A couple of weeks ago, we talked about the practice of lament. It’s something we rarely discuss in modern Christianity, but it makes up more than 1/3 of the psalms and you can find lament throughout the rest of scripture as well. Instead of hiding their pain, people who lament take it to God in prayer. They turn to Him, bring their complaint in an honest, heartfelt way, ask boldly for help and then, equally boldly, choose to trust in God. I ended that first post about learning how to lament with a quote from my favorite passage in Lamentations:
This I recall to my mind; therefore I have hope. It is because of Yahweh’s loving kindnesses that we are not consumed, because his compassion doesn’t fail. They are new every morning. Great is your faithfulness. “Yahweh is my portion,” says my soul. “Therefore I will hope in him.” (Lam. 3:21-24, all quotes from WEB translation)
This passage is lovely and hopeful, but it’s not the whole story of Jeremiah’s lament. It’s not even his concluding thought for this particular poem. Lament isn’t about convincing yourself to be happy. It’s about trusting God even when you’re not sure you want to. It’s about inviting Him to help you deal with hurt, loss, confusion, anger, and other complex, painful emotions. Hope is part of it, a key part, but there’s a lot more going on as well.
Feeling as If God Is Failing You
The third poem of Lamentations (each of the 5 chapters in this book is a separate poem) begins with the words, “I am the man who has seen affliction by the rod of his wrath.” Unlike other poems in Lamentations, Jeremiah doesn’t start by talking about all of the Lord’s people and how their sufferings affect them. This is about him and what God has done to him, personally. Jeremiah begins this poem talking about how it feels to believe that God is targeting him in particular for intense suffering.
He has led me and caused me to walk in darkness, and not in light. …
He has built against me, and surrounded me with bitterness and hardship. …
Yes, when I cry, and call for help he shuts out my prayer. …
He has filled me with bitterness. He has stuffed me with wormwood. He has also broken my teeth with gravel. He has covered me with ashes. (Lam. 3:2, 5, 8, 15-16)
The things Jeremiah mentions in Lamentations 3:1-20 make it seem as if God has failed His promises. God is light, but Jeremiah is in darkness (1 John 1:5). God is supposed to build us up, not build against us (Ps. 89:4; 147:2). Isn’t He supposed to hear us when we cry? (Ps. 34:15). So why does it feel as if He’s going back on His promises and pounding us down instead of helping us up? That’s the sort of thing Jeremiah wonders and so he brings those questions to God, as many faithful have throughout history.
Honesty Leading to Hope
It’s after this honest outpouring of painful emotion that we get to the passage, “This I recall to my mind; therefore I have hope.” It is okay to feel as if God has forsaken you or that He isn’t keeping up His promises. That’s a human response in times of stress; one that only becomes dangerous if you let it drive you away from God instead of doing what lament encourages and taking your pain to God.
We often feel ashamed of questioning God and want to hide our doubts from Him. But the only way to deal with these sorts of questions in a spiritually healthy way is to take them to God honestly. He already knows the deepest secrets of your heart, so it’s not like He’ll be surprised by what you’re feeling and thinking. Often, as Jeremiah shows here, it is only after we pour out how we feel in the moment that we can remember we haven’t really been forsaken and that God is still truly good.
This I recall to my mind; therefore I have hope. It is because of Yahweh’s loving kindnesses that we are not consumed, because his compassion doesn’t fail. They are new every morning. Great is your faithfulness. “Yahweh is my portion,” says my soul. “Therefore I will hope in him.” Yahweh is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him. It is good that a man should hope and quietly wait for the salvation of Yahweh. (Lam. 3:21-26)
Jeremiah recalled specific facts about God’s character and His history of faithfulness to mind so that he would have hope. He reminded himself that he believes in God’s mercy and that it is good to wait for God to bring salvation. As I said before, though, this is not where he stops.
