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True Friends, True Hope, and Poor Job - Job 14

God can handle your doubts and questions.

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Job 14:1-14

Job's friends decided to "comfort" Job by convincing him that he was being punished for some sin he had committed. Job knew that wasn't right, and he longed for an audience with God to plead his case directly. If we want to help our friends navigate grief, we need to separate truth from assumption.

Anyone born of woman is short of days and full of trouble. Job 14:1

[No more Zoom Sunday School!]

Getting Started: Things to Think About

What Is True Friendship?

One of the toughest things about being a parent is helping your kids understand who their true friends are and who their "fake" friends are. There are few things more damaging to a child's emotional and social growth than being betrayed by or used by someone they thought was a friend. If you have kids, how have you helped them know who their friends are?

Note that that doesn't change for adults. People of every age struggle with developing true and trustworthy friendships. So, let's start here: how would you identify a true friend?

Here's a website for kids that had some good (secular) advice:

  • Good friends make you feel good (not bad)

  • Good friends support one another

  • Good friends are okay with differences

  • Good friends listen

  • Good friends are trustworthy

  • Good friends handle conflict respectfully

  • A good friendship is a two-way street

That's a pretty good start. What would you add?

A lot of the websites I skimmed through focused on "acceptance" and "being non-judgmental" in an unhealthy way, elevating them to absolute values, as in "I accept you absolutely and without question" or "I will not judge you under any conditions". Frankly, those are actually the marks of a fake friend. A true friend will be willing to confront you over important failures/flaws. Consider the difference between these two statements: "I accept you no matter what" and "I will be your friend no matter what".

With all of that said, let's finally get to the good stuff. Who are your good friends? What have they done in your life that lets you know that they are good friends?

And just as importantly, who are people you know who need friends? What can you do to become their friend?


This Week's Big Idea: How to Help a Friend in Grief

This week, we meet three of Job's friends and how they tried to be there for him in his time of grief. There are things these friends did right -- namely their "ministry of presence". And there were things they did wrong -- namely trying to assign blame for Job's circumstances.

My guess is that at some point you're going to want to talk about how your friends have helped you deal with grief. And that's great! That's a great topic! There are few things more important for us to do as friends than to be there for our friends in their time of grief and need. But let me give some ground rules and boundaries for this discussion. I can't tell you how much harm we can do by saying the wrong thing to our friends when they're at their most vulnerable (but you probably know from experience). Let's start with two basic truths:

  1. Grief is a normal and appropriate response to loss, and it's equally normal for you to want to help your friend go through that experience.

  2. Assigning blame for what happened is unhelpful and often counterproductive -- no matter what you think you're saying, the blame will in some way funnel back to your friend (something they did wrong, something they did to make God mad, something they did to allow Satan that power, and so on -- basically, what Job's friends said).

That said, let's talk about grief.

First, some truths about grief you need to realize if you want to be a good friend.

  1. Realize that everyone's experience with grief is unique. Your personal experience with grief may not be the best blueprint to help your friend.

  2. Realize that everyone expresses grief in their own ways, and those ways are not better or worse (some are destructive, though, and that's something to watch).

  3. Realize that some people are better at hiding their grief than others. Just because someone "seems" to be doing okay is no reason to drop your attention.

  4. Realize that grief does not follow a set schedule or have set stages. There are commonalities with grief, but no absolute checklist.

[If you Google "stages of grief", you won't find agreement on how many stages there are, let alone what they are.]

"GriefShare" is an excellent Christian program for navigating grief and mourning, and they list *four columns* of grief experiences, including feeling abandoned, afraid of facing emotions, anger with others and self and God, anxiety, bitterness, can't pray, confusion, crisis of faith, denial, depression, despair, disorganization, disorientation, exhaustion, feeling like you're losing your mind, financial worries, guilt, hallucinations, insomnia, lack of focus, making silly mistakes, mental fog, nightmares, not trusting God, panic attacks, regret, shame, shutting people out, staying busy, worry, and so so many more. There are *so many* responses to grief. (Important note: they make it clear that contemplating suicide is not a normal or healthy response to grief and needs immediate help.)

Second, some truths that you would do well to help your friend remember.

