Christianity 201

October 5, 2016

A Great Book For When Life Is Anything But

Have you ever felt like God just doesn’t care? Or perhaps He cares, but is terribly unfair? The husband of my cousin passed away recently and the funeral service confirmed what I already knew. He was a great man who honoured the Lord with his life. He made the lives of everyone around him better. Lord, why not take those who make the lives of everyone around them bitter instead? There are plenty of candidates judging by the evening news. Why this good man and why now as he was still quite young?

Such questioning is common enough. Another cousin of mine sent me a link to a video interview of Stephen Fry who, though not believing in God, responded to the question “what would you like to say to God?” with something like “how dare you create a world with such suffering!” While many of us would not be so bold, we cannot help but question, based on life experience, if God sometimes does not care, or is unfair. Sometimes we just do not feel like clapping along to “If You Are Happy and You Know It . . .”

If you have ever had such negative spiritual thoughts, you are not the first. In fact we are given in the Bible quite a number of Psalms coming from Psalmists writing from dark places. We are also given an entire book written from a dark place, Lamentations. Five chapters mainly of misery. Possibly written by the prophet Jeremiah, but definitely written following the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians, along with the destruction of the Temple and the exile of God’s people. It is a poem written during dark times. It is a great book for when life is anything but. Here is but a small sample:

[God] has filled me with bitterness,
he has sated me with wormwood.
16 He has made my teeth grind on gravel,
and made me cower in ashes;
17 my soul is bereft of peace;
I have forgotten what happiness is;
18 so I say, “Gone is my glory,
and all that I had hoped for from the Lord.”
19 The thought of my affliction and my homelessness
is wormwood and gall!
20 My soul continually thinks of it
and is bowed down within me. Lamentations 3:15-20 (NRSV)

Let us consider what we can learn from Lamentations:

A man or woman of God need not hold back on lament and honest prayer. Listening to my Dad pray in public makes me not want to pray in public. There is an eloquence to his speech in prayer that few of us possess. Do the eloquent prayers of the saints keep sinners from praying? Don’t wait until your prayers sound eloquent, polite, and polished before praying. Pray from experience. Pray honestly. The author of Lamentations did.

A man or woman of God can spend some time reflecting on suffering. We ought not to get the picture of the author reacting in the moment, getting the laments off his chest and then moving on and clapping along to “If You Are Happy and You Know It” the next day. The poetry may feel like it is from the gut, but in fact it is well thought out, for this is quite polished poetry. It is hard to see in the English, but each of the chapters are structured around the Hebrew alphabet. Yes, you can sit with your questions. The author of Lamentations did.

A man or woman of God knows that all suffering is ultimately deserved. All but the central third chapter focus in on the suffering of the nation. Even where the poet uses the first person, he is speaking on behalf of all God’s people. While exclaiming that the suffering is great, he also knows that it is just:

The Lord is in the right,
for I have rebelled against his word. Lamentations 1:18 (NRSV)

This can help us understand where suffering comes from. We are no longer in the Garden of Eden. If there were no sin in humanity, there would be no suffering. Expect a just God to allow suffering. The author of Lamentations did.

A man or woman of God may still feel that suffering is out of proportion, or is unfair. Where chapters one and two, four and five are about the suffering of the nation, chapter three is about the suffering of the writer personally. We know that Jeremiah, the probable writer, suffered terribly as a prophet. Indeed many of those who were the most faithful to God suffered. While the suffering of the nation could be understood, for the leaders and people did not repent in accordance to the call of God through the prophets, why must the prophets themselves suffer also, sometimes even more so? In our day while we can know that suffering is a result of sin generally, why does the suffering of the relatively innocent seem out of proportion to the suffering of the truly evil?

A man or woman of God can still have hope in the face of suffering. There is a turning point in chapter three, one that has found its way into the wonderful hymn “Great is Thy Faithfulness.” The funeral of my cousin’s husband began with this hymn. How many people know these words were lifted from a Biblical poet in a dark time and place?

But this I call to mind,
and therefore I have hope:
22 The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;
23 they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness. Lamentations 3:21-23 (NRSV)

His mercies are new every morning, because we in our sin do not deserve any more mornings. Yet they come, full of opportunity, full of the possibility of walking with God in Christ. And if we do not deserve one more morning, we certainly do not deserve the new reality we will awaken to on the resurrection morning. One more day of life is a sign of God’s grace. Eternal life is evidence of God’s amazing grace all the more. Jesus Christ, in his death and resurrection, is evidence of greatness of God’s faithfulness.

There is more that the poet calls to mind:

  • The Lord is our portion  – verse 24
  • The Lord is good to those who wait on him – verse 25
  • The Lord does not reject forever – verse 31
  • The Lord sees injustice – verse 36
  • The Lord is completely just 39
  • There is opportunity to repent -verse 40
  • The Lord keeps covenant promises – verses 40-48
  • The Lord takes notice – verses 49-63
  • The Lord will execute justice and put things right – verses 64-66

To be able to call to mind these truths about God, the man or woman of God will need to know them in the first place. Sometimes people rail against God without the foggiest notion as to Who it is they are railing against. The better we know the Lord, the greater our opportunity to find hope in the midst of suffering. The author of Lamentations was going through a lot but he knew there was a lot more of the story yet to be told. For this is not just his story to tell, this is God’s story to write. Whatever your circumstance, there is a lot more yet to be told in the story of your life. You may not know all the details of how life will unfold, but you can know that great is His faithfulness.

The man or woman of God may not have all the answers to every question. By the end of Lamentations Jeremiah still had questions:

Why have you forgotten us completely?
Why have you forsaken us these many days? Lamentations 5:20 (NRSV)

I have often likened faith to a jigsaw puzzle. Some pieces come together nicely and a picture begins to emerge. Other pieces are tricky to place, indeed there are some which you don’t find where they go until you are nearly finished. With faith, some people begin with the really difficult questions and never think of anything else. The puzzle is thrown out as a waste of time and faith never develops. I have found that though there are questions I cannot answer, though there are certain pieces that I cannot place, they do not distract from the amazing picture that has emerged. It is a picture of the faithfulness of God, the grace of God, the love of God, the mercy of God, the justice of God, the holiness of God, the power of God, the plan of God, and so much more. It is a picture of Jesus. The puzzling bits remain puzzling, but the picture of God that emerges keeps me puzzling on. Knowing Jesus has not answered every question for me, but it has enabled me to live with the questions.

The writer of Lamentations knew the Lord well enough that he was able to have hope in the midst of a rotten day. Do you? When it seems like God does not care, or is unfair, call to mind His faithfulness. Call to mind all that we know about God through Jesus Christ. That God does care has been proven in the past, at the cross. That God is fair will be proven when Christ returns.

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