Posts Tagged ‘Hope’

Where Is God?

May 2, 2015

In the midst of adversity and affliction, and disease, disaster, death, despair and distress, and sorrow and suffering, where is God? Ever felt like that? Distress and depression make us feel cast down, helpless, hopeless and lonely – abandoned by family, friends and even God. This was the experience of the psalmist of Psalms 42 and 43. Both Psalms 42 and 43 are, in fact, a single Psalm.

The psalmist described his plight by envisaging a deer in a dry place thirsty for water. Like a thirsty animal in a dry land he desired for God. He longed for a refreshing drink, but tasted the bitter water of tears (Ps. 42.3). It would be enough had all he faced was the sense of absence and distance of God. But his distress was intensified by his enemies’ taunts: “Where is your God?” (Ps. 42.3). The psalmist’s misery was aggravated by the mockery of those who regarded his sickness as evidence that God had forsaken the sufferer. That was why the writer of Psalm 22 cried: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?” (Ps. 22.1 cf. 22. 6-8).

Further, the psalmist says, “My soul is cast down within me” (Ps. 42.5-6, 11). Literally it may be rendered, “My soul prostrates itself upon me.” Here the picture is “the soul bent double upon itself,” a vivid portrayal of a downcast and disconsolate person. Instead of refreshing water, the psalmist encountered overwhelming power of water. When the rains came and the water poured down the River Jordan, he realized the great power of water in the “cataracts” or waterfalls. He thought of even greater power of water of the deep ocean, and his troubles seemed like the waves of the sea rolling over him (42.7). “His woes were incessant and overwhelming. Billow followed billow, one sea echoed the roaring of another; bodily pain aroused mental fear…outward tribulation thundered in awful harmony with inward anguish; his soul seemed drowned as in a universal deluge of trouble” (Charles Spurgeon). He was powerless under his problems. The situation seemed hopeless.

When dark hours of life emerge, many cry out with Paul Laurence Dunbar:
A crust of bread and a corner to sleep in,
A minute to smile and an hour to weep in,
A pint of joy and a peck of trouble,
And never a laugh but the moans come double;
And that is life!

As the Psalm progressed, the psalmist’s despair also intensified: I can’t get to God (42.1-2), God had forgotten me (42.9), and God had abandoned me (43.2). “I came to you to take refuge, but you have shut the door and left me out at the mercy of my oppressors” (43.2).

Tears, downcast, disturbed, disquieted soul, helplessness, loneliness, feeling of being forgotten and abandoned even by God – these are the symptoms of a man in depression. Thrice the psalmist asks, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?” (42.5, 11; 43.5). Remember Elijah when he battled the prophets of Baal on the Mount Carmel. This confrontation had sapped his energies. He was exhausted physically and mentally, and not ready for another challenge. At that very moment a new challenge came from the queen Jezebel: “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow” (I Kings 19.2). The one, who faced four hundred and fifty Baal’s prophets on the Mount Carmel and witnessed God’s consuming fire that instantaneously made people to prostrate and acknowledge “The Lord indeed is God; the Lord indeed is God” (I Kings 18.38-39), ran for his life to Beersheba after the threat from Jezebel. Prophet Elijah was depressed. Notice the symptoms: he went to a solitary place, wanted to die, and had self-pity (I Kings 19.4, 10, 14). He needed food and sleep (i.e. rest), which God provided him (I Kings 19.5-8).

The most common symptoms of depression include :
• Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness
• Feeling worthless, inadequate, bad
• A sense of self hatred. Constant questioning of thoughts and actions and a constant need for reassurance
• Feeling vulnerable and being oversensitive to criticism
• Sense of guilt
• Loss of energy and the ability to concentrate and be motivated to do even the simplest tasks
• Harming oneself
• Sudden loss or gain in weight
• Sleep disruption or a need to sleep very long hours
• Agitation and restlessness
• Physical aches and pains
• Violent behaviour
• Anger and frustration

Most people suffer only two or three of these symptoms at any one time. People with severe depression may also experience suicidal feelings, stop eating and suffer from hallucinations.

Although the Psalm appears to give an impression of depression as a static condition of the psalmist, the reality is that there is a movement from depression to surging confidence and hope.

The psalmist turned his mind from the disease to the cure, from despair to remembrance (42.4, 6, 8; 43.3-4). He pulled himself together and regained his composure to preach to himself. He deliberately recalled to mind God’s faithfulness and grace (that’s why he along with others praised God with “glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving”), and his joyous participation in the festivals at Jerusalem temple (42.4). This memory was, no doubt, bittersweet experience, for it would both aggravate his distress (because his present condition was that he was sick and far from the temple) and alleviate it (would give confidence that he would return again in the future).

