Lots of energy is burned up fruitlessly trying to answer this question. Even if an answer emerges, it can very easily turn out to be the wrong one. Stories abound about unintentionally hurtful things well-meaning friends and family members have said to the newly diagnosed.
Yet, that’s no reason to stay away. Friends need friends more than ever in times of trouble.
Here’s a little poem, “Comforters,” that gets to the heart of this matter. It was written by a cancer survivor. I can’t copy it here, because it’s under copyright, but you can easily read it by clicking on this link.
This calls to mind the ancient story of Job, the faithful man of God who’s suddenly afflicted by a perfect storm of suffering, including bad health. Job receives a delegation of visitors, friends of his who are trying to comfort him. Each one presents an answer to the “Why?” question Job’s been asking himself ever since his troubles began. Yet, each would-be helper fails miserably.
The first friend, Eliphaz the Temanite, comments philosophically on the inscrutable ways of God. How hard it can be – he explains to his poverty-stricken friend, who has just lost his entire family and whose once-healthy body is covered with painful boils – for us to account for many of the things that happen, both good and bad! There is no one who is without fault, so therefore it makes sense that no one is spared some measure of suffering in this life. Besides, it could be that God – who’s noted for extending punishment for one person’s wrongdoings to the generations that follow – is simply collecting on some old debt. The important thing is to keep returning to God, trusting in the Lord to bring healing and restoration in time:
“For misery does not come from the earth, nor does trouble sprout from the ground; but human beings are born to trouble just as sparks fly upward. As for me, I would seek God, and to God I would commit my cause. He does great things and unsearchable, marvelous things without number.... How happy is the one whom God reproves; therefore do not despise the discipline of the Almighty. For he wounds, but he binds up; he strikes, but his hands heal.”
The second visitor, Bildad the Shuhite, tells Job he’s just sure his afflictions must be his own fault, that he’s sinned against the Almighty in some way. If he’s diligent about repentance, though, God just may have mercy and take away Job’s afflictions:
“Does God pervert justice? Or does the Almighty pervert the right? If your children sinned against him, he delivered them into the power of their transgression. If you will seek God and make supplication to the Almighty, if you are pure and upright, surely then he will rouse himself for you and restore to you your rightful place.”
“Can you find out the deep things of God? Can you find out the limit of the Almighty? It is higher than heaven – what can you do? Deeper than Sheol – what can you know? Its measure is longer than the earth, and broader than the sea. If he passes through, and imprisons, and assembles for judgment, who can hinder him?”
Yet, Zophar’s counsel is not without kindness. He, too, urges Job to consider his burden of suffering as God’s correction, and repent:
“If you direct your heart rightly, you will stretch out your hands toward him. If iniquity is in your hand, put it far away, and do not let wickedness reside in your tents. Surely then you will lift up your face without blemish; you will be secure, and will not fear. You will forget your misery; you will remember it as waters that have passed away. And your life will be brighter than the noonday; its darkness will be like the morning. And you will have confidence, because there is hope; you will be protected and take your rest in safety. You will lie down, and no one will make you afraid; many will entreat your favor. But the eyes of the wicked will fail; all way of escape will be lost to them, and their hope is to breathe their last.”
Commenting on the story of Job in his classic book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Rabbi Harold Kushner writes:
“Under the impact of his multiple tragedies, Job was trying desperately to hold on to his self-respect, his sense of himself as a good person. The last thing in the world he needed was to be told that what he was doing was wrong. Whether the criticisms were about the way he was grieving or about what he had done to deserve such a fate, their effect was that of rubbing salt into an open wound.
Job needed sympathy more than he needed advice, even good and correct advice. There would be a time and place for that later. He needed compassion, the sense that others felt this pain with him, more than he needed learned theological explanations about God's ways. He needed psychical comforting, people sharing their strength with him, holding him rather than scolding him.
He needed friends who would permit him to be angry, to cry and to scream, much more than he needed friends who would urge him to be an example of patience and piety to others. He needed people to say, ‘Yes, what happened to you is terrible and makes no sense,’ not people who would say, ‘Cheer up, Job, it's not all that bad.’ And that was where he friends let him down.”
Let us strive not to let one another down as well, when friends come upon hard times. Just be there. Listen. Share the pain. Offer to fill the water-glass or run some small errand.
You’re not there to fix it. You’re just there. And that’s what friends are for.