Most people have heard the term “Job’s comforters,” and have a sense that it means someone who thinks they’re being helpful when they’re actually doing the opposite. True enough. But what, exactly, did Job’s comforters do which was so condemnable? I mean, they actually said some pretty accurate things about God, acknowledging his power, sovereignty, and holiness.
His comforters even seem to offer great encouragement to Job, reminding him of the ways he has helped others and assuring him of God’s mercy to those who turn to him.
Why, then, did this happen:
Job 42:7 After the LORD had spoken these words to Job, the LORD said to Eliphaz the Temanite: "My anger burns against you and against your two friends, for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has. Job’s comforters fail in their theology, and that has a profound impact on their counsel to Job.
Let’s review the narrative to see how we got to that point.
Who is Job?
The first 24 verses of the book of Job tell us three times that Job is “blameless, upright, fearing God and turning away from evil,” as well as showing us examples of his devotion and calling him the greatest man in the East. In fact, this is exactly what earns Job all of his trouble. Satan posits that the only reason Job is so faithful is that God has prospered him and protected him from trials. And so Satan gains permission to destroy Job’s possessions and all his children.
In rapid succession, messengers inform Job of the loss of all of his oxen, donkeys, sheep, camels and servants. Finally, While he (the messenger) was yet speaking, there came another and said, "Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their oldest brother's house, 19 and behold, a great wind came across the wilderness and struck the four corners of the house, and it fell upon the young people, and they are dead, and I alone have escaped to tell you." (Job 1:18-19). Think about what these events mean in human terms. One blow after another. How devastating is it to lose one child? What was that moment like when Job (and his wife) were told, “There’s been an accident. All ten of your children have died.”?
Job’s response? Job 1:20 Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. If ever there were a heart-revealing moment, this would be it.
And yet, there’s more. Satan still thinks he can discredit Job’s faithfulness and gains permission to afflict Job with a miserable illness from which he can get no relief. Job 2:9 Then his wife said to him, "Do you still hold firm your integrity? Curse God and die!" Does she know she has gotten to the heart of the heavenly argument? But Job is not swayed.
Job 2:10 ESV - 10 But he said to her, "You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?" In all this Job did not sin with his lips.
So we have God’s pronouncement on Job, and we also have the testimony of Job’s own lips. Job claims that he has obeyed God’s laws consistently in his life; and that moreover, his heart has yearned for God himself and for his word. He takes comfort in the fact that he has “not denied the words of the Holy One.” (Job 6:9) and that “he knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold. 11 My feet have closely followed his steps; I have kept to his way without turning aside. 12 I have not departed from the commands of his lips; I have treasured the words of his mouth more than my daily bread.” And indeed, “Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him.” (Job 13:15)
Although Job has been fastidious in his obedience to God’s word, it is not mere outward show. This obedience comes from a heart which truly treasures God’s word. He understands already the words God would utter on Sinai and Jesus would quote many centuries later: Deuteronomy 8:3 And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.
In addition, God enables Job to utter astonishingly beautiful prophetic, gospel words, words that can only be explained by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Job recognizes his need for a mediator between himself and the Holy God “There is no arbiter between us, who might lay his hand on us both.” (Job 9:33). Yet he also affirms that Even now, behold, my witness is in heaven, and he who testifies for me is on high (Job 16:19) and declares, “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God.” (Job 19:25-26).
So to recap: Job is a righteous man who suffers horrific trials through no fault of his own but responds by worshiping God and humbly professing his faith in God.
Soon, three of Job’s friends hear of his trials and make an appointment to visit him together to “sympathize with him and to comfort him…for they saw that his pain was very real.” In their compassion, they are appalled by how he looks, they weep, and they sit with him for seven days without uttering a word. (Job 2:11-13). They seem to understand Job’s pain and to have great sympathy for him—as long as he sits in despairing silence. As long as he sits quietly, his friends can showcase their great sympathy with their own sackcloth and ashes.
Thou shalt not complain nor make a fuss
But something changes when Job opens his mouth. Job roundly curses the day when he was conceived and the day he was born and wishes he had been stillborn. That does not sit well with his friends. These friends who so recently came to offer sympathy and comfort have suddenly changed their tune and morphed into accusers and tormentors. And what has triggered them? Simply Job’s expression of strong emotion.
The first one, Eliphaz, starts in on him. He accuses Job of being a hypocrite, of not taking his own advice, and of being a whiner. Apparently, seven days of intense grieving is quite enough. Time to shape up! “You have strengthened and encouraged others through their trials, but now that trials have touched you, you are horrified!” He goes on to accuse Job of being rebellious when he should be thankful for the discipline of God. “We’ve studied this. We know it’s true. You should listen to us!” he says. Eliphaz is offended that Job is expressing distress. Eliphaz has gone from recognizing the depth of Job’s pain and desiring to comfort him to berating him for his lament.