Then the psalmist’s mind turned from remembering the good times of journeying with pilgrim crowds and participating in festivals at Jerusalem temple to remembering God (42.6, 8). There was a deliberate effort on the part of the psalmist in his depressed state to remember God: “Therefore, I remember you…” (42.6). This action was very significant, because at the heart of the psalmist’s despair was an awareness of the absence and distance of God. By remembering his experiences of God’s presence in the land of Jordan, Hermon and Mount Mizar (42.6), he wanted to dispel that sense of absence and distance of God. He reminded himself of God’s steadfast love (42.8).

Though the stress of his circumstances was still upon him, the pain was still present and adversaries still taunted him, he affirmed, “Hope in god, for I shall again praise him, my help and my God” (42.5, 11). Hope in God! Hope is not only being expectant, straining anticipation for God’s deliverance from the present ordeal, but also the ability at the lowest point in life to sense and feel a single string of hope (i.e. our unbroken relationship with God) that gives us strength to move forward in the darkest hour of life. Even if the harshest present reality twists and distorts our vision of God, God is still “God of my life” (42.8), “my rock” (42.9), “my help” (42.11), and “my God” (42.11). He is “the living God” (42.2). The psalmist’s outward situation had not changed but his outlook had. Outlook determines outcome, and attitude determines action.

The change in his outlook had made the psalmist to talk to God directly, because God was his God. The change from remembrance or introvertive reflection to an appeal to God for deliverance reflects an upward movement in the psalmist. First he prayed about his enemies, who were “ungodly”, “deceitful” and “unjust” (43.1-2). Rather than merely lamenting on their enmity, he asked God to act as his defense counsel and vindicate him in the face of their taunts and oppression. He wanted God’s healing of his sickness so that he might be vindicated before his detractors. The psalmist further asked God to “send his light and truth” not only to dispel the darkness of oppression, but also to lead him into divine presence (43.3). The prayer gave him confidence: “I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy; and I will praise you with the harp, O God, my God” (43.4). Though the situation that created anguish and depression in him had not changed, his prayer to God had not only strengthened his faith and hope, but also restored the life of praise and joy. The psalmist couldn’t change his circumstances, but he could change his focus from himself and his overwhelming situation to God. By the end of the Psalm his circumstances hadn’t changed, but his attitude had, because he had deliberately focused on God.

Although the question at the end of the Psalm is same, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? (43.5), the response was given with the conviction that God had heard and answered his prayer:

“HOPE IN GOD, FOR I SHALL AGAIN PRAISE HIM….”
BECAUSE GOD IS “THE LIVING GOD”, “MY GOD”, “MY HELP”, “GOD OF MY LIFE”, “MY ROCK”, AND “MY EXCEEDING JOY”.

As some of us enter into the New Year dreary with low hovering clouds of despair, remember that God has a light to guide us into the unknown future. The beautiful beach of Cape Comorin is called “Land’s End”, because this is actually where the land of India comes to an end. Nothing stretches before you except the broad expanse of rolling waters. This is the place where three oceans meet – the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal. As day comes to an end, in the west we see the magnificent sun, a great cosmic ball of fire, as it appears to sink into the ocean. Just as it is almost lost from sight, we see another ball of scintillating beauty – the moon appears to be rising from the ocean. When the sun finally passed completely beyond sight, darkness engulfs the earth, but in the east the radiant light of rising moon shines supreme.

When the light of the day vanishes, leaving us in some dark and desolate midnight – moments when our highest hopes are turned into shambles of despair, during such moments our spirits are almost overcome by gloom and despair, and we feel that there is no light anywhere. But when we look toward the east and discover that there is another light which shines even in the darkness, “the spear of despair” will be transformed into “a shaft of light”.

As we continue our walk in the days ahead with an audacious faith and hope in God, let us gain some strength from the words of Charles A. Tindley:

Verse 1
Beams of heaven as I go,
through this wilderness below.
Guide my feet in peaceful way,
turn my midnights into days.

When in darkness, I would grope,
Faith always sees a star of hope.
And soon from all life’s grief and danger,
I shall be free some day.

Chorus
I do not know how long ’twill be,
nor what the future holds for me;
but this I know, if Jesus leads,
I shall get home some day.