Hopeful, Yet Still Hurting
It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth. Let him sit alone and keep silence, because he has laid it on him. Let him put his mouth in the dust, if it is so that there may be hope. Let him give his cheek to him who strikes him. Let him be filled full of reproach. For the Lord will not cast off forever. (Lam. 3: 27-31)
This is still part of what Jeremiah is writing about hope, but from our point of view it sounds much less optimistic than the previous words. It would be nice if things worked so that once we make one complaint we could walk away with a light, hopeful spring in our step and a brand-new outlook on life. But some things are not so easily solved. Jeremiah is more hopeful than he was when he began this poem, but he is not finished with his lament.
Jeremiah continues to bow down and pour out his complaint to God even while clinging to the hope that He won’t leave him in this trial forever. As part of God’s chosen people, Jeremiah was well aware of Israel’s history as a nation. He knew a generation or more might pass before the physical deliverance they sought became a reality. Israel lived in Egypt 430 years before the Exodus deliverance, and that’s just one example (Ex. 12:40-41).
For though he causes grief, yet he will have compassion according to the multitude of his loving kindnesses. For he does not afflict willingly, nor grieve the children of men. (Lam. 3:32-33)
There is always a purpose in what God does and/or allows to happen. He may be letting sins have their natural consequences in a fallen world (in which case we pray for grace and mercy that God would not repay us according to what we deserve). Another option is that He may be letting the trials teach us a lesson that we need to learn in order to grow. Or He may have other motives we can’t see yet. One thing we can say for certain, as we cling to the sort of hope Jeremiah already spoke of, is that God can be trusted.
Recognizing God’s Hand and Learning a Lesson
You might have noticed by now that Jeremiah seems to blame God an awful lot for the bad things that are happening to him. I feel like at this point, though, it’s not so much of a “God’s out to get me” attitude but rather an acknowledgement that God is in control over everything, even when bad things are happening.
We certainly don’t want to get into a habit of blaming God for everything bad that happens. That often leads to us thinking that He’s unfair and is out to get us. But we also don’t want to make the mistake of thinking that He’s entirely hands-off. God is actively shaking things in the world today and we must serve Him “acceptably, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:25-29). We could learn a lot from Jeremiah’s balanced attitude. He acknowledges God’s role in causing the calamities his nation was facing, but he does not accuse God of being unjust.
Doesn’t evil and good come out of the mouth of the Most High? Why does a living man complain, a man for the punishment of his sins? Let us search and try our ways, and turn again to Yahweh. (Lam. 3:38-40)
There are times when, like Job, our trials don’t happen because we or anyone else did something unrighteous. Sometimes, though, as in Jeremiah’s case, the trials were meant to prompt repentance on an individual and national level. Jeremiah bemoans the punishment (Lam. 3:41-54) but does not complain God is wrong to punish. Instead, he examines himself and his society, then repents for himself and on behalf of the nation. That is a much more productive attitude than insisting that God isn’t fair for bringing judgement down on sin. It’s also more productive than going to the other extreme and insisting that God never has anything to do with trials and that it must be Satan attacking us.
Moving Forward in Faith and Hope
This poem of lament ends with Jeremiah voicing his certainty that God has heard him and will respond.
I called on your name, Yahweh, out of the lowest dungeon. You heard my voice: “Don’t hide your ear from my sighing, and my cry.” You came near in the day that I called on you. You said, “Don’t be afraid.” Lord, you have pleaded the causes of my soul. You have redeemed my life. Yahweh, you have seen my wrong. Judge my cause. (Lam. 3:55-59)
Jeremiah concludes with no doubt that God will set things right, delivering His people and justly punishing his enemies (Lam. 3:60-66).There isn’t yet a definite answer for how God will fix things, but the lament has accomplished its purpose. Jeremiah brought a complaint to God, worked through several thoughts this complaint prompted, and found renewed faith and trust.
The trials we face today are different than those Jeremiah faced, but they are no less frightening. There’s a pandemic sending the whole world into chaos. It’s killing people, trapping us inside our homes, wrecking the economy, and increasing our anxiety. But now is not a time for giving up hope or blaming God. Now is a time for lament. We can follow Jeremiah’s example and take all our concerns to God, working through our struggles and finding new reasons for hope and trust.
Featured image credit: Aaron Kitzo via Lightstock