Thou shalt get what thou dost deserve
Then Eliphaz opens a theme which persists throughout the rest of the book, the theme that you get what you deserve. This principle is founded on the friends’ understanding of God’s holiness and justice. How could a holy God countenance evil, wink at injustice, allow the wicked to flourish? To assert that such things happen is an affront to God himself, which cannot go uncontested! Eliphaz claims universal affirmation of the principle that God destroys the wicked but that good men do not perish.
Two corollaries follow from this premise. The first is the impossibility of any person claiming innocence before a holy God, or the principle we call total depravity. The second is that if you see someone who is being destroyed, it must be because he is wicked. However, there are some internal contradictions in Eliphaz’s argument. He acknowledges that sometimes good men do suffer temporarily but that God rescues and elevates them, and crushes injustice. He fails to recognize the foolishness and arrogance of judging a man by his current circumstances.
The ”gospel” Job’s friends are preaching is in reality a “prosperity gospel.” They repeatedly promise Job that if he will confess his (undoubtedly) great sin to God, God will rescue him and restore his fortunes.
Thou shalt not contradict thy comforters
Job vehemently defends his righteousness (echoing God’s judgment of him as well, let us remember). Job does not claim to be free of all sin, just of the heinous sin his friends assume of him. And thus the central conflict of the book is set up. From this point on, Job is assumed by his friends to be clinging to unrepentant sin. That is the log that stubbornly refuses to be dislodged from the eyes of Job’s comforters. It is the assumption that makes them deaf to anything that Job says to the contrary. Its tenacity is anchored in their belief that it is true, that it represents the truth about God. They believe they are righteous because they are defending God himself. If that is what you believe, what could convince you to listen to a contrary opinion or to relent in your insistence?
This dynamic sets up Job in a no-win situation. Job could acquiesce to their accusations of sin and prove them right; or he could maintain his innocence, also (in their minds) proving himself guilty.
Job’s crushing afflictions have been compounded by the insensitivity and lack of wisdom of his friend. Now, instead of receiving comfort, he is put in the position of defending himself. Job tries to communicate the depth of his pain. He wishes he could weigh his suffering in a scale, to give tangible proof of his affliction. He likens it to having his spirit infiltrated by poison arrows from the hand of God. His descriptions of his torment are painfully eloquent. But he knows it is only his word against theirs. Even though they were shocked into tears at his appearance, they seem now to doubt the depth of his suffering. He has not responded in the way they expected and they are becoming irritated and hardened toward him.
Thou shalt not criticize thy comforters
But now Job commits the unpardonable sin. He points out the insensitivity, unkindness and dishonesty of his friends. He recognizes that they are impugning his integrity. He calls them “worthless physicians” who are smearing him with lies and even speaking wickedly and deceitfully for God. He appeals to them, “Look at me! You know me! Are you actually accusing me of lying to your faces?” If mere lament over his circumstances was inflammatory to his friends, standing up for himself unleashes the whirlwind. He has touched a nerve. He has made it personal, and he has questioned their pet principles.
In response to his accusations, Job’s friends become enraged and irrational. They hurl cruel condemnations at him, saying that
He is resentful and envious (5:2)
He is despising the discipline of God (5:17)
His children deserved to die (8:4)
He arrogantly believes his theology is flawless—there’s some irony for you (11:4)
He undermines piety and hinders devotion to God (15:4)
He exploits the weak and helpless in many ways (15:6-9)
In the end, it is the faulty but doggedly held theology of Job’s friends which corrupts their comfort. The friends have refused to see the circumstances in which good people suffer prolonged trials and bad people coast along without problems. This blindness is well-established by the time they encounter Job in his suffering. They have denied the witness of their own eyes before. Now they are denying their knowledge of the character and behavior of their friend. They prefer the high ground of their own principles. They are more ready to make Job’s situation fit into their neat and tidy theology than to stretch their own understanding on behalf of their long-time friend.
Job’s Nouthetic Comforters
Job’s friends personify Nouthetic or Biblical Counseling, specifically that promoted by the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors, formerly known as National Association of Nouthetic Counselors. I find two major problems with Nouthetic or Biblical Counselors. To be blunt, they are neither biblical nor counselors. They, like Job’s comforters, start with a faulty theology which corrupts their counseling.
