The Ministry of Being There
By Jill Briscoe
Have you ever lost someone close to you? Perhaps they lived far away, yet you found yourself saying, “I have to go.” So you packed a bag and traveled just to be there with family and friends. And what happened when you arrived? You were greeted at the door, and you simply said, “I had to come.” And somehow that was enough.
I am privileged to serve on the board of World Relief, a Christian agency. Their aim is to relieve suffering worldwide in the name of Christ. One summer they invited me to go to Croatia, just after the conflict with Serbia. I joined a dozen other Christian women, and off we went. “What will we do when we get there?” we asked each other. We didn’t know, but the experience turned out to be life-changing.
On the border of Serbia, we met refugees – Croats, Serbs, and Muslims – who, fresh from the horrors of war, told us their stories. We listened, visited the camps, and did various practical things. But mostly we kept saying, “We just had to come!” Over and over again they thanked us for “just being there.” We learned that you have to get close to comfort.
The Ministry of Being There
There were some people in Job’s life who just “had to come.” He had many friends, but Eliphaz, Zophar, and Bildad were special. They were Job’s peers, worshiping the same God as he did. When these men heard about all the trouble that had come to Job, they set out from considerable distances, traveling together as brothers to sympathize and comfort their fallen friend.
When they arrived and saw Job from a distance, they could hardly recognize him. They began to weep aloud and, as their custom was, tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. Then they 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 (Job 2:11-13).
There is no question about it; it costs to comfort. Job’s friends went out of their way to comfort him. They were leaders in their own right and chiefs of their own tribes. They left their homes, their families, and their responsibilities to be a real friend. If friendship is to matter, there is no shortcut. In chapter 30, verse 22, we get a vivid description of how Job is feeling: “You snatch me up and drive me before the wind; you toss me about in the storm.” Who hasn’t felt tossed about, at the mercy of forces beyond our control? It helps at such times to have the comfort of companions in the midst of the tempest.
If we want to help a Job, we will need to pay the price. We need to go where our troubled brothers or sisters are, to visit their ash heaps in person if possible. There is something incredibly comforting about someone “just being there.”
I wonder which one of Job’s friends came up with the idea of taking a “compassion trip,” traveling all the way to Job’s home to see him. When someone is in trouble, it’s a good idea to call other concerned folk and put some serious planning into alleviating the distress.
Let Your Tears Talk
Once Job’s friends had come close enough to comfort, they expressed their deep concern in the custom of their culture: “When they saw him from a distance, they began to weep aloud.” They let their tears talk. No one said a word to him because they saw how great his grief was.
Can you cry? Sometimes I can and sometimes I can’t. I have discovered that my Father’s heart lives within me in the person of the Holy Spirit. I have learned to ask Him to pray for the hurting who need help with “such feeling that it cannot be expressed in words” (Rom. 8:26, TLB). There is a groaning and a grieving that expresses itself in tears that only the Holy Spirit can produce in us. These are Christ’s tears.
I have been on the receiving end of such empathy too. I remember becoming hard and embittered because I was lonely. My husband’s work took him away from the family for months on end. I knew I needed to talk to someone, but to whom? My senior missionary’s husband traveled too, but she seemed to be doing just fine! How could I possibly share my pain with her? I finally summoned up my courage and went to talk to my “model” of sufficiency.
Entering her office, I felt guilty bothering her. She glanced up and saw, in the words of Job, “how great my grief was.” Immediately she gave me her full attention. She knew from years of experience that listening is akin to loving.
I burst out then with my complaint. I told her I was fed up with the “Daddy space” in my children’s lives. That I had tried to follow her example and be the perfect little missionary wife, but it hadn’t worked, I only find pain. I stopped then and looked at her. I couldn’t believe my eyes. She was crying – really crying. “It’s hard, isn’t it,” she said simply.
But it wasn’t those words that shouted out to me; it was her tears. The sound of tears talking cannot be escaped. “I can’t believe I’m seeing what I’m seeing,” I muttered. “You mean it’s been hard for you too?” she laughed then, inviting me to sit down. Her tears told me it was all right to feel as I did and that she felt the pain too. Having been there and survived, there could be victory and joy in the lonely times for me as well. All of us can do these two simple things for our friends. We can have a ministry of being there, and we can let our tears talk.
In For the Long Haul
Job’s comforters were in it for the long haul. Maybe Job didn’t appreciate that fact as time wore on, but at least they didn’t bail out at the first opportunity. To be real comforters, we need to settle in to see it through.
A young woman in our church lost her husband to cancer. For the first year, her friends, family, and even strangers, rallied around and ministered to her. Then came the second year – the year the experts say is usually the worst. “I hope they are right,” she wrote to me, “because this second year has been the pits! Many wonderful people were giving me their full attention, but now they are busy with their own lives, and I’m all alone.”
It’s obviously not possible for everyone to keep up such intensive attention, but some should. I am learning to ask God, “Do you want me to be in this for the long haul?” If he replies in the affirmative, it’s extremely important to be faithful. Learn what to do and what to say. When that time comes, we had better be equal to the task. Otherwise we may earn the same rebuke Job’s friends heard eventually because they had not “spoken rightly.”
There can be great comfort in words. Our words should always have their base in Scripture. These are the words that can be used by the Holy Spirit to comfort and heal. They certainly should not be words of rebuke or criticism. After all, relational pain can be the deepest and most intense pain of all. Words can cut far deeper than a stone and beat one’s feelings red-raw. Our words need to be carefully chosen and applied to heal and help, not to hurt, even if the suffering is a result of the person’s foolishness or bad choices.
Then the words need to be applied at the right time. I’m sure you have been the victim of “right” words spoken at the wrong time! Timing is vitally important when we are trying to encourage someone. Ecclesiastes 3:7 tells us that there is “a time to be silent and a time to speak.”
I remember working with a young teenager. She had been promiscuous before she found the Lord and had very little home support. She struggled on but fell into her old ways again. One day she came to tell us she was pregnant and her parents wouldn’t let her come home. I remember feeling pretty exasperated. She knew better. She had gotten a job, and had begun to turn her life around. How could she have been so foolish? Things needed saying, but not then. Now, in her extremity, she needed a bath, a meal, a hug, and a bed! So I tried only to use wise words of welcome and told her I was so glad she had felt able to come to us in her trouble. There would be a time in the future when she would be ready to receive my words, but it wasn’t now.
There is a difference between constructive and destructive criticism. When Job’s friends began to talk, they undid much of the good they had done. They began to accuse him and thereby did the devil’s work for him. Real love always looks for a way of being constructive.