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How Not to Counsel: Learning from Job’s Friends

Dale Johnson: This week on the podcast, I am delighted to have with me Dr. Brad Brandt. He’s the pastor of Wheelersburg Baptist Church and he has been there for 34 years as a pastor. What a faithful testimony that is. He’s married to his wife, Sherry. They have two children, and most importantly, possibly, three grandchildren. We’re not going to let him talk about that today. He’ll go off on that and we’ll be over our allotment of time.

Brad, I want you to talk to us today, if we can, about how not to counsel. Sometimes, we don’t think about this as an important issue. The Bible gives us instruction, and even demonstration biblically, on so many things that we need to do by way of how we need to approach people in counseling, how we understand them, and that sort of thing, but the Bible also gives us some really helpful instruction and demonstration on how not to approach counseling. So, as we talk about today’s podcast and our topic, talk to us a little bit about the backdrop. What does this conversation look like and why is it important for us as counselors to sometimes even consider how not to counsel from the Scriptures. 

Brad Brandt: Several years ago, Dale, I was leading our church family through the book of Job on a Wednesday evening series, and I came to Job 42:7, where the Lord says, to Eliphaz, that you have not spoken of me what is right. I remember thinking about that. God said that Eliphaz and his two friends had not spoken what was right, and he was very angry with them. So I thought, I do a lot of speaking to people. I wonder what God would have to say about the counsel I give. So I backed up into the book and started looking for evidences of things that were not pleasing to God. What were those things He was not pleased with? I came up with a list of about 15 things that kind of are the backdrop of what we’re talking about today. I think that a lot of people are familiar with the story of Job, but most people are not familiar with the book of Job and that’s kind of what’s also the underpinning of this. 

Dale Johnson: All right. Now, hold on. You made a statement that a lot of people are familiar with this story about Job. Maybe they’ve heard a little bit about him, but they’re not really that familiar with the book of Job itself. So, why the distinction? Why is that part so important? 

Brad Brandt: Well, the story is basically the narrative of Job 1-2, and then 42–this wonderful man, this righteous man that lost so much—and people know that. Even people that don’t know the Bible well know that story probably, but it’s a book. It’s 42 chapters. It’s poetic. Most of the book is the cycle of the speeches between Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, and Job, this interaction between them. That’s what God was not pleased with. The very type of literature it is is communicating something—three cycles of speeches—and Eliphaz always goes first, he’s the oldest, then Bildad and Zophar. It’s a tag-team approach to solving Job’s problem and it’s like they don’t stop. They keep going at him. They’ve got thoughts and minds about his problems and what they say is a problem, but the book itself communicates this to us. It’s not narrative for the most part, it’s poetic, and the very structure of it is communicating something about God. For our purposes, we’re talking about the implications for how we help people. 

Dale Johnson: It’s interesting, when we read this book, they said a lot of things that on the surface, without us understanding the first couple of chapters, we might say, man, that was actually good. We might think that’s consistent, but there are some problems. Job’s friends certainly missed the mark. How are we to think about the ways in which Job’s friends missed the mark in their counsel to Job? 

Brad Brandt: Maybe it would be helpful if I just kind of walk through—Here is the list of maybe 15 indicators of a poor biblical counselor. These are some of the things that I discovered that just stood out to me. One, they said true things but failed to get all the facts. How often do we do that as biblical counselors? Two, they said there had to be sin when there wasn’t. I think this is really interesting. In Job 8:4, Bildad is speaking and he says, “If your children have sinned against Him, He has delivered them into the hand of their transgression.” As you read that, you’re like, what? Bildad is saying basically, your kids died because of sin in their lives. There’s no indication of that in the text. So here’s a biblical counselor saying that there has to be sin when there wasn’t. That wasn’t the cause of the problems. They preached at Job instead of ministering truth to him. They really didn’t listen. They heard words, misunderstood, and ran with them. They were black and white thinkers. They had no room for gray areas.

