Posts Tagged ‘suffering’

PSALM 125

Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion,
    which cannot be moved, but abides forever.
As the mountains surround Jerusalem,
    so the Lord surrounds his people,
    from this time on and forevermore.
For the scepter of wickedness shall not rest
    on the land allotted to the righteous,
so that the righteous might not stretch out
    their hands to do wrong.
Do good, O Lord, to those who are good,
    and to those who are upright in their hearts.
But those who turn aside to their own crooked ways
    the Lord will lead away with evildoers.
    Peace be upon Israel!

As a monotheistic religion of high moral standards, the way of life prescribed in the Bible centers around an image of God as Creator, Lord, and Judge of the universe. Whereas today we might take a  more naturalistic approach to morality and say that where you end up is a function of where you started and the decisions you made along the way, the Bible sees this matter of where you end up as more a matter of divine retribution than natural consequence.

The difference between “the righteous” and “the wicked” may not be obvious now, with our difficulty in seeing into the hearts of persons, but in the future the righteous will prosper and the wicked will suffer – that’s when we’ll know. And it’s all because God is just and fair and will give out due recompense for every good or evil life.

Even before the ink was dried on the scrolls, however, the Bible itself began to record a gathering voice of dissent to this straightforward retributional morality. Sometimes good people are the ones who suffer, and with no recompense – at least in this life. And sometimes mean people prosper. Who can make heads or tails of it? In the end, the Bible’s view was deepened to say that godliness is inherently rewarding for the human.

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2 CORINTHIANS 12:2-10

I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows.And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows— was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses.But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me,but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 10 Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.

The authentic mystics of the world have very often exhibited what today might be diagnosed as manic-depressive symptoms and medicated to regulate normal levels in brain chemistry. Saint Teresa of Avila suffered from chronic nausea and long bouts of paralysis. St. John of the Cross experience what sounds a lot like pathological depression, which he named the “dark night of the soul.”

We could easily lengthen the list, but the point is made: What Paul called his “thorn in the flesh” finds parallels throughout the world community and long history of the mystical traditions. It could be explained – as Paul himself appears to explain it – by interpreting the dark experiences of pain, suffering, and depression as a counterbalance to the mystic’s ecstasies and extraordinary gifts. But there is another way to see it.

It could well be that the apostle Paul and the rest were graced with revelations and spiritual breakthroughs of awareness precisely because of and not in spite of their debilitating physical and mental ailments. Paul himself testifies to a realization of the sufficiency of God’s grace that came to him while in the depths of his misery. True, he interpreted his particular pain or illness as “a messenger of Satan” to keep him from becoming too full of himself.

But it is possible that Paul’s mystical visions were in fact the benefit of learning to engage and enter his suffering by the path of utter release to the grace and strength of God, located through and underneath his own mortal weakness.

ISAIAH 64:1-9

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
    so that the mountains would quake at your presence—
as when fire kindles brushwood
    and the fire causes water to boil—
to make your name known to your adversaries,
    so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,
    you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.
From ages past no one has heard,
    no ear has perceived,
no eye has seen any God besides you,
    who works for those who wait for him.
You meet those who gladly do right,
    those who remember you in your ways.
But you were angry, and we sinned;
    because you hid yourself we transgressed.
We have all become like one who is unclean,
    and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.
We all fade like a leaf,
    and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
There is no one who calls on your name,
    or attempts to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,
    and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.
Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
    we are the clay, and you are our potter;
    we are all the work of your hand.
Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord,
    and do not remember iniquity forever.
    Now consider, we are all your people.

“Now consider, we are all your people.” You can hear the desperation, mixed with frustration, in the prophet’s words.

The collection of oracles in which they are found is know as “Third Isaiah,” written shortly after the exiles had been allowed to return home to Judah and its once-glorious capital, Jerusalem. First Isaiah (chpts 1-39) is attributed to the eighth-century prophet Isaiah himself and addresses the tense time leading up to the Assyrian invasion of 701 BCE. The anonymous writer of the so-called Second Isaiah (chpts 40-55) sought to extend and adapt the essential message of Isaiah to the crisis of the Babylonian exile (586-538 BCE) and the harsh conditions of living in a strange land. Now, upon their return home, another anonymous contributor to the tradition (chpts 56-66) reworks it once again, this time in face of the challenge of clarifying a new destiny for the people.

