Sermon series: Lessons from Job
- Choosing faith in the midst of suffering - Job 1-2
- Six questions when giving or receiving advice - Job
- Three hard truths about wisdom - Job 28
- Job's perfect storm - Job 30, 40, 42
- How to respond to a powerful and loving God - Job 42
In this sermon, Andy Cook uses examples from advice that Job gets from his friends. He says, "whether you are giving advice or receiving advice, ask these questions of human counsel.
- Is it biblical?
- Is it factual?
- Is it necessary?
- Is it teachable?
- Does it acknowledge the imperfections of human counsel?
- Is it spoken in love?
Illustration: There's a story out there about an angel that showed up at a seminary faculty meeting. In order to honor the dean, who had been a man of unselfish and exemplary behavior, the angel said God had decided to reward him with his choice of limitless wealth, infinite wisdom or unmatched beauty. Since the entire staff was on hand, the dean asked for advice. To a man, they quickly agreed that infinite wisdom was the best choice. And so, the dean chose to become the wisest man on earth.
"Done!" says the angel, disappearing immediately in a cloud of smoke.
Every head in the room turned to the dean. He sat perfectly still, surrounded by a faint halo of light. At length, one of his colleagues whispered, "Say something." They were all anxious to hear what the wisest man in the world would say first. What wisdom had he been given?
Very slowly, carefully, and certainly, he said, "I should have taken the money."
With all that new-found wisdom, he only knew that he'd had some bad advice!
Illustration: It's a warning people have understood for centuries. Some advice needs to be taken "with a grain of salt." Ever wondered what was meant by that? In ancient times, salt was hard to come by, expensive, and even considered as a form of medicine. In Latin, folks warned that some counsel needed "cum grano salis." In other words, some advice might not be the healthiest around. In that light, you'll want to keep the medicine on hand, just in case.
If you live long enough, you'll receive counsel that's less than perfect, and you'll probably give some, too. On the other hand, God will bring individuals into our lives, at just the right time, to say just the right thing. It's critically important, therefore, to have a justification for knowing how to sort the good from the bad, the keepers from the rejects, the advice that's good medicine, and the counsel that will make you sick.
Whether you're giving or receiving it, ask these questions of human counsel:
1. Is it biblical?
In order to discern wise counsel, you must first know the Bible.
One of Job's friends said, "We have examined this, and it is true . . ." (Job 5:27) But how do I know that another man's examinations have turned up truth? Only if I have spent a lifetime examining the Word of Truth can I discern good counsel from bad. If the Word of God is a "double-edged sword" capable of penetrating to the deepest places, and "judging the thoughts and attitudes of the heart" (Hebrews 4:12), it can certainly help you do the same, as long as you have invested years of genuine study in the Bible.
Personal observation and personal opinions do not necessarily equal fool-proof counsel. In fact, since there are so many differing opinions available to any of us, to assume that all opinions are true would be one of the most foolish decisions of all. Only the Bible is trustworthy for perfect counsel, and when you can lean on clear, biblical teaching, you are leaning on a rock that will not move
Illustration: Had you been on the British Coast in 1845 you might have seen two ships boarded by 138 of England's finest sailors setting sail for the Arctic. Their task? To chart the Northwest Passage around the Canadian Arctic to the Pacific Ocean.
The captain, Sir John Franklin, hoped this effort would be the turning point in Arctic exploration. History shows that it was, not because of its success, but because of its failure. Neither ship ever returned. Every crew member perished. And those who followed in the expedition's path to the pole learned this lesson: If you're going to take such a journey, prepare for it.
Apparently Franklin didn't prepare. Though the voyage was projected to last two or three years, he only carried a twelve day supply of coal for the auxiliary steam engines. But what he lacked in fuel, he made up for in entertainment. Each ship carried more than 1,200 books, a hand organ, china place settings for officers and men, expensive wine goblets and sterling silver flatware.
You've got to wonder: Was the crew planning for an Arctic expedition or a Caribbean cruise? Judging from the supplies, one would have thought the latter. The sailors carried no special clothing to protect them against the cold. Their uniforms looked noble and respectful, but they were woefully inadequate for the task. Eventually, the ornate silver knives, forks, and spoons would be found near a clump of frozen, cannibalized bodies.
It seems strange how men could embark on such a journey so ill prepared, seemingly more equipped for afternoon tea than for the open sea. Stranger still how ill prepared the vast majority of Christians seem to be for their journey in life. If we do not take advantage of the Bible – of the detailed instructions of how to live – we will find ourselves in dire straits. When the trouble comes, there will not be time to absorb a lifetime of learning from the Bible. His Word is our map, and His Spirit is our compass. If we ignore the years of training, we should not be surprised at the disaster that follows.
2. Is it factual?
Job's friend Zophar urged Job to "put away the sin" that was in his hand, and to "allow no evil to dwell" in his tent. (Job 11:14) Zophar couldn't look at Job's condition without assuming that Job had sinned greatly against God. Likewise, Eliphaz shared the same counsel with Job: "Those who sow trouble reap it." (Job 4:8)
But the facts simply didn't support their observation. God had called Job "blameless and upright," (Job 1:8) bragging on how well his faithful servant had been living. The suffering that followed was the toughest test of Job's life – not punishment for his worst sin.
Eliphaz and Zophar's counsel simply missed the mark, for it was not factual.