This was a big one, they offered good answers, but to the wrong question. Maybe to illustrate, that’s in Job 11. One example is Zophar in Job 11:13-16. Just think about this, Dale, if this was coming from a biblical counselor. Zophar says, “If you prepare your heart, you will stretch out your hands toward him. If iniquity is in your hand, put it far from you, and let not injustice dwell in your tents. Surely then you will lift up your face without blemish. You will be secure and not fear.” That’s wonderful counsel for someone who is in belligerent sin, you need to put off your sin and God will bless you. It is not at all appropriate for this man who’s suffering and it’s not because of unrighteousness, we’re told. It goes on and on. They had an inadequate view of suffering. They failed to give Job what he needed which was pity, hope.

They accuse Job of things he hadn’t done. They said true things but in the wrong context, things that didn’t help Job. Eliphaz does that in Job 22. I won’t read it, but he gives this wonderful—In fact, if you were doing your Bible reading, you might even star some of the things that they’re saying. These are wonderful statements about God and His greatness, but they completely miss the point of what’s going on in Job’s life. They don’t understand what’s happening in Job’s life, but they presume they do. Job doesn’t understand either, but he’s honest about. In Job 25, they misuse worm theology. This is a really interesting statement. This is coming from Bildad and he says, “Behold, even the moon is not bright, and the stars are not pure in his eyes. How much less man, who is a maggot, and the son of man, who is a worm!” I call that the misuse of worm theology. The correct use would be Isaac Watts, “Alas, and did my Savior bleed, and did my Sovereign die? Would He devote that sacred head for such a worm as I?” You think about yourself compared to the Creator. It’s amazing to think of His great love for us. But Bildad is taking this wonderful truth about God’s greatness and he’s crushing Job. He’s like, you’re like a worm, Job. If you would just acknowledge that, life would be better for you. Then they keep hounding Job, one right after another, this tag-team approach to counseling. Of course, it doesn’t help him. 

Dale Johnson: It is interesting to see the contrast to how oftentimes they’re saying true things, but they’re applying the wrong types of truths in the wrong context. It does matter categorically, when we’re gathering data, how we see this person. 1 Thessalonians 5, we talk about that passage a lot in biblical counseling. We’re not going to admonish someone who’s faint-hearted, right? We’re going to admonish the unruly, the Bible says, or those who are in rebellion, and we’re going to encourage the faint-hearted. This is a piece that’s missing here. Listen, this is a great warning for us because, as you mentioned in Job 42, God was not pleased with the way in which they counseled, and that matters for us.

I love the way you framed that question at the beginning, Brad, where you talked about, what about me? How do I counsel? Do I counsel in ways and use words in ways for hurting people that God is pleased with, that’s consistent with what He said in His Word? That sort of brings me to another question. What are some of these implications? As we look through Job and his friends, and how his friends went about this, what are some implications for biblical counselors? I mean, what are some things that we should avoid that are very clear here, pitfalls in Job? 

Brad Brandt: Well, I’m quite sure if we would have talked to Eliphaz or Bildad or Zophar in the middle of this whole story and said, “What do you think about the counsel you’re giving?”, they would have said, “What are you talking about? We’re giving good counsel.” They were, as we are, blind often to the areas that we need to grow in. I think this is one of the main reasons why ACBC is such an important thing. Some of you may be even thinking about certification. The supervision phase of certification is so helpful because you have someone that’s giving you feedback into the counsel that you’re doing. How are you coming across? Are you too harsh? These friends were basically dispensing truth instead of ministering truth. We can do that. In fact, as I supervise folks that’s a common problem we have. We can do that. So the certification process could be very helpful to us. I think something as practical as, every once in a while, you just get up out of your counselor’s chair and go on the other side of the desk and sit in the counselee’s chair, and think about what it would be like to be in that chair. Think about what that person is going through as they’re pouring out their story to you. I just don’t want to be Job’s friends, and often we’re the last ones to realize that. 

