The right message at the wrong time can be incredibly unhelpful.
When Job’s friends learned about his tragic losses, they traveled to his home “to mourn with him and to comfort him” (Job 2:11). At first, they simply sat with him, without saying a word. (See Job 2:13.) When one of them finally spoke, he began by acknowledging that Job had comforted others when they were in distress:
Behold, thou hast instructed many, and thou hast strengthened the weak hands.
Thy words have upholden him that was falling, and thou hast strengthened the feeble knees.Job 4:3-4
This description mirrors the admonition of Isaiah: “Strengthen ye the weak hands, and confirm the feeble knees” (Isaiah 35:3). (See also Hebrews 12:12, Doctrine and Covenants 81:5.)
But even though Job’s friends had seen him do this, they seemed incapable of doing so themselves. Their words of advice were full of accurate statements, but were entirely inappropriate to the situation. For example:
- Eliphaz reassured Job that God would bless the penitent (Job 5), warned him of the dangers of hypocrisy (Job 15), and urged him to repent (Job 22).
- Bildad testified that God is perfectly just (Job 8), warned that wickedness has consequences (Job 18), and declared that man is nothing compared with God (Job 25).
- Zophar reminded Job that God knows everything (Job 11) and explained that even though the wicked may temporarily prosper, their misdeeds will eventually catch up with them (Job 20).
There’s nothing wrong with any of these messages, except for the setting. Job was suffering, and he needed empathy, not lecturing, as he explained multiple times. “I have understanding as well as you,” he affirmed; “I am not inferior to you: yea, who knoweth not such things as these?” (Job 12:3). He called his friends “miserable comforters” (Job 16:2) and “physicians of no value” (Job 13:4). Their words may have been technically correct, but they carried a tone of self-righteousness which only added to Job’s misery. They were kicking him while he was already on the ground. “If indeed ye will magnify yourselves against me,” he protested, “know now that God hath overthrown me” (Job 19:5-6). I’ve already been humbled. I don’t need a call to repentance. I need a friend.
At the waters of Mormon, Alma urged his people to make a commitment “to bear one another’s burdens,… to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort” (Mosiah 18:8-9). He said that we should “impart of our substance…to every needy, naked soul” (Mosiah 18:28). There is a situational awareness embedded in that admonition. When someone is injured or sick, they don’t need judgment, and they don’t need preaching. They need empathy and compassion. They need us to be on their side while they suffer.
President Henry B. Eyring once learned a valuable lesson about comforting others in their afflictions. His father was in the hospital, and his uncle, Spencer W. Kimball, came to visit. President Eyring thought, “here is my chance to watch and listen to a master at going to those in pain and suffering.” But to his disappointment, President Kimball hardly said a word. President Eyring recalled:
I waited for a demonstration of the comforting skills I felt I lacked and so much needed. After perhaps five minutes of watching the two of them simply smiling silently at each other, I saw President Kimball rise and say, “Henry, I think I’ll go before we tire you.”
I thought I had missed the lesson, but it came later. In a quiet moment with Dad after he recovered enough to go home, our conversation turned to the visit by President Kimball. Dad said quietly, “Of all the visits I had, that visit I had from him lifted my spirits the most.”“Serve with the Spirit,” General Conference, October 2010
Today, I will strive to strengthen “feeble knees.” I will pay attention to the people around me and offer support and help that is appropriate to their circumstances and their needs.
Thanks so much for this. I’m starting my practice as a clinical mental health counselor, and your insight really is an evidence of an eternal truth. My grad program taught me that studies show the relationship between the counselor and the client is more healing than any theories or techniques the counselor might attempt. Empathy, understanding, and just being there is the key. Thanks again!
Thank you for the comment. I’m glad you found the post useful, and it’s great to hear that this principle applies directly to your career.