Verse 2
Often times my sky is clear,
joy abounds without a tear.
Though a day so bright begun,
clouds may hide tomorrow’s sun.
There’ll be a day that’s always bright,
a day that never yields to night;
and in its light the streets of glory,
I shall behold some day.

Verse 3
Harder yet may be the fight,
right may often yield to might.
Wickedness awhile may reign,
Satan’s cause may seem to gain.

There is a God that rules above,
with hand of power and heart of love.
If I am right, He’ll fight my battle,
I shall have peace some day.

Verse 4
Burdens now may crush me down,
disappointments all around.
Troubles speak in mournful sigh,
sorrow through a tear stained eye.

There is a world where pleasure reigns,
no mourning soul shall roam its plains,
and to that land of peace and glory,
I want to go some day.

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A String of Hope

February 12, 2015

In 1886 G. Frederick Watts titled one of his paintings Hope. It was painted shortly after the death of his adopted daughter Blanche. In this painting a woman is depicted sitting on the top of the globe, plucking at a wooden lyre with her head leaning towards the instrument. At first glance it gives an impression that she is in an enviable position, sitting on the top of the world, playing lyre and enjoying the music. But when you look at the painting closely, the ILLUSION gives way to the REALITY. The woman in the painting is blindfolded (probably symbolising that the world around her is dark for her) and in tattered clothes, playing the lyre with all but one of its strings broken (probably symbolising the condition of her life). Her head is leaning towards the instrument so that she can hear the faint music she can make with the sole remaining string. Commenting on his painting Watts says, “Hope need not mean expectancy. It suggests here rather the music which can come from the remaining chord.” It is the ability of people, at their lowest point in life to sense and feel a strand, a single string of hope that gives them strength to move on even in the darkest hour of life.

Hannah in I Samuel 1.1-18 was like the woman in the painting. She was a wife of Elkanah. Her husband loved her. Whenever Elkanah, along with his family, went to Shiloh to worship and sacrifice to the Lord, he gave a double portion of the sacrifice to Hannah, “because he loved her”. He loved her more than his other wife Peninnah and her children. In fact it was his love towards Hannah that caused Peninnah to be jealous of her.

Elkanah loved her “though the Lord had closed her womb” (I Sam. 1. 6). In that culture a woman, who was barren, was looked down. Such women did not have respect both in their families and society. But Elkanah loved her, although she was barren. For him the “baggage” she carried was immaterial. He loved her as she was.

Elkanah was also an understanding person (1.8). He was there whenever she was down. He consoled her and comforted her whenever she was sad.

People in the society must have known about Elkanah’s love towards Hannah. Most of them must have thought that she was lucky and blessed. Her husband loved her. Hannah’s position seemed enviable. Outwardly she looked as if she was sitting on the top of the world.

When we look from a distance at some people, families and countries, it gives an illusion that they are happy, comfortable and peaceful. They wear designer clothes, drive latest model vehicle, live in a posh locality, a well paid job, a rich family. We think they have everything. On the outside they give an illusion of being on the top of the world.

This is the illusion Hannah’s life gives to the outside society. But this illusion gives way to the reality when we look at her life closely.

 

The Reality of Hannah’s Life

  1. Most probably, the attention of Elkanah to Hannah caused Peninnah to be angry and jealous. When jealousy gets hold of us, we can’t let it go because it won’t let us go. A jealous person tries to make the life of the other miserable by hitting at the areas where it hurts the most. Peninnah knew her target area. Every year when they went to Shiloh to worship and to sacrifice to the Lord, Peninnah constantly stayed on her, hurting her, making her cry and taking her appetite away, because the Lord did not give her a child (1.6-8).
  2. Then there is the pain of a barren woman. The story of women in those days (even today) with no children was a story of deep sorrow and despair. Her respectability was tattered and torn. Hannah was “deeply distressed” and “wept bitterly” (1.10). She confessed that she was “deeply troubled” and in “great anxiety and vexation” (1.15-16).

Hannah was deeply hurt and in pain. Outsiders could not see that pain and sorrow. This deep pain and sorrow made her vexed with life. Moreover, her heart was bruised and bleeding with constant attacks of a jealous woman. This had affected her psyche, which was visible in her crying, refusing to eat anything. She was deeply hurt.

When we look at Hannah’s life closely she was in a living hell. What looked like heaven, the illusion of having everything, the illusion of sitting on top of the world, was actually existing in a quiet hell.

