3 Things to Unlearn from Job’s F.R.I.E.N.D.S

A month ago, millions of people worldwide tuned in to watch the Friends reunion (myself included). One thing I learned from watching it (besides how quickly celebrities age!) is how this ’90’s sitcom about 20-somethings in New York is still a global phenomenon—even after endless reruns, Netflix, and translations into dozens of languages. In one scene, Korean pop stars BTS shared how they learned English and how to navigate relationships through watching episodes of Friends.

Korean pop stars BTS shared how they learned English and how to navigate relationships through watching Friends.

And it’s not just English and relationships. Like it or loathe it, this is a show that catechised (i.e. taught) entire generations in all kinds of things:

  • how not to move a couch up the stairs (helpful)
  • how to use a fatsuit as a running gag to fatshame millions (still hurtful)
  • how not to spell the days of the week (helpful)
  • how to normalise casual sex, porn marathons and more with a laugh track (devastating)

Jonathon von Maren (who’s detailed much more of the dark enduring legacy of this show) notes: “TV is frequently a feedback loop that not only reflects culture but also drives, shapes, and informs it.”

So whether it’s Friends on TV, or friends in real life, we need wisdom to sift through what we learn from them: what’s helpful, what’s hurtful.

Some Other Friends

The names Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar don’t have quite the same star power as Joey, Chandler and Ross. But what both sets of friends have in common is that there’s a bit of unlearning we have to do from them if we want to live wisely.

If you’ve ever braved reading through the long-winded counsel of Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar from Job 4-25, you’ll know that on first glance, their words sound grand, knowledgable and pious. But there are some fatal flaws in what they say. Here are three ideas we should unlearn from Job’s friends (I’m grateful for Christopher Ash who first summarised these):

False idea #1: There is no Satan behind suffering

Job’s friends speak of God a lot, but they actually never mention the Accuser (literally, “the Satan” in Hebrew). To Job’s friends, all evil comes from humans behaving badly. That’s why they’re so quick to accuse Job of sin—if there is evil, they must find a human cause.

To Job’s friends, all evil comes from humans behaving badly.

Yet the narrator in chapter 1-2 is clear: Job’s suffering is part of an unseen, cosmic battle. There is an Accuser who is waging war against God’s servants. Job never finds out about him in the story—though Job does show that he is aware of agents of chaos and evil with his references to creatures like Leviathan (Job 3:8) and Rahab (Job 26:12).

We too can forget that there is an enemy at work. Certainly there is another danger of over-reading our circumstances and blaming everything on the devil, or overstating his freedom. But to be a Christian is to believe evil is not just a human construct, but has a spiritual dimension. We are wrestling against more than flesh and blood (Eph 6:12).

So as we bind up real wounds, we offer to pray. As we stand with real suffering, we plead for God’s empowering Spirit. That’s one way not to fall into the error of Job’s friends. 

False idea #2: There is no final judgement

The second idea we need to unlearn from Job’s friends is that “there is no final judgement.” For chapter after chapter, Job’s friends talk as if judgement is all here and now: the wicked are punished in this life; the righteous are blessed now. That’s why they’re so hard on Job. To them, God is as predictable as a vending machine, or an Uber Eats driver. Press the button, out comes blessing or cursing. There is no waiting. Life is just here and now. This is the secular view of the world.

In the real world—God’s world—blessings don’t always come straight away.

If we’re honest, many of us live each day like this too. We believe in consequences but not judgement. We make life choices, pursue career decisions, balance budgets as if there is no life after death. We take our cues from people who have no interest in storing-up treasure in heaven. Our “Job’s friends” may not give lengthy Hebrew poetry or tell us we’re sinners, but they are using the same ‘this-worldly’ perspective as they clickbait us; or sing into our headphones; or tag us in another wise “meme” about living well here and now: “max out your mortgage now … buy another toy now … sleep with your boyfriend now.”

But in the real world—God’s world—blessings don’t always come straight away. Yes, the Bible teaches that we will reap what we sow (Gal 6:7-10), but it is “at the proper time” that “we will reap a harvest, if we don’t give up.”

And in the real world—God’s world—judgement delayed is not judgement denied. Every unrepentant mass murderer, child abuser, heresy-teaching pastor, will be punished. But not always here and now. Think of Jesus’ parable about the wheat and the weeds growing beside one another (Mt 13:24-30). They are not separated until the harvest —the final judgement. But that day is coming.

Rather, we should listen instead to Job’s cries:

Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him,
I will surely defend my ways to his face.
(Job 13:15)

Or again:

I know that my redeemer lives,
And that in the end he will stand on the earth.
And after my skin has been destroyed,
Yet in my flesh I shall see God.
(Job 19:25-26)

And if Job is clinging to a final judgement of some kind, so should we.

 False idea #3: There is no innocent suffering

The final idea we must unlearn from Job’s friends is that there is no such thing as innocent suffering.

In the neat and tidy world of Job’s friends, only the wicked perish. Only the good prosper. They cannot stand Job maintaining he is righteous, because if the righteous suffer, their moral world falls apart like a house of cards. Eliphaz said it best in Job 4:7: “Consider now: Who, being innocent, has ever perished?”

To that question, the Bible’s final answer is clear:

You see, Job couldn’t have known it at the time. But his innocent sufferings showed God’s wisdom far more deeply than he or his friends could ever explain in words. On the cross, Jesus, though innocent, perished for the guilty; falsely accused by a bunch of “wise guys”; abandoned by friends; tormented, stripped naked, abused, murdered. He perished, so we might not perish.

And if we can unlearn the “wisdom” of Job’s friends, we’ll see more clearly these deep truths from the heart of the universe: there is a place for innocent suffering. There is a spiritual battle. There is a final judgement. And there is a true Friend, who has willingly laid down his life for his friends (John 15:13).