Dale Johnson: Yeah, that’s right. I mean, the spirit in which they were describing things was very condemning. You mentioned that about worm theology. I think that’s a really good picture, and that is really the spirit of the evil one, not the spirit of Christ. Especially for those who know the Lord. It’s Romans 8:1, “There’s no condemnation for those who are in Christ.” Sometimes we may find ourselves sort of in that position where we don’t want to be too harsh, and I agree, I think the supervision phase helps us to have somebody who’s sort of watching from the outside. We may know our own intent as the counselor, but when somebody’s giving us feedback—and I would just encourage any of you, no matter how seasoned a counselor you are, to have people to sit in. I enjoy doing that, allowing people to sit in, observe what I’m doing, ask questions, and I want their feedback. Do you think I communicated the things that I intended to communicate? Did I communicate these things in a way that was kind and gentle and meaningful relative to the Scripture? Then have the heart of the children in Proverbs, that you’re wanting to hear instruction. You have an ear toward that. I think that’s really good counsel for all of us, to be willing to learn through the process at whatever stage we are as counselors, especially those who are new.

Jesus said a few things in the New Testament that are really critical, and as we think about the book of Job and even some of the words that his counselors said, it’s always good for us, in the Old Testament, to have this sort of mentality: Jesus said that the Law and Prophets and the writings, they all point to Him. So how does the book of Job really point us in the direction of Jesus? Really, that’s the end of our counsel, right? Why is that important for us to remember when we’re engaging in counseling? 

Brad Brandt: This is such an important question because we could think about this topic of today and say, well then I’m just not going to counsel because I don’t want to blow it. Let me put it this way, we know that God didn’t give us the stories in the Old Testament merely as moral examples for how to live. The book of Job is not about, okay, just don’t do these things or do these things. The Old Testament, the Law, the Prophets, and the writings, all look ahead. Basically, the book of Job is showing us two truths. One, we may not know God as well as we think, and two, we desperately need a mediator. The book ends with Job interceding for his friends. God said to Eliphaz that you and your friends need this intercession, ask Job.

The book of Job ends by pointing ahead that we are like these three friends. We need someone that can come and provide what we could never accomplish on our own, so it all points us to Jesus. So even as we look at these friends and we see their shortcomings, and we look in the mirror and we see our own shortcomings, we have a Mediator. We have One that came. He took our place. He paid the penalty for our sin. Through faith in Him, we have a standing with God and now we have the ability to live the way God wants. Christ lives through us. So, it’s just how robust the Word of God is. Even this little section of God’s Word that we may not even think about points us to Christ and shows us His beauty. 

Dale Johnson: Well, it’s interesting. Even as we’re talking, I’m thinking about tons of things. This should breed humility in us all. I mean, we should learn primarily from Job’s friends that they didn’t know all there was to know, and we as counselors, as much as we can get in data-gathering, we need to speak humbly because we don’t always know everything. We’re not omniscient. That’s certainly true. That posture of humility as a counselor, I think, is so critical. Job’s friends were just as dependent on the revelation of God as what Job needed. So, make sure that we’re staying dependent.

I love the way we’ve shaped this, Brad. I think this is really helpful, and hopefully this will get you as listeners and counselors thinking and cautious that when you give counsel you do that as unto the fear of the Lord, having in mind what is best for your counselee. I hope you’re encouraged today. I hope you’re cautious, but you love the Word of God and you want to speak truth in a way that’s pleasing to the Lord. Brad, thank you for this. 

Brad Brandt: It’s my joy. Thank you, listeners, for what you’re doing to help people. Let’s keep looking to Christ and let’s keep walking humbly with Him as we come alongside hurting people.

Helpful Resources

Brad’s Breakout Session [1] on How Not to Counsel: Learning from Job’s Friends

Brad’s Message from the 2019 Pre-conference [2] on Human Suffering and Heaven’s Hope