Deep distress, sorrow, anxiety and vexation lead a person, usually, into depression and isolation. At times they may also be symptoms of depression. Remember Elijah in I Kings 19.4: “He went a day’s journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now O Lord, take away my life.” He did not eat. These are the signs of depression. It drives us into isolation and death.

However, in the case of Hannah, she found the single string that was not broken, that is, her relationship with God. She was definitely alone. But alone with God. Because she did not lose hope.

Notice what she did before God: she wept bitterly and confessed that she was in distress (1.11); she “poured out her soul before the Lord” (1.15); she spoke out her “great anxiety and vexation” (1.16). That means, she was honest before God. She just poured out before God what she had on her mind and heart. Expression of our feelings, emotions, doubts, questions and hurts before God and a trusted person is not unspiritual.

The other thing which Hannah did was she cried bitterly before God. That means she had pent up emotions/feelings. She did not have a let out. She did not have a window to vent out her feelings and emotions. We usually let out our deep emotions/feelings before a person, whom we trust and who loves and cares for us. This is what Hannah did. Because Hannah trusted God and believed that God loved her and cared for her, she let out her emotions/feelings. When we vent out our emotions/feelings, it will have a therapeutic effect on us. It lightens our heart and mind.

Notice the change in Hannah’s appearance: “Then the woman went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer” (1.18).

In her darkest hour of life, Hannah had the ability to sense and feel the sole string that was intact. In her deep distress and sorrow, she found that one string of hope, i.e. God. Hannah had a strong relationship with God. Though she was barren in her womb, she was fertile in her relationship with God. Year after year when they went to the Lord’s temple in Shiloh, she kept on praying, although there was no visible sign of change in her condition. She prayed so fervently that Eli thought she must be drunk.

It is very easy to hope in God when there is evidence of God’s goodness all around us. But it is difficult to hope when the love of God is not plainly evident, or there is absence of God. There is a documentary titled The Day My God Died. This documentary presents the stories of young girls whose lives have been crushed by child sex trade. They describe the day they were abducted from their village and sold into sexual servitude in Mumbai, shattering their dreams and hopes, as The Day My God Died. These children are “the commodity consumed by the voracious and sophisticated international sex trade. Recruiters capture them, smugglers transport them, brothel owners enslave them, corrupt police betray them and consumers rape them and infect them. Every person in the chain profits except for the girls, who pay price with their lives.”

In a situation where there is no visible evidence of God’s love, care and presence, it requires courage, audacity to trust God, to hope in God.

There is an African American Spiritual titled “Over my head”. African American Spirituals were originated in the American South. These were created by mostly slaves whose names history never recorded. These were sung by slaves during their work in fields, factories etc. The theology conveyed in these songs is a powerful mix of African spirituality, Biblical narrative, an extreme human suffering, and hope. These were written in extreme pain and suffering. In the midst of that they express Hope in God.

Refrain:

Over my head, I hear music in the air;

Over my head, I hear music in the air;

Over my head, I hear music in the air;

 

  1. Leader: oh, when the world is silent,

People: Hmm, I hear music in the air;

Leader: oh, when the world is silent,

People: Hmm, I hear music in the air;

Leader: oh, when the world is silent,

People: Hmm, I hear music in the air;

 

All: There must be a God somewhere.

 

Refrain

Over my head, I hear music in the air;

Over my head, I hear music in the air;

Over my head, I hear music in the air;

 

  1. Leader: And when I’m feeling lonely,

People: Hmm, I hear music in the air;

Leader: And when I’m feeling lonely,

People: Hmm, I hear music in the air;

Leader: And when I’m feeling lonely,

People: Hmm, I hear music in the air;

 

All: There must be a God somewhere

 

Refrain

Over my head, I hear music in the air;

Over my head, I hear music in the air;

Over my head, I hear music in the air;

 

Even when the world remains a mute spectator to our hurts, sufferings, pain, agony and cry, and we feel lonely in the valley of the shadow of death, we can still hear the music from the divine musician!

Reconstructing Meaning in the Face of Suffering

May 11, 2014

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.

Church Is In The World

March 14, 2010

When you come into a church on a Sunday morning, you think that you have stepped from a real world into a fantasy world. What do I mean by that? You pick up a church bulletin or newsletter. It says, there is singing practice, youth meeting, women’s fellowship. It hardly mentions anything about what is happening in the community, society, state, nation and world. The faith preached in our churches does not relate to the world in which our church members live.