  1. God knows and cares about your pain. "But You, God, see the trouble of the afflicted; You consider their grief and take it in hand" (Ps 10:14).

  2. Yes, the suffering and corruption of this life is a consequence of human sin. "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom 3:23) ...

  3. But God sent His Son Jesus to rescue us from the eternal consequences of sin so that we can spend eternity in a place where there will be no more sorrow or pain or death (John 3:16, Rev 21:4).

  4. Be honest with God, especially if you're doubting His love. Know that God can handle your anger and doubt and emptiness and will never stop loving you through it.

One of the biggest things you can do is encourage your friend to talk to God about what they're feeling and what they think they need. *We* cannot truly understand what they're going through, but God can and does.

Here's where the rubber meets the road, particularly when it comes to us understanding why Job's friends said what they did. It is absolutely true that the cause of pain and suffering in our world is human sin. Our bodies get sick and break down. Our minds aren't trustworthy, and people can make terrible decisions. Our world is corrupt and prone to failure. But there's a big difference between accepting that sin causes all tragedy, and trying to say which specific sin caused a specific tragedy. Does that make sense? We can never understand the complexities of this world; only God can. We need to be able to come to a place where we trust that God has brought His end to our circumstances and will bring the most good out of it.

[In case you're wanting more information for dealing with your own grief, here is a roadmap that the professionals at GriefShare have put together.

  • Set goals for yourself: (1) being able to accept the situation, (2) being able to turn to God for help, (3) being able to express your emotions, and (4) being able to establish your new identity.

  • And they give some simple advice: (1) people will try to rush you; don't rush. (2) You may feel relief or joy, and that's okay. Your pain may get worse, and that's okay. (3) You may be ambushed by grief; don't try to numb your pain.

In other words, there's no one set path to recovery from grief.]

Here are some things I have observed how church friends have expressed/experienced grief over the years:

  • Regret. Sometimes, the last words we said to someone were other than loving, and that can really tear a person up.

  • Guilt. Sometimes, we can fear that a decision or action we made led to the circumstances in which the loss occurred. That's difficult to deal with.

  • Confusion. In addition to the gut-wrenching search for "what happened?" there's the equally gut-wrenching "what am I supposed to do now?"

  • Anger. Like Job, we might believe that the loss was senseless, and our only recourse is anger that it happened.

  • Shame. People who thought they were "strong" can feel shame about their hurt and doubt, and they need help distinguishing humiliation from humility.

Don't criticize someone's experience of grief, but instead walk down that road with them. Here are a few tips:

  • Pay attention to how family members are doing.

  • Be on the lookout for abnormal behavior.

  • Be a trustworthy confidant that helps them express their feelings.

  • Don't judge their experience or their progress.

Some tools that a critical parts of a journey through grief:

  • Forgiveness (we've talked about this before)

  • Realizing that healing is not a betrayal of your loss

  • Learning to listen to God's truth rather than your emotions

  • Understanding that sometimes progress includes a step back

The main thing is this -- if you're going to have a discussion about how to help a friend in grief, realize that none of us is an expert! None of us can speak for everybody. Share your own experience, but don't invalidate someone else's. Only God knows our hearts.


Our Context in Job

First, let me confess a mistake in last week's outline. I wrote a chapter number down wrong, which made me think this week's lesson was in a different section of the book. This lesson is pulled from the first "cycle" of speeches. Let's address the outline in a little more detail.

  1. The Prologue and Job's Lament (chs 1-3)

  2. The Dialogue among Men (chs 4-27)

    1. Cycle 1: Will God answer a righteous sufferer's questions? (chs 4-14)

    2. Cycle 2: Does the fate of the wicked prove God's justice? (chs 15-21)

    3. Cycle 3: Can a sufferer ever know God's will and way? (chs 22-28)

    4. Cycle 4: Job and Elihu (chs 29-37)

      1. Job: Let God answer my complaint (chs 29-31)

      2. Elihu: Don't complain to God (chs 32-37)

  3. The Dialogue with God (chs 38-41)

  4. The Epilogue: God brings forgiveness and reconciliation (ch 42)

In the prologue, we meet Job, we learn how Satan was allowed to cause Job's tragedies, and we meet Job's three friends (more on them below). We also hear Job's first speech, which sets the tone for the rest of the book -- while Satan thought he could get Job to curse God, Job instead cursed his own birth and life, mourning over life in general.

