Reconstructing Meaning in the Face of Suffering

The reality of suffering and evil challenges the affirmation that God is good and sovereign, and saves and liberates from the clutches of evil powers. If God is unlimited both in goodness and power, as the Christian faith claims, why doesn’t God destroy the powers of evil through the establishment of divine righteousness? If God is the One who delivered the people of Israel from Egyptian slavery, who revealed Himself in Jesus as the healer of the sick and the helper of the poor, who is present today as the Holy Spirit with the power of salvation and transformation, then why are the marginalised people in India and around the world still living in wretched and dehumanising conditions without dignity, value and rights? Why does God allow upper caste and upper class people to oppress, exploit and dehumanise lower caste and lower class people in India when the Bible says Jesus, the God’s messiah, came down “to set the captives free” (Lk. 4.18; cf. Is. 61.1)?

The persistence of suffering of the weak and vulnerable seems to require us to deny either the perfect goodness or unlimited power of God or both. The continued existence of oppression and exploitation, and pain and suffering has made some people in all ages to question the goodness and power of God, as reflected in the strong and candid words of Epicurus (341-270 BC): “God either wishes to take away evils, and is unable; or He is able and is unwilling; or He is neither willing nor able; or He is both willing or able. If He is willing and is unable, He is feeble, which is not in accordance with the character of God. If He is able and unwilling, He is envious which is equally at variance with God. If He is neither willing nor able, He is both envious and feeble, and therefore, not God. If He is both willing and able, which alone is suitable to God, from what source then are evils? Or why does He not remove them?”

The people of Israel, who believed in the goodness and almighty power of God, too wrestled with suffering, not as a metaphysical problem, but as a problem related to the life of faith. Because suffering usurps life’s meaning as defined by human relationship with God. For the communities which adhere to ethical monotheism, the struggle to construct meaning in light of suffering is an urgent task, given the belief in a benevolent, just and righteous God.

The Book of Lamentations represents one example of a community’s struggle to construct meaning in the face of severe suffering which followed the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BC. Within these poems we hear the cries of the suffering community, a suffering which encompasses not only physical pain and distress, but also a loss of coherence between their faith and experience, and the collapse of the very traditions which helped to form the community identity. The temple had been destroyed, the political system dismantled and the social fabric of society torn apart. The collapse of meaning echoes the physical ruin of the Jerusalem city.

A. The Real Life Experience of Suffering

The expression of pain and suffering is the most dominant feature of the poems of Lamentations. The poet (or poets) portrays, in the darkest possible terms, the fate of ruined Jerusalem and the agony of her inhabitants at home and in exile. The anguish becomes unbearable as he recalls Jerusalem’s past power and glory, in sharp contrast to the triumph of the adversaries who have destroyed her, trampling her inhabitants into despair (1.5, 9; 2.16,17; 3.46, 58-63; 4.21).

A major focus of the poetry is the destruction of Jerusalem, although the poet (or poets) is also aware of the wider destruction of cities and rural communities in Judah (2.2). Personified Zion is imagined as a widow (1.1), a woman in exile (1.3), a mother whose children have either been exiled (1.5, 18) or killed (2.22). Houses and public buildings are devastated (2.2, 5, 9). The destruction of Jerusalem is complete as portrayed by a raped woman: “Enemies have stretched out their hands over all her precious things” (1.10). The loss of the capital city, as the centre of the government and the cult, represents all Israel.

The people who remained in Judah have lost political control over the land. They are ruled over by “slaves” (5.8). They suffer numerous indignities – women are raped, princes are executed, elders are treated dishonourably. Forced, unpaid labour has been imposed (5.5, 8, 13). Their family inheritances and their homes have been taken over by “strangers” and “foreigners” – their new overlords (5.2). They no longer have control over their natural resources such as wood and water. Instead they must buy access to such things from others (5.3).

As a result, the general population is plagued by famine and hunger (1.19; 2.20; 4.3-4, 9; 5.9). The famine conditions have created the outrageous situation in which not only starving children “cry to their mothers, “where is bread and wine?” as they faint like the wounded in the streets of the city,” but also women eat their own offspring (2.11-12, 20). The extreme conditions driving even compassionate mothers to harsh and degrading behaviour reappears in 4.3-4 and 4.10. “The tongue of the infant sticks to the roof of its mouth for thirst; the children beg for food, but no one gives them anything” (4.4). The famine is merciless – no one is exempt from it, not even those one would imagine would have priority access to food: the rich (4.5), the young (2.11; 4.1-4), the devout (4.7-8), and priests and elders (1.19). As the poet summarises the degrading conditions: “Happier were those pierced by the sword than those pierced by hunger, whose life drains away, deprived of the produce of the field” (4.9).

