Suffering is an issue which profoundly characterizes the human condition. We have many questions about suffering, frailty, guilt, sin and death and the bible has much to say about these things. The book of Lamentations is an often neglected response to these issues.
How do we respond when God brings catastrophe on our lives? Or, as a Christian, do you think you are exempt from that, so long as you keep believing that God will protect you?
Some Churches teach a muddled theology of suffering, suggesting that we prosper according to how much faith we have, and suffering, disease or tragedy are only the result of a failure in our faith. Like so much false teaching, this thinking has a grain of truth, but is dangerously skewed. If this is your outlook, and disaster strikes you, you have no way of dealing with it: it will damage not just your physical wellbeing, but your faith as well. And rightly so, because a false faith that cannot save you is as bad as (or worse than) no faith at all.
Jesus said that his followers would have to take up their cross and follow him, confirming that suffering would be as much a part of a Christian’s life as it was for Christ himself. But if we look at the book of Lamentations, we find the same truth playing out. It is written for those people in Israel who were “the remnant”, who experienced the full force of one manifestation of the terrible “day of the Lord”, escaping with their lives, only to live with the terrible grief and memory of what was lost.
All the good things that were associated with being God’s covenant people, the community, the temple, health, security and prosperity…all these things were removed from them because of Israel’s endemic unfaithfulness. God’s wrath at sin is kindled, and is displayed in a terrible way. Even those faithful to God felt this wrath. The writer of this book feels that judgement and loss keenly.
But what about the greatest loss of all? There is a loss from which no recovery is possible. It is a loss that is beyond the losses of the many gifts that God gives us, and it is the loss of God himself. We turn our backs on God many times, but what if he were to turn His back on us? The exiled people of Israel were doubtless inclined to ask that question. If they had put their faith in the gifts of God with no regard to God himself, then they would truly have felt devastated when it all turned to ashes.
It’s important to remember that the people in Jerusalem were religious people. They had a degree of cultural pride in their heritage, in their observances, in the name of their god. They showed that they didn’t really understand their calling by their growing unfaithfulness, but how aware were they of this situation? What would it take for us to learn the difference between faith in religion, and faith in God? Disaster, when sent by God, does not make us desperate, but rather it reveals our desperation.
Despite the totality and depth of the suffering which God’s people have experienced, the message of Lamentations is that God has not given up on his promises. The message is that God’s faithfulness goes deeper even than this kind of judgement, and we read that in Chapter 3:21 onwards.
When Jesus taught his disciples that they could “turn the other cheek” he was thinking about Lamentations 3:30 “Let him give his cheek to the one who strikes, and let him be filled with insults”. Those who realise that “The Lord is [their] portion” (3:24) are able not just to endure all suffering, but find blessing in the midst of it.
We have the book of Lamentations that we might, through profound poetry, experience in our imaginations the kind of disaster that reveals our desperate need for God. Perhaps God will spare us from similar tragedy in our own lives. We need not seek it, but Lamentations shows us that we can find profound value in even the deepest of suffering, because we know that God has remained faithful to those who repent and seek his face.
There was one man who did not need tragedy to teach him what God’s love was worth. He knew the joy of communion with the Father in all its fulness, and he knew every blessing that came with it. But Jesus Christ entered and endured the deepest of tragedies: separation from God. He did this so that we, like the remnant of Israel, might have a firm hope in the forgiveness and faithfulness of God.