Here's more detail from the first cycle, from which our passage comes:

Cycle 1 (chs 4-14)

  1. Eliphaz: innocent people do not suffer; God uses suffering to put people back on the righteous track; therefore, Job must have sinned (chs 4-5).

  2. Job replies: because Job believes himself innocent, Eliphaz's "help" is unhelpful and makes God out to be someone who causes needless suffering (chs 6-7).

  3. Bildad: God is almighty and blameless (ch 8).

  4. Job replies: God is elusive to me right now (chs 9-10).

  5. Zophar: God probably showed you mercy, Job; you need to acknowledge your sin and repent (ch 11).

  6. Job replies: Job sarcastically credits his friends' "wisdom" and turns his attention to God, seeking audience with God Himself (chs 12-14).

What we will notice is that as time goes on, Job and his friends will get more and more caustic with one another. The friends are utterly convinced that Job's sins brought this calamity upon him, and only his repentance can bring healing. Job is utterly convinced that he is blameless of that charge, and he become bitter toward his friends and also God (because they claim to be speaking for God).

Do you see how that becomes a feedback loop? The friends were correct in theory -- when we suffer the consequences of our sins, the only way out is repentance. But suffering is not always that simple (more on this when we study Ecclesiastes). Because Job thought he was innocent of their charges (and he was!), nothing they said helped him. And doubling down on their position only made him more and more distraught.

This week, the passage focuses on Job's final statement: "arguing with you three friends isn't getting me anywhere; I need to have an audience with God". Here's where our hope comes from -- because of Jesus, we can have that direct access to God at any time, and we know that God hears us and will be with us as we seek understanding and try to come to grips with our loss. Job didn't know that for certain; he wasn't certain that God knew about him or cares about him. Because of Jesus, we do know how much God loves us.


Part 1: Questions (Job 14:1-6)

Anyone born of woman is short of days and full of trouble. 2 He blossoms like a flower, then withers; he flees like a shadow and does not last. 3 Do you really take notice of one like this? Will you bring me into judgment against you? 4 Who can produce something pure from what is impure? No one! 5 Since a person’s days are determined and the number of his months depends on you, and since you have set limits he cannot pass, 6 look away from him and let him rest so that he can enjoy his day like a hired worker.

Job is experiencing despair. Have you ever been there? I hope from what I said above you saw that despair is a normal response to grief and loss. You feel hopeless and helpless. You might know in your mind that God is in control and Jesus is with you, but your emotions have swept you away into a sea of chaos. That's where Job is.

Job's friends have pushed him close to a position we call "fatalism", the idea that your "fate" has been determined, so why care? (More about fatalism below.) By making God this monolith of impassive justice, Job's friends have sucked away Job's hope. Verse 1 sounds like the opening line of every Shakespearean play, and it's truly profound. When you're mired in grief, life can feel like that.

In what ways can life be like a flower or a shadow? (Companion question: what happens to both when you take away the light?)

Job then goes into a very powerful, but depressing, description of life from the perspective of one who thinks that he suffers God's capricious wrath for an unknown sin.

  • Job is aware that he and his family were sinners; that's why he regularly offered sacrifices. But he is unaware of any sin that should rise to the level of punishment that he received. (In fact, Job is willing to stand before God and face judgment if only God would tell him what he did that was so wrong.) Conclusion, if God punishes minor and unknown sins that severely, what hope does anyone have?

  • If everyone is a sinner ("impure/unclean"), why doesn't Job see everyone else suffering to the same extent that he has? Conclusion, God must be unfairly singling him out.

  • If everyone is a sinner, and God punishes every sin extremely harshly, how is that fair? Conclusion, God is holding humanity to an impossible standard.

  • If God is absolutely sovereign over human history, then why put up the charade of forcing people to live out their short, meaningless lives?

Job's conclusion? If they were going to face relentless judgment anyways, everybody would be better off if God just left humans alone and allowed them to live and die in peace so at least they could have a few pathetic years of quiet.

Again, that's rather depressing! But put yourself in Job's shoes, particularly the part in which your friends have been yelling at you that God has been punishing you for your sins. Job is disoriented, confused, and angry, and that's in no small part because his friends have made things worse.