The suffering of Israelites is incomparable as vast as the sea (2.13). No class or group of Israelite society goes untouched by the suffering: the young and old (1.19; 2.10; 4.16; 5.14), men and women (1.4, 15, 18; 2.20; 4.10; 5.11, 13), children (1.16; 2.11-12, 19, 20; 4.2-4, 10), priests and prophets (1.19; 4.13, 16), the well-to-do and political leaders (1.6; 2.2; 4.5, 7-8; 5.12) and even the king (4.20).

The capture of the king by the enemy is catastrophic, because he served as a shade – a protector of, and a provider for his people: “The Lord’s anointed, the breath of our life, was taken in their pits – the one of whom we said, “Under his shadow we shall live among the nations” (4.20). The Davidic dynasty ends (4.20) and the political power is in the hands of foreigners (1.5; 5.2).

Not only the social and political fabric, but also the cult has been destroyed. Jerusalem temple is the religious centre of the nation. The Babylonians entered the temple, desecrated it, plundered it, and then destroyed it (1.10, 5.18). The destruction of the temple has caused the worshipping rhythms of Israel’s life to falter – festivals and Sabbath are forgotten (2.6).

Jerusalem is burned and its temple destroyed, the king is exiled, leading citizens are deported and public life ended. For the people of Judah, it is the end of privilege, certitude, viable public institutions and a sustaining social life. The loss of home, the displacement that followed, and the apparent loss of God are the defining realities for the people.

B. Honest Acknowledgement of the Reality

In such wrenching times we face twin temptations: temptation of denial – the pretence that there has been no loss –, and the temptation of despair – the inability to see a way out. Some engage in nostalgia, imagining that not much is happening, that the loss is not deep, not permanent….

Moreover, in times of dislocation the temptation is to become self-preoccupied and self-indulgent. Dislocation carries with it a temptation to be preoccupied with self, to flee the hard task of community formation for the sake of private wellbeing. This is very much evident in our own society, where public responsibility is on the wane and the most privileged desperately work to improve their private estate. We can see this self-preoccupied individualism in the greed that our society calls “opportunity”.

But Judah has come to terms with the losses by its capacity to tell the truth about itself – to claim the loss, and to express publicly and repeatedly all the hurt, the grief, the rage, the doubt and the bewilderment of what it means to have the focal center of life and the engine of faith taken away.

The poet sees suffering for what it is, without denying it, or twisting it into a story of endurance. Unless loss is acknowledged, examined and understood, newness will not come. The community of faith has learned to express sadness, rage, anger and loss honestly. It has engaged in speeches of complaint and lamentation that dared to say how overwhelming is the loss, how great the anxiety, how deep the consequent fear. Lamentations expresses the sadness of this experience by describing a bereft Jerusalem: “She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has none to comfort her” (1.2). These speeches have given the people of Judah a way to vent their emotions at loss. It is a “healing-through-language”. The truly tragic is “inexpressible, unintelligible and inexplainable” and thus to show and speak about this absence of meaning, tragedy, is to name it and make it meaningful, to gain some control over it, and ultimately to resist its corrosive power. Hillers says, “People live on best after calamity, not by utterly repressing their grief and shock, but by facing it, and by measuring its dimensions.”

Hence, the simple act of helping the suffering community (or a person) to regain its voice is very much essential.

C. A Distraught Mind Searching for Possible Solutions to the Suffering of God’s Covenant Community

Inherent in the expression of pain and suffering is the struggle to come to terms with the extent of the suffering, and to grapple with this before God. As laments, the poems are representative of the breakdown of meaning. In the expressions of pain and suffering, in the protests and in the questions, the breakdown of meaning and conventional theology is evident throughout. Westermann states, “Even at its lowest moments the nation experienced its own history as a context that had meaning—or at least ought to have meaning. It took on meaning in that God was at work in it. Yet the nation experienced the plight it was in as an absurdity that confronted God with the question, “Why?” How can God bring such profound suffering upon people—if indeed they are his people—when he has previously done such great things for them? Insofar as the absurd is laid before God, the lament of the nation contains a dimension of protest, the protest of a people who cannot understand what has happened or has been done to them.”

