Neil recently exhorted us from Philippians 1:12–18 to develop and embrace a theology of suffering. The way we handle suffering, he noted, says a lot about the way we view the gospel.
It was a timely word for our church. There does seem to be a good deal of suffering in our church right now. The last few weeks have been a very practical exercise for our church in rejoicing with those who rejoice and at the same time weeping with those who weep. We have certainly needed to embrace a healthy theology of suffering.
Suffering and lament, while not identical, often go together. And if Christians must learn to embrace a healthy theology of suffering, we must at the same time learn to embrace a robust theology of lament. There is perhaps nowhere in Scripture that helps us more in this regard than the little Old Testament book of Lamentations.
Lamentations was written by the prophet Jeremiah after the fall of Jerusalem to Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon in 586 BC. The prophet had warned for many years that the fall would happen, but he was routinely ignored by the people to whom God sent him. They enjoyed hearing his preaching, to be sure—they found him to be a dynamic speaker—but they were not interested in the message that he brought. Indeed, the false prophets blatantly contradicted his warnings of impending judgement.
But, as is always the case, God was faithful to his word. The people failed to heed Jeremiah’s warnings, and eventually Nebuchadnezzar came against the city. The biblical accounts of the fall of Jerusalem are somewhat matter-of-fact in nature. Daniel reports it this way:
In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. And the Lord gave Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, with some of the vessels of the house of God. And he brought them to the land of Shinar, to the house of his god, and placed the vessels in the treasury of his god.
It is entirely possible to read those words without emotion. Lamentations was given to us by God so that we could have more insight into what it was like for those conquered, and it cannot be read as dispassionately as Daniel’s historical account.
Jeremiah speaks of bitter weeping at the fall of Jerusalem (1:2), even as her enemies gloated over her and mocked her (1:7). He describes Jerusalem as being “swallowed up” and “laid waste” (2:5–6).
He describes infants and babies starving in the streets (2:11–12) and women being so hungry that they ate their own children (2:20; 3:10). Jerusalem’s plight was so dire that nursing mothers could not or would not feed their children (3:3–4). Hunger had taken its toll to such an extent that once healthy people are described as black and shrivelled (3:8).
In fact, those who had survived the slaughter considered themselves worse off than those who had died (3:9).
Bodies—young and old—were strewn throughout the city (2:21), and those who survived the attack wandered through the streets covered in blood (3:14).
Necessities once freely available—water and wood—must now be bought (5:4) and attackers were continually taking advantage of the weakened city (5:5). It was a dangerous prospect to even leave one’s home to find food (5:9). Fever had gripped the population (5:10), women were raped (5:11), men—young and old—were put on public display as defeated enemies (5:12), and young men and boys were forced into slave labour (5:12). Jeremiah summarised the situation this way: “The joy of our hearts has ceased; our dancing has been turned to mourning” (5:15).
What a dreadful picture of the once holy city! Such words cannot be read without emotion. How terrible it must have been for God’s covenant people to fall into such horrors.
The question must be considered, of course, where was God in all this? It is a question that many Israelites no doubt wrestled with. It is a question that many today wrestle with when bad things happen to “good” people. Where was God when my child was killed in that car accident? Where was God when my daughter was assaulted? Where was God when my husband was diagnosed with terminal illness in the prime of his life?
Can you hear the Israelites asking the question? Where was God when the Babylonians slaughtered Jews in the city streets? Where was God when the famine was so severe that mothers were eating their own children? Where was God when Jewish women were raped throughout the countryside? Where was God when children were forced into slave labour? Where was God when sickness gripped the land?
It is perhaps a natural question to ask, but it is not a difficult one to answer. Indeed, Jeremiah answered this very question for any of his readers who wondered the same thing: “But you, O LORD, reign forever; your throne endures to all generations” (5:19).
This is the robust theology of lament: When things seem to be spinning out of control, God is on his throne.
If the Jews in Jeremiah’s day wondered why God was allowing them to suffer, the answer was plain: “The LORD is in the right, for I have rebelled against his word” (1:18). “Why should a living man complain, a man, about the punishment of his sins?” (3:39). The sacking of Jerusalem was the direct consequence of Jerusalem’s sin. That is not always the case in suffering. We do not always suffer as a direct result of specific sins we have committed. The answer to why we are suffering is not always as easily discernible as it was for the people in Jeremiah’s day. Nevertheless, one thing remains true in all our suffering: “But you, O LORD, reign forever; your throne endures to all generations.”
Where is God when bad things happen to good people—to his people? He is on his throne, where he always is. And he is sovereignly directing all things for his good purposes. “Who has spoken and it came to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it. Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come?” (3:37–38).
Are you tempted to ascribe hardship and suffering to someone or something other than God? If so, you may need a robust theology of lament. For it is precisely when you embrace such robust theology that the grace of God shines ever brighter: “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (3:21–23).
For Jeremiah, even in the most trying of circumstances, the God who had covenanted to care for him was not a distant deity or a mere abstraction of the human mind. As he reflected, in his suffering, on God’s character, he was drawn into living fellowship and intimate communion with his faithful God. Even as he suffered, he praised God for his faithfulness. His theology became his doxology.