After my friend Luisa had passed through a time of depression, I asked her what had sustained her through the dark days. She said, ‘Prayer, the support of friends and family, and knowing that the tears won’t last forever. The thought that heaven’s gates are wide open for me is so comforting. The thought of being immensely loved by God. I also remember that I was in a bad place before and eventually got out of it.’
We are looking at the book of Lamentations. The people of Judah had ignored God’s call to repentance, and he had let the Babylonians conquer them. For three years the city of Jerusalem had been surrounded and the people inside its wall starved to death. Then the Babylonians invaded the city and people were taken into exile. Try to picture the devastation as you read this book. The chapter opens with Jeremiah telling us that, ‘I am a man who has seen affliction under the rod of his wrath’ (1a).
It is in this context of suffering that Jeremiah affirms that because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail (22). In his pain Jeremiah was sustained by the thought of being immensely loved by God.
This chapter actually turns on a hinge. In the opening section Jeremiah speaks about his pain with raw honesty. God invites us to be real with him. But heaven’s gates seem closed to Jeremiah. Though I called for help, he shuts out my prayer (8). Sometimes when we need him the most, he seems most absent. ‘My soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is’ (17). He seems to have hit rock bottom.
See beyond your circumstances
Then comes verses twenty-one. ‘But I call this to mind, and therefore I have hope’ (21). One translation translates this, ‘yet I still dare to hope when I remember this’ (NLT). What is it that Jeremiah remembers and calls to mind? He remembers that because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail (22). The destruction of Jerusalem had sent Jeremiah a message, but that message was not the entire story. Our circumstances may tell us that all is hopeless, but we must fight this hopelessness by remembering who God is.
Whatever your circumstances, meditate on what Jesus has done for you on the cross. This is the ultimate and irrefutable evidence of God’s love for his people. It was in love God sent his Son. Jesus died for our guilt and was raised to make us right with God. ‘I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else is all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Romans 8:38-39).
The word translated ‘great love’, in verse twenty-two, is the Hebrew word hesed. Hesed is God’s covenant love for his people. It is a love that is rooted in his character. Our sure hope is that God always remains true to himself. It is because God is love that we must not give up hope. It is because God does not change that we can be sure that we will not be consumed. His compassions never fail. They are new every morning. Great is your faithfulness.
Cultivate intimacy with God
The pastor and author Tim Keller announced last week that he has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He admitted that there have been times of shock and fear, but that God has been remarkably present through all the many tests, biopsies and surgery of the past weeks. I think that this is the most important thing that we pray for our suffering friends. We pray that in the midst of their pain there would have power to see ‘how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge’ (Ephesians 3:18-19).
Having reflected on the great love of God, Jeremiah is able to say, ‘I say to myself, “the Lord is my portion, therefore I will wait on him” (24). In the midst of his pain God is enough for him. Is he enough for us? Keller asked people to pray that he and his wife would ‘use this opportunity to be weaned from the joys of this world and to desire God above all else.’ He wants to be able to say with Jeremiah ‘the Lord is my portion, therefore I can wait for him’ (24).
There is a sense in which this whole life is a time of waiting for the suffering to end. It is only when Jesus returns that we read that there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain (Revelation 21:4). If you are not passing through a time of suffering at the moment it is only a matter of time until you will. In this time of waiting, we need to cultivate intimacy with God. Depression, grief and pain can turn us in on ourselves, but this won’t help us. God ministers to us through his people, so don’t cut yourself off from church. God shapes us as we mediate on his word and pour out our hearts in prayer. Talk to him. Listen to him. Depend on him.
Don’t waste your suffering
God is good. For no one is cast off from the Lord for ever. Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love. For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to anyone (31-33).
The God who caused the Babylonians to level Jerusalem did not do this out of some sort spiteful joy in seeing people suffer. He does not delight in bringing pain on his people. Rather there is a loving purpose behind every tear. His intentions are kind. Sometimes we can see why he allowed us pass through a particular season of suffering, but often we are left scratching our heads.
Why not pray, ‘God, I don’t know what you’re doing or why, but I’m going to trust that you’re God and I’m not. I might never understand the purpose in this life of this pain but use it to make me more like Jesus.’
Sadly, some people become bitter and cynical as they wait for God to lift them out of the pain. But if you let the Holy Spirit do his work in your life, he will become more gentle and understanding towards the pain of others.
The apostle Paul writes of ‘the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God’ (2 Corinthians 1-3-4). Those who allow God to shape them through their brokenness have a gentle and understanding spirit. Don’t waste your suffering but ask God to use it to make you more like Jesus, who himself learned obedience through suffering (Hebrews 5:8).
Mark Vroegop endured the pain of burying a still-born daughter. He says that ‘when sorrow and weariness try to take over the closing moments of my day, I pray something like this:
‘Lord, I am weary and tired. I’m discouraged, and I don’t know how I’m going to do this again tomorrow. But I believe your mercies are going to be new when I wake up. I believe that I will never run out of your steadfast love. I’m trusting that you have enough grace for me for what I face. I’m going to sleep because I’m hoping in you.’
Why don’t we pray that prayer together?