In the history of the early church, a dispute arose between the early church leaders. So many non-Jewish people were becoming Christians, there was confusion over what Jewish laws should be binding for non-Jewish believers. Eventually, the leaders held a meeting. With great difficulty, key leaders like Peter and Paul and the other surviving apostles met in Jerusalem for a council. There they heard the case, sorted out the facts, and rendered a decision that pleased almost all of the group. (Acts 15)
Careful attention must be paid to the factual information behind any counsel. If the facts aren't correct, the counsel is almost certain to be just as faulty. Slow down, and check the facts.
3. Is it necessary?
In the big picture, did Job really need such a long debate in his hour of greatest crisis? Was it really necessary for his wife to add to the man's troubles, by unleashing her own, grief-stricken anger against him? Couldn't they have grieved together in silence?
It may, indeed be wise counsel to use very few words when someone around you is hurting. Have you ever heard what may be the most misquoted verse in all the Bible? "No temptation has seized you except what is common to man," Paul wrote to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 10:13). "And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it." Though the verse has nothing to do with grief, the idea that "God will not put more on you than you can bear" has somehow migrated to a theological world where it simply cannot live.
Illustration: Writer Harriet Sarnoff Schiff has distilled her pain and tragedy in a book called The Bereaved Parent. When her young son died during an operation to correct a congenital heart malfunction, her clergyman took her aside and said, "I know that this is a painful time for you. But I know that you will get through it all right, because God never sends us more of a burden than we can bear. God only let this happen to you because He knows that you are strong enough to handle it." She looked at the pastor and drew the logical conclusion. "So," she said, "if only I were a weaker person, Robbie would still be alive?"
Every pastor and mature Christian learns, sooner or later, that there are times when the best thing we can do for one another is simply to cry together. How wonderful it would have been if Job's friends had followed that counsel, and kept their silence past a single week. (Job 2:13 tells us his friends "sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was.")
Much of what they said, and much of what Job said, was simply unnecessary.
4. Is it teachable?
Eventually, Job would be able to pass along his lessons learned to the generations that followed. Most of the counsel he received from his friends was simply not teachable.
"Should not your piety be your confidence," said one friend (Job 4:6), "and your blameless ways your hope?"
Job had tried that route, and it hadn't worked. He'd followed the Law to the letter, and even surpassed it. His reward? A season of suffering that had destroyed any foundation of hope and confidence he'd ever had in his own ability.
Instead, Job would eventually pass on what he learned about God. His personal encounter with the Lord proved to be the turning point to Job, to his friends, and to his family. He would never gain an answer to the question of suffering, but he gained much insight about the nature of God.
That understanding was very teachable, and Job's faith in God is what we remember today, some 30 centuries or so after the experience.
5. Does it acknowledge the imperfections of human counsel?
Not once in the book of Job do any of the counsel-givers leave the door open for possible error. "I've observed it," said one (4:8). "We have examined it," said another, "and it is true." (5:27). A younger man held his tongue until his older companions were tired out from the advice giving. (Job 32) However, once Elihu started talking, he seems more confident than all the rest combined!
There come some points when one of the wisest counsels given is simply the acknowledgement that we may not ever know the answer to a question. Job's questions of "Why" disappeared the moment he encountered God, and they never appeared again. All of the human counsel of the previous 35 chapters of Job dissolved into meaningless chatter, once God appeared. The Perfect completely overwhelmed the imperfect.
Once, when the disciples were walking along the streets of Jerusalem, they joined in a theological debate that rang of the wisest debates in a city overflowing with theological discourse. But though their discussion seemed highly intellectual, Jesus treated it as foolish talk.
"Rabbi," they asked, "who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" (John 9:1) Imagine that. A blind man, certainly within hearing distance, suddenly becomes the subject of an insensitive, unnecessary discussion about his morality. Wasn't life hard enough for a beggar who couldn't see?
Jesus said, in effect, "You've missed the point entirely. You're on the wrong track. You're debating something that has nothing to do with this man's physical condition. This has happened so God can be glorified."
And as Jesus healed the man of his blindness, the glory of God showed up as suddenly and surprisingly in Jerusalem as it had in Job's neighborhood, centuries before.
6. Is it spoken in love?
The long-running dialogues between Job and his friends becomes more and more heated as the men struggle with the question of suffering. Bildad took a cheap shot at Job's children. "When your children sinned against (God), he gave them over to the penalty of their sin." (Job 8:4)
If advice given is biblical, factual, and necessary, it will never be heeded if it's not given in love. Paul urged one of his early churches to "speak the truth in love." (Eph. 4:14) To another, he reminded them that he could sound out wonderful truth with the voice of an angel, but without love, his words would sound more like an irritating, clanging cymbal to the person who needed to hear the counsel. (1 Cor. 13:1)
When people are hurting, they long for answers more than ever before. But at exactly that point, the answers are harder to come by than ever before. Some of the answers never come. There is, however, an answer.
Illustration: For seven years, Terry Anderson was held as a hostage of Shiite Muslim fundamentalists. The former reporter for the Associated Press had been taken captive and held as a political prisoner, and for seven terrible years, he was moved from location to location, hidden successfully, and sentenced to horrible loneliness. Before he was taken as a hostage, Anderson had given much thought to matters of faith. But in prison, he was allowed to have a Bible.
"Constantly over the years, I found consolation and counsel in the Bible I was given in the first few weeks," he wrote, after his ordeal ended. "Not other world, 'this is just a test' kind of consolation, but comfort from the real, immediate voices of people who had suffered greatly, and in ways that seemed so close to what I was going through. I read the Bible more than 50 times, cover to cover, in those first few years."