The poems explore and express possible responses to the breakdown of meaning created by the suffering. But they arrive at competing voices and theological viewpoints that are in tension with each other.

1. Sin and Suffering

Based on the covenantal and legal traditions of Israel (eg. Dt. 28), suffering is understood as just punishment of God for human disobedience or rebellion against God. The destruction of Jerusalem as punishment for sin is evident in Lamentations (1.5, 8, 9, 14, 18, 20, 22; 2.14; 3.39, 42, 64; 4.6, 13, 22; 5. 7, 16). In 1.5, 8, direct reference to Jerusalem’s sin as the cause of God’s action is made. Alongside this, 1.8 refers to Jerusalem sinning grievously, 1.9 to Jerusalem’s impurity, 1.14 to Jerusalem’s transgressions, 1.20 to Jerusalem’s rebellion. The causal link between sin and punishment is further expressed in 1.21-22 where God is called upon to deal with the enemy in the same way Jerusalem’s transgressions have been dealt with. Thus, there is recurring reference to the sin of people and the causal linking of this sin with Yahweh’s action.

However, the huge amount of destruction can not be explained by human sin only. Rather it needs a different rationale because misbehaviour of people alone can not cause such vast devastation.

Moreover, the link between sin and suffering is subverted by the overriding emphasis in the poems on the experience of suffering and pain, rather than on confession of sin, with the sheer weight of the suffering expressed shifting the audience’s response to one of empathy for Jerusalem/the people. The subversion is further strengthened by the absence of specific content as to the nature of sin.

Further, passages like 2.1-8, 3.1-18 name Yahweh as the causal agent behind the destruction, but make no reference to sin as the motivation behind Yahweh’s actions. Protest against the silence of God and God’s inactivity is a further counter voice to the causal link of sin to suffering.

While a causal link of sin to suffering is voiced as a response to the existential crisis, it is neither the only voice, nor a voice that is fully accepted.

2. Enemy and Suffering

The author of Lamentations tries to place appropriate blame on Zion’s captors as enemy. He says, “All her friends have dealt treacherously with her, they have become her enemies” (1.2; see also 1.5,7,9,10).

The capacity to blame a third party as the cause for suffering has the salutary effect not only of asserting the innocence of the people of Judah who are not at fault, but also protecting God from any implication in the unjust circumstance in which people are found.

3. God and Suffering

The suffering of the covenant community of God has been caused by both God’s absence and God’s violent presence as an enemy. Within Lamentations, divine absence and violent presence stand in contrast with each other, a contrast which creates tension in the text.

a. Absence of God

The absence of God is represented by the petitions for God to look and notice the suffering (eg. 1.12, 20; 2.20; 5.1) and for Yahweh to act against the enemy (1.21-22; 3.64-66). 3.42-51 voices this crisis. The people have confessed but God has not forgiven (3.42). The poet laments the destruction of the people, and vows that lament and weeping will continue “until the Lord from heaven looks down and sees” (3.50). The final words of Lamentations point most poignantly to the crisis, raising the fear and possibility that the God who has always been known as the protector of God’s chosen people may have abandoned them (5.20-22).

Even in the Psalms, the psalmists complain that the reason “the enemy” is effective in causing damage and suffering is because of absence or negligence of Yahweh from the speaker in time of need. The enemy can not operate in the face of Yahweh’s presence. But when Yahweh is absent or neglectful (for whatever reason) the power of the enemy will promptly occupy the vacuum created by Yahweh’s absence.

Thus, God is implicated in the crisis, not by active failure, but by passive neglect. As a consequence, in the prayers of protest and petition, it is clearly Yahweh and not the speaker who has been responsible for the suffering. Thus, the prayers are vigorous attempts to motivate and summon Yahweh to attentiveness and to intervene actively: “Rise up O Lord; Deliver me, O my God” (Ps. 3.7; see also Ps. 6.4; 7.6).

What is most to be appreciated is the evident readiness of the voice of faith in these prayers to continue to trust in and appeal to God in the face of suffering. The faith of the covenant community clings in an uncompromising way to confidence in Yahweh, since that present suffering – caused by enemies – is only temporary and surely can not stand in the face of Yahweh’s vigorous intervention. That’s why Jerusalem pleaded for God to see her eyes and the truth of her reality.

The risk of silent, passive acceptance denies our reality, accentuates fear, and promotes surface relationship. One needs to give voice to the desire to know and be known, to understand and be understood. Otherwise deeper levels of intimacy can be thwarted. Even in the absence of God, silence can not be our last word!

