“You deceived me! -and I totally fell for it! You always have to be top dog! It’s so important to you that you always win! And now, even being associated with you has ruined my life! You have made me utterly miserable and my life is a disaster…(1)
They are honest words, raw and revealing, a torrent of emotions surging with unrestrained manic. They are, perhaps surprisingly, the scathing lament of a holy man who devoted everything to his calling and had reached the end of his patience. The “deceiver,” named and accused, is God. And the man doing the accusing is the prophet Jeremiah. The rebuke is found in the prophet’s own book, chapter 20:7-9.
For Jeremiah it has been a long time coming. Early in his youth, he was called to the office of prophet. He didn’t want it. When the call came he objected. He reminded the God who had just finished explaining to him that, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you and consecrated you to be a prophet to the nations” that such a choice was ill-advised: “Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth.(2)” The Lord responds by promising to equip him with communication skills but we learn there is more to Jeremiah’s objection than mere inexperience. His own father was a priest, and he had seen his fair share of prophets. They were not liked. Jeremiah was afraid.(3) Young, frightened and begrudgingly, Jeremiah does the right thing and answers the call. If anything he’s loyal, even if he wishes the call had not come to him.(4)
Such is Jeremiah’s calling that he is promised little but hardship and grief. Because of this, the centuries will refer to him by another name: The Weeping Prophet. Jeremiah is called to tell the Israelites that doom is coming because they had been trusting in their outward piety. Many Jews believed that being Jewish afforded them certain irrevocable privileges. Behavior, other than ritualistic obedience, mattered less to them than their status as Abraham’s children. Some also thought that the presence of God’s Temple (where God was said to dwell) protected them from any harm. Meanwhile, the people were giving themselves in worship to fertility cults and taking advantage of the poor and marginalized in the society. Jeremiah announces that Babylon, the new hegemony, is coming, and they will destroy the Temple, sack Jerusalem and usurp the Davidic Dynasty.
It’s a message no one wants to announce: “Repent—or your doom is sealed!” To make matters worse, Jeremiah is told from the offset that his entire mission will fail: “So you shall speak all these words to them, but they will not listen to you. You shall call to them, but they will not answer you. And you shall say to them, ‘This nation that did not obey the voice of the Lord their God, and did not accept discipline; truth has perished; it is cut off from their lips.”
When we meet Jeremiah in chapter 20, lamenting God’s deceitfulness, he has just come out of a traumatic event. He had skillfully crafted a metaphor to help the people understand their culpability in fertility worship. He likened the people to clay in the hands of a potter, who was likened to God. If the potter finds the clay unshapeable, resistant to his will, the potter will smash the clay back down on the wheel and start again. It’s meant to symbolize the relationship between God and Israel. One man, a powerful priest named Pashhur, the C.E.O. of the Temple operations then, doesn’t like the inference. He throws Jeremiah in the stocks, beats him, and locks him away for a day.
And this is too much for the Weeping Prophet. Remember, he never wanted the job anyway. So he launches into a tirade. As the lament progresses, Jeremiah begins to calm down. He tries to convince himself that God is like a warrior who will ultimately fight for him and defend him. God, he envisions, will protect the faithful and in the end good will win.(5) But even though he says the words, his heart can’t assent to them. In verse 13 he gives his best effort to try to convince himself of God’s goodness through the power of suggestion. He writes: “Sing to the Lord, praise the Lord! For he has delivered the life of the needy from the hand of evildoers.” But the feigned attempt at praise doesn’t work. Immediately, in a stark and jarring blast of anger, his tone changes. It’s deeply disturbing, not just because of its content, but because it is the very next verse after lauding God’s praises. Unhinged, the prophet descends into a screed, revealing his brokenness and the detrimental cost of his ministry. He shouts, “Cursed be the day on which I was born! Cursed be the man who brought the news to my father that a son is born to you today making you glad. Let that man be like the cities that the LORD overthrew without pity…because he did not kill me in the womb, so my mother would have been my grave…why did I come out of the womb to see toil and sorrow and spend my days in shame!?”(6)
How wounded he must have been to have wished his mother’s womb a grave. But he is not alone. Those who remain faithful to God’s call (whether lay or professional) often come to a place of resentment, shame, and brokenness. We are in good company. Job cried, “Today also my complaint is bitter, my hand is heavy on account of my groaning….[God] would pay no attention to me…Therefore I am terrified of His presence which I consider, I am in dread of Him. God has made my heart faint; the Almighty has terrified me…”(7) And the prophet Elijah wished to die after he was burned out: “But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he asked that he might die, saying, “It is enough now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am not better than my fathers.”(8)
And then, dear reader, there is me and You. And I’m sure you have a story to tell of the pain you’ve endured for the sake of the Name. I know the confession, “I’m not perfect, I’m a sinner.” Of course it is true of us all. But is it not also true that like these men of old you find yourselves exhausted and overwhelmed at times? You didn’t do everything right but your heart has been for the Lord, and you have tried to be faithful to what God has called you to do. You have prayed, you sought godly council, you made sacrifices and you took the risks of the call. And now everything seems to be failing and your passion, once fresh and vibrant like spring flowers, appears as a crutch, holding up the last vestiges of denial that things, “aren’t really that bad.” And maybe you are scared, scared to speak the words of Jeremiah that God is a deceiver? “No, that cannot be,” you say, but you think it even if you resent the thought. The thought itself leads to the conviction that you are in a really bad place, because now you are accusing God of something you know he cannot be! Such thoughts are dark and negative. How did you get here and where did all your joy go? Why won’t God show up? Why has God apparently abandoned you? You hate the thought. “God would never do that,” you say. You know this, but you can’t help but wonder. “Is God abandoning me?”