Have you had a friend who was so grief-stricken as to doubt God's goodness? How did you handle that? Job's friends attacked Job for those doubts! God doesn't need us to defend Him. How else do you think Job's friends could have handled this? Why do you think that would be better?

[Please bring attention to this fact: Job -- in all that he said -- never cursed God. He didn't understand what God was doing, and he didn't feel like God was giving him a fair audience, but that's different than cursing God. Take heart in that.]


Aside: Job's Three Friends

We don't know a whole lot about them, but let's start with something very important. They were truly Job's friends. They really did care about him. Let's not doubt that. When they heard about his grief, they went to him. They wept with him. They sat with him (for a full week!) in silence. They were there for him. There's nothing fake about this.

"Eliphaz" probably means something like "my God is strength". (Esau's firstborn son was named Eliphaz (Gen 36:15).) Eliphaz came from Teman, which was a region in Edom (Jer 49:7). He was probably the oldest of the friends because he always spoke first and spoke longest.

"Bildad" is a word of unknown meaning or origin. Being a "Shuhite" probably connects him with Shuah, a son of Abraham (Gen 25:2), but that's uncertain. He comes across as brash, impatient, and insensitive. Those are poor qualities for the situation.

"Zophar" probably means "young bird", and the name only appears here in the Bible. Being a "Naamathite" connects him with the ancient sister of Tubal-Cain (Gen 4:22!). (The "Naamah" in Joshua 15:41 is too late to be connected with this story.) He's most likely the youngest, and he's also the most dogmatic and philosophical.

Remember that Job's reputation was known far and wide, so even in that day it would be possible for him to have friends from great distances.


Part 2: Despair (Job 14:7-12)

7 There is hope for a tree: If it is cut down, it will sprout again, and its shoots will not die. 8 If its roots grow old in the ground and its stump starts to die in the soil, 9 the scent of water makes it thrive and produce twigs like a sapling. 10 But a person dies and fades away; he breathes his last—where is he? 11 As water disappears from a lake and a river becomes parched and dry, 12 so people lie down never to rise again. They will not wake up until the heavens are no more; they will not stir from their sleep.

If you weren't depressed before, you should be now. Job confronts a reality that we will talk about a little more when we cover Ecclesiastes -- life is short. Any time we experience a loss, we are forced to remember that ("how many more losses will I endure?" or "do I have enough time to recover from this loss?"). Job somewhat over-dramatically compares himself with a tree that can be rejuvenated after a rain (I say "over-dramatic" because trees eventually die, and people can also be rejuvenated). (It's also possible that Job didn't understand the reproductive cycle of trees.) But Job is right, and he asks one of the most fundamental questions of human existence: what happens to you when you die?

Remember that Job lived near the time of Abraham, long before we start learning about salvation or heaven. The fact that Job will have anything positive to say (and we will study those statements in the weeks to come) is an incredible testament to his faith in God and insight into God's character. But in his grief, he wonders if death might be "the end". (By the time we get to the prophets, we see clearer statements about God calling the righteous from their graves (Dan 12:2) in preparation for an eschatological kingdom (Isa 25:8, Eze 37:13-14).)

According to a survey in 2014 (the most recent one I could find), 73% of Americans believed in life after death. (But -- of the people who actually believed in heaven, less than 20% believed it would be physical.) That's a lot of people who don't believe in an afterlife of any kind. If you know someone who doesn't believe in an afterlife, do you think that belief is comforting or terrifying to them?

Job is in extreme mourning right now, and it's taking his thoughts to very dark places. We must be patient and empathetic with our friends who might be experiencing grief in that way.


Aside: Why It's Important to Talk about Death

Let's make sure that everyone is clear about this: death is nothing for a Christian to be afraid of. Death is a consequence of human sin -- not part of God's basic design for creation. That means that there is hope for life after death, the kind of life God originally created us for.