But how to understand “the absence of God”? The people of Israel believed that Yahweh is in control of historical events. In time of war it is Yahweh who ultimately comes to Israel’s aid and fights as the divine warrior on Israel’s behalf (eg. Ex. 15; Jud. 5.2; 2 Sam.22; Hab. 3). Victory in battle is thus understood as an obvious sign of Yahweh’s control of history. But Yahweh’s autonomy and control of history must be maintained even in defeat. This is accomplished through the divine abandonment theme, in which God is understood to have voluntarily abandoned his people, thus leaving them vulnerable to attack. As mentioned above, this theme is present in Lamentations (1.1; 2.1, 3, 6, 7, 8; 5.20, 22). Yahweh is not defeated by the Babylonian gods. He left Jerusalem and his people on his own!

b. God’s Violent Presence

Yahweh not only abandoned Jerusalem, but also turned around and played an active role, as a warrior, in the city’s destruction. He ushered in the enemies, and what is more, he himself in the guise of the divine warrior battled against Jerusalem. In passages like 2.1-8, God is portrayed as actively destroying the city and in 3.1-18 the divine warrior language is used to portray the infliction of the man. The presence of the Babylonians as the actual enemy is sidelined, with Yahweh portrayed as the enemy. This is best highlighted in the cry, “Look, O Lord, and consider! To whom have you done this?” (2.20). That such a crisis should have befallen Jerusalem and the covenant community defies understanding.

Even the Psalmists complained against God for being the cause for their suffering. There is no sense of guilt, no notion that the suffering is warranted punishment. Ps. 88.16-18 says, “Your wrath has swept over me; your dread assaults destroy me. They surround me like a flood all day long; from all sides they close in on me. You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me; my companions are in darkness.” The most extensive case of accusation of Yahweh for unwarranted treatment is in Ps. 44.9-15.

When the covenant community of God is driven to extremity, it breaks beyond civility, beyond accepted theology, and beyond anything that might be accepted as legitimate. The reason for this break into extremity is that the people of God, in their honesty, refuse to reduce pain, misery and disorder to their own guilt and failure. Their conviction is that there is disorder and injustice in acute measure well beyond any moral, covenantal failure that can be assigned to the covenant community of God.

The ground of the protest against God is the conviction of the people of Judah that in a covenantal ordering of the world, they have just claims against Yahweh. Their just claims lead to the awareness that fault may be with an enemy whom Yahweh must resist, or fault may be with Yahweh, either through passive negligence or through active abuse. In other words, it is God who is violating the covenantal obligations towards his people!

In the protests and complaints against God, the covenant people of God are utterly honest. Such speech need not be polite, it need not cover up or deny, it need not accept fault, when more deeply it does not accept fault. It is not interested in speculative, explanatory gestures that “defend” God. In utter and innocent suffering, Israel does not believe that God’s ways can be justified. Such honesty permits to process pain, hurt, rage and bewilderment. The outcome of such a process intends to be restoration to relationship, and not intellectual satisfaction. Israel is not preoccupied with a philosophical question of life and human suffering, but with the reality of life and communion with Yahweh. In the end, pain and suffering are not “explained”, rather the covenant community and God work through to a new depth of relationship in which, in the face of pain and suffering, serious healing and hope-filled communion are made possible.

The covenant community of God knows no “resolution” to the problem of innocent suffering. Such a pursuit is futile. But what it does know and practice is a candid relationship with God that permits communion in more intense and intimate dimensions of life. In that practice, the covenant community is determined that suffering is not finally a barrier to communication, but it is at least an arena for communication. In the end, it finds covenantal communion adequate for its life, even in the midst of unbearable, inexplicable suffering and pain. But that communion is only possible if and when the covenant community abrasively and relentlessly summons God back into its life.

D. What Does Sufferer or Suffering Community Need?

 1. Comfort

The dominant theme of Lamentations is suffering. To read Lamentations is to stand beside those who suffer, without judging, without giving advice. Lamentations is not the story of suffering in some abstract sense. Such suffering may be sad but, in the words of T.S. Elliot, it does little more than “instruct…or inform curiosity.” The suffering of real people, by contrast, makes one weep. The audience needs to be emotionally engaged witnesses to the plight of the suffering people.

In Lamentations the audience is given no respite – they can not turn away, but are forced to look and to keep looking. They are invited to see the plight of the people of Judah with kinder eyes: “Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow” (1.12). The people of Judah are totally overwhelmed by the enormity of suffering. People in such situations need comfort — a shoulder to lay their head, a comforting word, and a comforting presence.

