The second reflection on the nature of friendship looks into the fact that even our closest friends have their limitations, just as we ourselves do.
The story of Job is familiar to many, and has been seen an attempt to answer the question of why there is seemingly purposeless suffering. On the surface, the narrative looks like a simple story, in which Job is a pawn in the eternal battle of Good and Evil. However, there is much more to be said, and for example Eleonore Stump gives an excellent in-depth exploration of the theme of suffering in Job in her book Wandering in Darkness.
In the following, I would like to turn our focus away from Job himself towards his friends: Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar. When they hear that Job is struck by suffering, together they go and try to console and comfort him – indeed the sign of a true friend. Before anyone says anything, they sit together in silence for seven days and seven nights, and maybe they should have left it there. Job himself is the first to speak. Although he curses the day that he was born, he does not blame anyone for his misery: not himself, nor God. Although he is looking for an explanation, he does not find fault: he maintains his own innocence, but doesn’t hold God responsible either.
Job’s friends cannot accept the lack of explanation, so they look for answers and offer them to Job. Is it Job’s own fault after all? Has he done wrong in the eyes of God? Or is the suffering a test, a way to produce endurance as St Paul has put it? This reflection is too short to explore these questions themselves in detail, but the important observation is that Job’s friends’ attempts to make things better actually make the situation worse. Because they cannot relieve Job’s suffering, they try to comfort him by finding explanations. However, they get it wrong – although not deliberately –, for they did not speak the truth. At the end of the book of Job, God speaks and rebukes Job’s friends for not speaking the truth. However, accepting Job’s prayer for his friends, God offers forgiveness.
This too short exploration of the story of Job shows us two ways in which our friendships are limited by the shortcomings of our human nature. Two ways which are two sides of the same coin. The first is our tendency to offer consolation when we cannot; our tendency to speak when we should not. It shows that sometimes the only way to make sense of a situation is to find a reason that we can understand, to find an explanation that satisfies. This may be the comfort we ourselves need, but it may not help our friends. On the contrary, it may make what they thought was enough suffering even worse by being told that they themselves are responsible.
Secondly, we realise that although we cannot live our lives without genuine relationships and friends, there are situations in which we need to trust our own beliefs, our own relationship with God. There will be times for all of us at which we must not listen to the individual voices around us, but listen to the voice within us. The voice that Henri Nouwen calls The Inner Voice of Love, also the title of his most personal reflections from which the following extract is taken:
You keep listening to those who seem to reject you. But they never speak about you. They speak about their own limitations. They confess their poverty in the face of your needs and desires. They simply ask for your compassion.
We need our friends, and they need us. However, we need to learn to understand their limitations and our limitations. We can only do this by being true to ourselves, by listening to the inner voice that speaks of love, and ultimately by trusting that we are safe in God’s hands.