Jesus' own resurrection from the dead was proof of God's intent to raise all Christians from the dead never to die again (1 Cor 15:20-26)

13 We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, concerning those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve like the rest, who have no hope. 14 For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, in the same way, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. 15 For we say this to you by a word from the Lord: We who are still alive at the Lord’s coming will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the archangel’s voice, and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are still alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words. 1 Thess 4

Why, then, is death so scary? Probably because we don't talk about it enough. I know that sounds strange, and it can certainly be done poorly, but we have no reason to shy away from the topic of death. It is a part of life. It is not the end of life. We need to be able to have frank discussion about death with our friends and family. Those who are particularly disturbed by the topic, well, maybe they're not Christian! Maybe that's the red flag you need to have a gospel conversation with that person.

By the way -- only have these conversations with a child if the parent wants you to.


Part 3: Hope (Job 14:13-14)

13 If only you would hide me in Sheol and conceal me until your anger passes. If only you would appoint a time for me and then remember me. 14 When a person dies, will he come back to life? If so, I would wait all the days of my struggle until my relief comes.

Let me temper what Lifeway seems to be implying with their lesson plan. These verses aren't particularly hopeful! Even just from these verses, Job is basically saying "if there's life after death, that has to be better than the life I'm living". But read on -- "Life after death would be nice (vv. 15-17), but God has destroyed any hope I had in a "happy ending" (vv. 18-22)."

This is really not hopeful at all, and I don't understand why Lifeway tried to characterize it in that way.

So, what are we supposed to take away from these horrid verses?

Well, they're absolutely true.

What?? Think about it. We have the benefit of having the gospel of salvation clearly spelled out for us in the New Testament. If a person is not saved -- if a person has not come to Jesus for salvation -- what happens to that person when he dies? Something far worse than Job could even have imagined.

If a person is saved, what happens to that person when he dies? We just talked about this a few weeks ago:

Now, let's pull in an explanation Paul gave us in Romans 3, continuing from a verse I referenced above:

23 For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24 they are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. 25 God presented him as the mercy seat by his blood, through faith, to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his restraint God passed over the sins previously committed. 26 God presented him to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so that he would be just and justify the one who has faith in Jesus.

This is exactly what Job "hoped for" but immediately dismissed as wishful thinking. "If only God would keep me from His anger until it could be dealt with! If only there were a way I could stand before Him someday!" Well, God gave Job that someday after the crucifixion. It wasn't wishful thinking, it was God's plan. God's love for us is beyond our imagination. Sometimes, we just can't believe it until we've experienced it because in our cynicism we believe it is too good to be true.

But Job's depth of understanding is far deeper. He realizes that the only way any human could have an eternal relationship with God would be if God could somehow overlook his sin -- God cannot abide sin in His presence. Once again, God's plan is even better than Job's wildest dreams -- God will not "overlook" our sin, He will deal with it in Jesus. Our sin will be paid for, and we can boldly enter God's presence in faith. That's what Job wanted, but in his state of mind, he couldn't believe it to be possible.


In our next passage, we will see that Job had more faith than perhaps he let on (or had buried in his grief) as we read some of the most famous words in all the Bible.

This week, thank God for the clarity He has given us about life after death and how to be saved from the penalties of sin. Think about ways you can give hope and encouragement to someone you know who is dealing with the loss of a loved one.


Aside: Sheol

We've talked about this before. For the Hebrews, this is the name of the "place of the dead". In later Old Testament writings, it's specifically the place of the unrighteous dead. But this early, it simply where they said you went when you died. The origin of the word "sheol" is uncertain. People went "down" to Sheol, much like people's bodies would be buried in the ground. The word can be found in Gen 37:35, 42:38, and 44:29, but it's mostly used in poetic contexts (Psalms, Proverbs, and Job).


Closing Thoughts: Avoiding "Fatalism"

I mentioned that Job's thoughts border on fatalism, the idea that life is determined by "fate". This is different than believing that God is sovereign over history. "Fate" is impersonal -- a cosmic determinism. "Fate" is blind and inescapable. If you don't believe in a personal God who cares about you, then "sovereignty" will become fatalism. If your fate is predetermined, then why care about anything?

The reason Job didn't fall into that trap is that he did have a relationship with God. He was a righteous man who loved God (which is part of the reason why he was so confused about everything that happened). Eventually, that faith will carry him through.

Full-blown fatalism can lead to thoughts of suicide (because everything is meaningless). Note that Job never contemplated suicide.


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