Church members come from the real world to the Sunday service with problems, issues and questions. When they leave the service after the benediction, they again enter into that real world. Our church members are wrestling with a host of issues and problems – rise of prices of basic commodities like rice, dal, sugar, unemployment, poverty, sickness, family problems, failure of crops, corruption, injustice, marginalization, discrimination, increase of the gap between the rich and the poor. Rich are becoming richer and poor are becoming poorer. The sermons and ministries of the church do not touch these things.

The OT prophets like Amos, Micah spoke about the prevailing situation in the society. They spoke about the ill treatment of the poor, widows, orphans. They spoke against corruption in high places. They related their faith in God to the concrete, contemporary problems and issues in the society in which they lived. Their intention was to make their society a better place.

Where is the prophetic voice of the church?

What does the church service on Sunday morning mean in general to the congregation?

  1. It means many things. One of the things the church service means is hope. Church service tells congregation members that there is hope in this life, like Psalmist in Psalm 27 says, “I would have fainted unless I lived to see the goodness of the right in this life.” There is hope for this society and the world. There is hope that this society and world will become a better place to live in.

In order to tell that there is hope in this life, the pastor or the preacher should know what the concrete problems and issues that the congregation members are wrestling with. That means, you should know what is happening around. Then only you can relate your faith in God to these problems.

The gospels and the epistles in the NT were written to particular churches or Christian communities, addressing their problems and issues. The gospel writers and the writers of the epistles knew the concrete problems and issues. They related the gospel of Jesus Christ and their faith in Jesus Christ to their specific problems and issues. In this process, they narrated the life of Jesus Christ, his teachings and deeds. That means, they made Jesus Christ, the gospel of Jesus Christ and their faith in Jesus Christ relevant to their present life and context.

This is what we need to do in our ministry. Know what is happening around you. Know the existing problems and issues in the society, you and your congregation members live in. Then relate faith in Christ to these problems.  

You give them hope in this life. That God is with us in our struggles. God is still in control. God can and will change the present situation to a better one. You move them from the state of despair to a state of hope, from hurt to healing. 

2. The second thing is, through your ministry you encourage them to go back and make a difference in their community or society. To strive to bring a positive change in their society. Not to leave that world and not to pretend that we belong to some sort of fantasy world. But remind them that we serve a God who has come into this world through Jesus Christ. He cares for this world. He is concerned about our problems, the challenges and issues we are facing now. This God is with those who are striving to make their societies better.

Christians should be committed to the kingdom of God and its values of justice, peace, love and unity. We should live an alternate existence of love and justice, offering prophetic witness and voice.           

Anything Precious is not Cheap

Jesus in his ministry used parables taken from the day-to-day life of people to teach deeper truths. It is said that one-third of his teaching is in parables. In Mt. 13 he used several parables to teach about the kingdom of heaven/God. In verse 44, he tells, Kingdom of God is like treasure hidden in a field; it is like the pearl of great value. Kingdom of God is something of great value. One has to search for it. Jesus, in Mt. 6.33 said: “Strive for the kingdom of God and his righteousness.”

The content of Jesus words and deeds is the kingdom of God or kingdom of heaven. His Galilean ministry started with the proclamation of the coming of the kingdom of God (Mk. 1.15). His miraculous deeds were the indicators of the presence of God’s kingdom. In Mt. 12. 22ff. when Jesus healed the one who was mute and blind, the Pharisees said that Jesus did that with the power of the Beelzebub. But Jesus responded by saying that “If it is by the spirit of God I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you.”

What is this kingdom of God? Mt. 12.22-32 indicates that bringing healing and wholeness to the body of the person demonstrates the presence of the kingdom of God. In this passage Jesus says two things that are interrelated: binding the strongman and the healing of the person. It is already said that the sickness was caused by the evil spirit. Jesus is dealing with the cause that caused pain and suffering in the person. Jesus is making right the wrong done by the demonic and oppressive forces.  It is this transformative action of God in the lives of people that is evident in the ministry of Jesus Christ. It is to this transformative ministry that we are called for.

However, it needs commitment, persistence and sacrifice. The merchant searched for fine pearls and when he found one, he sold all that he had and bought it. Anything precious is costly. Establishment of the kingdom of God and its values of justice, peace, love and unity is costly. It demands commitment, persistence (I prefer this word to ‘determination’), sacrifice (here comes the priorities) or “willing to lose in order to gain”. Jesus says that “whoever wants to be my disciple let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”

To be instruments of God’s transformative action demands a conscious, willful commitment to the mission, persistence in the work, and sacrifice (willing to lose).