and serve those that are hurting, despite my own limited abilities.
Once I started focusing on my role in helping those that are suffering, I realized that what mattered most was where Job arrived in the end, not his individual process to get there. I realized that if I believe God when he told Joseph Smith that trials give us experience, then when trials come to those we love, they are at a starting place where they have something they need to learn. And learning takes time and often involves mistakes. God trusts us to love and serve them while they make this personal journey.