“How are you?” It’s a question that people with chronic illness often don’t know how to answer. “Fine” or “OK” are safe choices, and generally true, to a degree. When we say we’re OK, we mean that life is challenging, but we’re handling things. We don’t mean our symptoms have suddenly disappeared or that we no longer grieve for all we’ve lost.
Sometimes we’re less OK than at other times. Sometimes when people ask how we are we wonder if “OK” or “fine” are the truest responses. We long for someone to understand us and acknowledge our pain, but we hesitate to be fully honest. We’ve learned that expressing our distress can sometimes make things worse.
When we’re honest, we risk scaring people away. When we’re honest, we open ourselves up to being gossiped about. Mostly, however, we’ve learned that when we’re honest, we may get blamed somehow for our own distress.
There’s a seemingly limitless list of subtle and blatant accusations that are leveled at those whose illnesses do not quickly resolve. Of course, there are the classic “lack of faith” or “hidden sin” explanations. In addition, people are said to be focusing on their problems too much, not focusing on them enough, not handling stress, not eating right, not thinking right, not using traditional medicine, not using alternative medicine, not using the right supplements, not using the right brands, being too needy, not asking for help, not praying enough, not praying in the right way, not pushing enough, not resting enough, and on and on it goes.
This is evidently not a new phenomenon. In the biblical book of Job, Job’s friends initially responded to his suffering by coming to visit him and sitting with him in silence for a week. Once Job began to express his thoughts and feelings, however, the support began to deteriorate.
The book of Job is a treasure trove, with depths to mine in every verse. For this exercise, I decided to summarize and paraphrase the conversation between Job and his friends. I picked a few representative sentences from each chapter and excluded the dialogue between Job and God. I find it amazing how much the conversation mirrors those that still occur regularly (or at least reflects things that people want to say, but often don’t). I used the New Living Translation, and chapter numbers are in parentheses.
Job: I wish I could die. (3)
Friend: You’re weak. Resentment and jealousy destroy people and if I were you, I’d turn to God. (4-5)
Job: I have a right to complain. People complain about all sorts of things, like unsalted food. I’m out of strength and have nothing to live for. I wish God would let me die. You should be kind to me, but you accuse me instead. Stop assuming my guilt. (6)
Friend: If you pray and live a good life you’ll be restored. (8)
Job: It sounds good in theory, but God is God and can do what he wants. (9)
Friend: God is undoubtedly punishing you less than you deserve. Pray, repent, and work on your heart and your life will be bright. (11)
Job: You think you know everything. I’m not as stupid as you think I am. All of you are worthless quacks as doctors. The wisest thing you could do would be to shut up. (12-13)
Friend: You’re a sinful windbag. What do you know that we don’t?
Job: Why do you keep talking? You’re miserable comforters. If the roles were reversed, I could find plenty to criticize, too, but I would encourage you and try to take away your grief. As it is, I suffer if I speak and try to defend myself and I suffer if I don’t. (16)
Friend: Speak sense. Remember that the wicked fall into their own pits. (18)
Job: How long will you torture me? How long will you crush me with your words? You’ve insulted me ten times already and should be ashamed. You think you’re so much better than I am. Relatives and friends have turned against me and forgotten me. Please have mercy on me. Haven’t you chewed me up enough? (19)
Friend: Your words disturb me. God gives the wicked what they deserve. (20)
Job: Please listen closely to me. That’s one thing you could do to help. After I speak you can resume your mocking. I don’t know if I should say this, but I will. I see the wicked prosper all around me. They don’t acknowledge God, but they don’t suffer. How can your clichés comfort me? Your explanations are lies. (21)
Friend: There’s no limit to your sins. You were probably greedy and didn’t help the less fortunate. Submit to God and things will go well. Clean up your life. Give up your lust for money and God will hear your prayers. (22)
Job: I’m trying hard not to groan out loud. I’ve stayed on God’s paths. I’ve treasured his words, but I’m surrounded by darkness. Why doesn’t God punish the wicked? Why doesn’t he come to the aid of the godly? Can anyone prove that isn’t true? (23-24)
Friend: No one is innocent. God is much higher than man. (25)
Job: Thanks for enlightening me with your wisdom. That was certainly helpful advice for someone powerless and weak. I understand and respect God’s power.
I’ll continue to defend my integrity and will never concede that you’re right. My conscience is clear. You say all these useless things to me. Wisdom and understanding are more valuable than gold, but are hidden from humans. God alone understands.
I long for my former life. I miss being respected and honored. I was honest and gave generously to the poor. I assumed I would live a long, good life and die surrounded by my family. But now I’m mocked, even by people younger than I am. My honor has blown away. I’m depressed and my pain is relentless. I’ve tried to live with integrity. If only someone would listen to me. (26-31)
Friend: I haven’t spoken until now because you’re older than I am, but age doesn’t always mean wisdom. I speak the truth. God treats people like they deserve. You’ve rejected him and deserve the maximum penalty for the wicked way you’ve talked. You’ve added rebellion to your list of sins.
The wicked are afflicted and the innocent are exalted. If people are caught up in pride, God will get their attention and demand they turn from evil. If they listen, they’ll prosper and if they don’t, they’ll die. God is using your suffering to lead you from danger. Turn from your evil. Pay attention. (32-37)
The conversation between Job and his friends comes to an end, but the book continues, with God telling the friends in chapter 42 that he’s angry with them. He asks them to bring a sacrifice and have Job offer a prayer on their behalf. He says that if they do, he won’t treat them as they deserve.
Once again, I find consolation and encouragement in Job's story. It reminds me that although I deeply long to be understood and not blamed for my own distress, it’s not unusual for us as fallible humans to respond to each other that way. Being honest with people sometimes feels dangerous, but I can always be honest with God. He gets me.