They are not Biblical
“Nouthetic” is a Greek word meaning admonish, correct, or instruct, and refers to a particular philosophy and method of counseling which aims to use the Bible alone and is particularly averse to modern, secular psychology. “To put it simply, nouthetic counseling consists of lovingly confronting people out of deep concern in order to help them make those changes that God requires.” https://nouthetic.org/about/what-is-nouthetic-counseling/
Unfortunately, those “simple” words hide a method that in practice is often far from loving and has in fact inflicted pain and damage rather than healing. The root of the error of this kind of “counseling” is summed up in their concept of change. To quote from the founder, Jay Adams, “By change we mean that counseling is done because there is something in another Christian’s life that fails to meet the biblical requirements and that, therefore, keeps him from honoring God.” https://nouthetic.org/about/what-is-nouthetic-counseling/ In other words, if you find yourself in such distress that you seek counseling, the fault lies within you. You are failing to meet biblical requirements. You are not honoring God. Awww…got a problem? YOUR FAULT!
Because I cannot bring myself to label this method as counseling, I will now refer to it as “instruction.”
By their own definition, nouthetic instructors can see only one cause of emotional problems—your own personal sin that is directly causing your distress. Therefore, they have one tool in their toolbox—point out your sin. You know the old saying, “If the only tool you have is a hammer…” They claim to depend on the Bible for answers to human suffering. But, like Job’s comforters, they ignore entire themes in Scripture—the pain of living in a fallen world characterized by disease, death, poverty, oppression, injustice, loss of hope, etc. Scripture gives eloquent witness to the emotional toll those circumstances take, largely in the Psalms.
Likewise, nouthetic instructors seem to have missed Scripture’s instructions to weep with those who weep. We are to make ourselves humble and vulnerable to our brothers and sisters in Christ, being willing to acknowledge that sometimes life is tough and very painful through no fault of their own. Not confront; not admonish, correct or instruct; not promote change; but to join in the emotion of a brother or sister. Just be there.
This narrow focus of nouthetic instructors betrays their very truncated view of human nature. They address humans as though we consist of only thoughts and will. Point out to distressed people where they are willfully disobeying God. Give them some verses which tell them how they should be thinking and acting. Hold them accountable for making those changes. If that doesn’t work, the only logical conclusion is that they are still in rebellion against God. Therefore, the instructor needs to up the ante, dig for even deeper sin, and apply even more pressure for change. Enter Eliphaz and associates.
Their obsessive focus on sin further illustrates a very low view of a Christian’s union with Christ and of sanctification. It is not within their power to imagine a Christian who is legitimately suffering due to anything other than his or her own sin. They discount claims that a distressed person desires only to please God, or that another person is mistreating them. Once you are distressed, you are suspect.
Sometimes it is true that our sin causes our distress. But in my experience counseling with Christians, they are more likely to mistakenly assume their problems are their own fault and to torment themselves with guilt than they are to persist in willful sin. Those who are persisting in willful sin tend to shy away from Christian counselors.
I would like to make one caveat to my characterization of nouthetic and Biblical instructors. There are those Christians who have taken this training whose Spirit-guided wisdom, love of Jesus, and love of the brethren prevent them from taking their training to a harsh and damaging conclusion. They are anomalies to the natural trajectory of this training.
However, that does not make them harmless.
They are not counselors
Nouthetic instructors are not equipped to help with any distress that is not directly caused by the sin of the counselee. For example, if a counselee is suffering from the effects of trauma, a nouthetic instructor has no tools to understand the nervous system and how God has created it to react, nor any strategies to help the counselee calm the physiological symptoms and process the trauma. Trying to treat or engage trauma without specific training can take a counselee into a devastating emotional state which they are not equipped to handle, and leave them far worse off than they were before counseling. The same is true of many other emotional issues.
A licensed Christian counselor sees the counseling process as a collaboration with her client. A counselor has much knowledge of how emotions work, but only the client is an expert on herself. The purpose of the process is to decode the messages being sent by the client’s emotions so they can be worked through. After that process, the client can make decisions about how to react to them. Nouthetic instructors see themselves as the experts who already know the problem and already have the answers.
Licensed Christian counselors respect the autonomy of each client. The client has the right to make decisions about her own beliefs and actions. While I will point out contradictions between actions and beliefs, it is not my job to enforce good behavior. I trust the Holy Spirit to produce change from the inside out. In contrast, nouthetic instructors have no problems exerting pressure, including church discipline, to get clients to follow their directives.
I will limit myself to one further reason nouthetic instructors cannot be considered counselors. Nouthetic instructors have no accountability. Their certification comes from taking some classes without any requirement to prove proficiency. In addition, there is no body which regulates their practices or offers redress for malpractice. A nouthetic instructor can practice with very few qualifications and no oversight whatsoever.
Please be discerning when seeking help with troubling circumstances in your life. Not everyone who mouths the words of the Bible is using them in a biblical way. Be sure that if you feel the need for counseling, you find someone who is licensed and who has training and experience in the problem you are struggling with. And remember, Rom 8:1 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.