That’s why Zion pleads for comforters: “Zion stretches out her hands, but there is no one to comfort her” (1.17; cf. 1.2, 9, 16, 21). She seeks for a comforter among her friends, but fails to find any (1.2).

However, the comforting voice Zion needs to hear the most is that of her God, Yahweh. No amount of human comfort can substitute for the lack of divine comfort, for the very identity of Judah depends upon its relationship with Yahweh. But in Lamentations Yahweh remains silent!

2. Compassion

Compassion is an appropriate response to human suffering. One of the major aims of Lamentations is to elicit divine compassion. The personified city repeatedly urges Yahweh to look and see her affliction (1.9, 11, 20; 2.20), and to hear her groans (1.21). It is through the myriad of horrific images of human suffering and pain that the Lamentations reawakens the capacity for compassion. It is our revulsion and anger at the image of a starving child or a raped woman, or the dead bodies of young and old littering the streets that our capacity for compassion begins to be rekindled. If we can see these victims as humans and not objectify them, then we can only respond out of compassion. Farley says, “The capacity for compassion is contingent upon the ability to recognize the other person as human and as suffering.”

In the midst of suffering and pain, the poet of Lamentations remembers God’s steadfast love, his mercifulness and faithfulness (3.22-33). If just before he had considered there to be no more consolation or hope (3.18), he now realises that God’s steadfast love, mercy and faithfulness have never come to an end. It is remembering the nature of Yahweh which leads to hope. This is the self disclosure identity of God which Moses heard (Ex. 34.6). Yahweh is above all the God of steadfast love. The Hebrew term hesed signifies the loyalty arising from a relationship (eg. Friendship, see I Sam 20.8), which motivates the stronger party to show favour or give help to the weaker. Applied to God’s covenant with human beings, it means benevolent action, loyalty manifested in deeds, gracious favour. It is this nature of God that gives hope, in spite of circumstances that may say otherwise.

3. Hope

Even in its darkest moments Zion is never without hope – if one had given up hope one would cease to engage God. Its hope is grounded in its covenant with Yahweh and the divine action consonant with God’s covenant-faithfulness (3.21-24, 31-33). Yahweh still rules and the covenant is still in place, so hope remains.

Zion’s hope of redemption is grounded not only on the covenant relationship with Yahweh, but also on his kingship. God rules over Israel and the nations. The covenant community confesses God’s eternal kingship: “But you, O Lord, reign for ever; your throne endures to all generations” (5.19). The belief in the eternal kingship of God leads the people to plead for restoration (5.20-21).

Conclusion

Sin and guilt can not always have the last word. Lamentations, like other tragedies, retains “the sharp edge of anger at the unfairness and destructiveness of suffering.” Suffering matters and is not to be justified in the name of a higher good.

Various voices in Lamentations name the suffering that is so offensive to human dignity and ultimately call Yahweh to account. Radical suffering that refuses to be justified by human sin and guilt must ultimately be laid at the feet of Yahweh. Thus, if there is hope in Lamentations, it does not come to the faithful person who sits in silence waiting for Yahweh’s salvation.

Finally, two alternative interpretative strategies for the readers of the Book of Lamentations: one is, from inside-out, i.e. identifying with the suffering people of Jerusalem; the other is, from outside-in, i.e. considering the possibility of seeing ourselves in the role of nations – the oppressors, or faithless allies, or the nations that ignore the sufferings of the victim, or those who exploit the political weakness of others.

Sources

Dobbs-Allsopp, F. W. “Tragedy, Tradition, and Theology in the Book of Lamentations,” JSOT 74 (1997).

Elizabeth Boase, “Constructing Meaning in the Face of Suffering: Theodicy in Lamentations,” Vitus Testamentum 58 (2008).

Heath Aaron Thomas, “Relating Prayer and Pain: Psychological Analysis and Lamentations Research,” Tyndale Bulletin 61:2 (2010).

Jose Krasovec, “The Source of Hope in the Book of Lamentations,” Vitus Testamentum XLII, 2 (1992).

Robin Parry, “Lamentations and the Poetic Politics of Prayer,” Tyndale Bulletin 62:1 (2011).

Walter Brueggemann, “Conversations among Exiles.”

http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=26.

Walter Brueggemann, “Some Aspects of Theodicy in Old Testament Faith,” Perspectives in Religious Studies.

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