How do we face failure, disaster and misery? Thankfully the Bible is realistic about life so it includes the book of Lamentations. These five beautifully constructed poems express the pain of life yet also show us a way through. Most of the book is a graphic outpouring of grief, but carefully placed in the middle of the central poem is a sequence of verses (3:21-41) that form the poet’s answer, of which verse 32 is key. They form a central well of truths to ponder that spring up into a fountain of hope, as he begins, ‘This I recall to my mind; therefore have I hope.’(Lamentations 3:21)
First it’s important to do justice to the outpouring of ‘grief’ after which the book is named. This shows that it’s helpful and okay to come before God and express our pain. When these poems were first penned and recited, perhaps as liturgy, they would have provided the participants with a cathartic sense of release. This is a powerful alternative to engaging in destructive acting out behaviours, and can help us too. At the same time the literary structure draws our attention to the central healing core.
Here, and throughout the book, the poet helpfully recognises that God remains in control, even over Babylonian armies: ‘Who is he who says, and it comes to pass, when the Lord doesn’t command it?’(Lamentations 3:37). We don’t live in a universe of equal and opposite forces of good and evil. When failure, disaster and misery come our way, it’s not that evil has triumphed over God’s goodness, but that God has allowed the situation to happen. He is still in sovereign command – and in that sense it can be said ‘he cause grief’.
It can help to consider why God causes/allows bad things to happen at all. Ultimately this is a profound mystery, the only answer to which we have is Paul’s ‘Oh the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and the knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgements, and his ways past tracing out!’(Romans 11:33). But we can understand some things. In Lamentations the poet knows why they are suffering: ‘Jerusalem has grievously sinned’(Lamentations 1:8), ‘We have transgressed and have rebelled’(Lamentations 3:42) i.e. it can be a direct consequence of and/or punishment for sin, either in ourselves or our community. Sometimes however the opposite can be the case. Jesus was ‘without sin’(Hebrews 4:15), yet ‘a man of suffering’(Isaiah 53:3) – incidentally showing that God does not sit aloof from our sufferings but has participated in them; He warned ‘“If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you”’(John 15:20), and as Paul reminded Timothy ‘all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution’(2 Timothy 3:12). However, whatever the cause, God’s purpose is often to bring about good. In Jesus case His death bought our salvation and His exaltation. Joseph could say of his brothers’ cruel act, ‘“you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good”’(Genesis 50:20). The author to the Hebrews taught: ‘All chastening seems for the present to be not joyous but grievous; yet afterward it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been exercised thereby.’(Hebrews 12:11)
That brings us on to the second half of verse 32: God is a compassionate father, full of loving kindness. He not only disciplines us by chastening us for our sins and exposing us to trials to enable spiritual growth, but encourages us to run towards Him with our cuts, grazes and tears, seeking forgiveness, comfort, healing and deliverance. And He does deliver: ‘It is because of Yahweh’s loving kindnesses that we are not consumed, because his compassion doesn’t fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. Yahweh is my portion, says my soul; therefore will I hope in him. Yahweh is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him. It is good that a man should hope and quietly wait for the salvation of Yahweh.’(Lamentations 3:22-26)
We’re encouraged to remember God’s faithfulness and seek His gracious presence in the midst of our suffering. God has, does and will bless His children. It can be helpful to meditate quietly on this fact with prayerful thanks and so look to Him with expectant hope. That is how Paul could describe himself and his fellow workers as ‘sorrowful, yet always rejoicing… having nothing, and yet possessing all things’(2 Corinthians 6:10) – looking ultimately to that place of future hope where there will be no ‘mourning, nor crying, nor pain, any more.’(Revelation 21:4)