Better Counseling through Job the Patriarch (Part 1)

OK, reader.  We’ll take a brief respite from the sacraments and take a few posts to look at the subject of counseling others.  To me, counseling is simply providing guidance to another person who may be confronting a decision, a crisis, a perplexing life situation.  Maybe you find yourself counseling others on a regular basis in your church, in your family, etc.  Could be that you shy away from it because you think you are not good enough to do it.  Perhaps you’re afraid you’ll say something wrong.  On the other hand, maybe you’re needing personal help right now and you don’t know how to seek out the best counsel.  What do you look for in a good counselor?  Follow me over the next few entries to discover some principles on counseling from the biblical story of Job.

The poetical books of the Old Testament provide the reader a glimpse into the spiritual heartbeat of Israel.  The book of Job is a captivating account of one man’s struggle with God as he sought to understand the Sovereign’s ways, particularly with respect to his own suffering.  One of the chief lessons of the book is the individual’s inability to comprehend and assess God’s purposes concerning the specific events of his own life.

The bulk of the book is devoted to a series of conversations between Job and four of his friends, each of whom attempts to interpret Job’s experiences in light of their understanding of God’s character.  With the aid of the book’s interpersonal dialogue, we can gain extensive insight into the practice of counseling others.  Moreover, there are three specific lessons concerning counseling that we can draw from the interaction between Job and his friends.

Principle #1: Good Counselors Refrain from Simplistic Diagnoses of Problems

The approach of Job and his friends to his suffering reflects a basic tendency in people to find rational explanations for suffering.  The practical outworking of this tendency is to universalize what is sometimes true.

Such universalizing leads to a simplistic approach to problem solving.  That is, by ignoring complicating factors, one reduces the problem of suffering to a false level of simplicity.

Job and his friends amply illustrate a simplistic approach throughout the story.  Eliphaz, Job’s fourth friend, applies an abstract principle to Job’s particular situation.

He does this by arguing from personal experience that unrighteous conduct always results in God’s punishment and that righteous conduct never does so (Job 4:7-8).  Moreover, Bildad, Job’s second friend, follows the same pattern, confessing that “God will not reject a man of integrity, nor will he support the evildoers” (Job 8:20).

The lesson to apply to the practice of counseling others is to refrain from simplistic diagnoses of problems.  When a person with significant problems seeks counsel from us, we must avoid a prejudicial attitude that quickly formulates the cause of their problems.  It is often true that one’s sinful behavior brings great suffering.  However, Job’s friends reduced his problem to a false level of simplicity by assuming a direct and inviolable linkage between personal sin and personal suffering.

Zophar exemplifies this misunderstanding by calling Job to repent of his sin.  From Zophar’s perspective, Job can be confident that repentance of personal sin will result in removal of his hardship and an onset of peace and rest (Job 11:11-19).  Zophar’s counsel evidences an outlook that views God as operating from a basic framework of legality.

However, wise counsel readily admits the lack of a dependable, one-to-one correlation between sin and suffering.

Have you ever made a simplistic diagnosis of a problem for someone else?  Have you ever received a simplistic diagnosis?

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