Such thoughts are not beyond us. But they must be contextualized or placed within a greater context to make sense of them. Looking for that greater context, we remember the words of another prophet. He, the most faithful and perfect cries, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me!” The repetition of the Name in Jesus’ lament reveals both his surprise and hurt. The pain of the cross was not essentially the nails. The pain of the cross was the pain of rejection, of abandonment, of apparent betrayal by the One person who no matter what should have been faithful to the end: His Father.
When Jesus tells us to “take up the cross” then, and follow him, it is to embrace this crisis at some level. To take up the cross is to experience the shadowed reality of loneliness and hurt that comes from God’s own call. We cannot escape the fact that God’s calling of us is a calling to the cross. To be called to follow Him, is to give oneself over to the loneliness of the cross, the undoing of confidence in God that was previously strong, a loss of a specific type of confidence that was grounded on the premise that God plays by certain rules where human faithfulness is rewarded by Divine protection. This is the crisis: that those called by God trust him enough to answer the call, but that in answering it, that very same trust is undermined as the call progresses. Some call this experience, “The Dark Night of the Soul,” for Jeremiah and the prophets it was a desire for release, and for us, it is often experienced as betrayal or abandonment.
The pretention that those who are sent will be successful, that they who answer the call will be showered with blessings, dies hard in the crucifixions of our egos and shattering of our naiveté about God’s responsibilities towards us who did the right thing.
Jeremiah was called to a mission bound to fail. In chapter 20 he has his crisis. Jeremiah remains faithful, however, despite his objections and hurt feelings. And when we see him last, Jeremiah is a refugee in Egypt, his ministry in tatters, a man without a country which has been lost to a foreign occupier, a man with no home and no temple in which to approach God’s intimate presence. It is not a happily ever after. But it is not as depressing as it seems. For always out of the ashes shoots a new branch.
We too must find the courage in our pain to cry prophetic laments. When we come to places in our calls when we are overwhelmed and the future looks grim, it is often because the crisis is near upon us. There is often no way forward for us without the prophetic lament, because such laments force out our honesty and resentment at the God who does not treat us as we expect to be treated. God should be more grateful we think, or at least nicer.
But notice this: Jesus’ cry from the cross was not original but a quotation. Jesus found his cry by parroting the words of a lamenting songwriter.(9) On the cross Jesus took up our words and our lament. He did not choose his own words but our words. Words forged in the shattered dreams of human experience contending with a God whose ways don’t make sense. In choosing them, Jesus takes up our cause. He sides with us against God, as it were, in inferring Divine injustice. By this act of lament Jesus bridges the sinful and ego-driven distance between the human and Divine. For Jesus is also God and so in a sense, the God-Man says to God, “I have heard their cries and their laments, and now I stand in their place and take up their objection. I endorse their cry, I codify it. I am here for them, and I will bear their sin, and I will forgive their iniquity, and they will receive my righteousness and I will weep their cry.”
Yes, friends, we must embrace the crisis of are callings but that crisis need not be our end. For once we reach our limits we can take heart that Another has picked up where our strength rightfully failed. He takes up the cry of the broken and the defeated, the dream-dead, and the fallen. In this cross-confession he asserts himself as our advocate. The mission is not ultimately ours, it is his. We are called and invited to assist him in his work. Sometimes that work will fail. Sometimes we will fail. But such human participation can never undermine the work of the One who finished what he started.
What then to do when hearts are swollen with sadness and God has become the enemy? Be a prophet. Cry your lament. And look to the cross. You will find your words there in the raspy moan of the Crucified, where God and man are ever-joined, and the accuser is redeemed by the accused.
(1) I have paraphrased these words, cited at the end of the first paragraph, in order to contextualize them.
(2) Jeremiah 1:4-8
(3) Jer. 1:8,17-19
(4) Jer. 7:27-28
(5) Jer. 20:11-12
(6) Jer. 20:14-18
(7) Job 23, sections of verses 2, 6, 15-17 quoted
(8) I Kings 19:4
(9) Psalm 22