The task of rebuilding Jerusalem was now a shared effort, between the returning exiles and their compatriots who had been left behind in the ruins a half-century earlier. But in addition to the physical repairs, there was some serious psycho-spiritual healing that needed to happen as well. The arrogance and complacency which the prophet Isaiah had predicted would end in national calamity, was now replaced by a rather serious guilt-complex and a crippling shame. There is reaffirmation of the moral balance holding reality together, but the dark interval of suffering in exile has definitely humbled (we might better say humiliated) the community’s sense of entitlement as God’s chosen people.

We don’t deserve security, happiness, or long life (the community admits via the prophet), and we are entirely at the mercy of God’s will. Perhaps we (the returnees) were spared total extinction in exile, but for what exactly we cannot know. We desire a prosperous future, but we are neither capable nor worthy of it. It’s all in your hands, God.

… But don’t forget, we are all your people!

This calling on God to remember his covenant promises would be a refrain throughout Jewish history, becoming especially fervent during and after the Holocaust under Hitler.

EZEKIEL 34:11-16, 20-24

11 For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out.12 As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. 13 I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. 14 I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. 15 I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. 16 I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.

20 Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. 21 Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, 22 I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.

23 I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. 24 And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the Lord, have spoken.

While his contemporary Jeremiah was announcing a New Reality to the Jews left in the devastation of Jerusalem, Ezekiel was rebuilding the hopes of those exiled in Babylon, uprooted from their homeland and heritage. The Babylonian army had swept down in the year 587 BCE, breached the walls of Judah’s capital and leveled its temple, deporting a vast number back to foreign territory. In both locations, amid ruins and in a strange land, the people had similar questions: Why did this happen? What are we to do next? And most importantly, Where is God?

The question of God’s presence is less an inquiry into the whereabouts of a deity than a deep anguished search for grounding in a time of pain, bereavement, and disorientation. By grounding we mean a sense of internal support, a provident uplift of peace, comfort, and healing strength coming up through the very center of our urgent need.

Due to the constraints of language, our effort to speak about and make sense of this grounding mystery inevitably generates the impression that we are talking about something external to us and essentially outside our experience. Soon enough, symbols are mistaken for the mystery they suggest and metaphors are flattened to literal meanings, further elaborating the misunderstanding that God is “out there” and must be called upon to intervene on our experience from outside.

Rather than speaking on God’s behalf and bringing a message from somewhere else, Ezekiel – and this is the peculiar spiritual psychology of the prophets – was himself the very mouthpiece of the grounding mystery and provident uplift of God’s presence, addressing the exiles out of the epicenter of their grief and loss. He lifted the vision of a New Reality and called them to faith in God as a present grace and future hope.

HEBREWS 7:23-28

23 Furthermore, the former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office; 24 but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. 25 Consequently he is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.

26 For it was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. 27 Unlike the other high priests, he has no need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for those of the people; this he did once for all when he offered himself. 28 For the law appoints as high priests those who are subject to weakness, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever.

Already in the first century Christianity was moving in a very different direction from what Jesus’ kingdom movement had been about. During his ministry Jesus had emphasized the immediacy of God to the individual, without respect of religious membership or moral character.

The religion of his day had inserted a hierarchy of mediators and purity codes between the soul and God which a person would have to wait on, compensate, or satisfy before blessing was granted. Jesus reacted aggressively against this exploitation by religion and its leaders, insisting that God was not only approachable by everyone but had already made the first move by releasing humanity (all of us) of our guilt-debt and dispensing unconditional grace on the righteous and sinners alike.

A vision such as Jesus’ kingdom movement provides not even a toe-hold for hierarchy. If all that’s needed is the turn-around of a willing surrender where the individual gives up trying to please, flatter, impress, or appease God, and instead simply welcomes the good news (gospel), joyfully accepts the gift and shares it with others, then there is nothing more that needs to be done. No special orthodox instruction or creeds to recite. No purification ceremonies or membership fees to pay. No ordained experts to vouchsafe your salvation.

The kingdom movement of Jesus began as a “spreading” phenomenon – proclaiming the good news and touching human need everywhere it was found – but soon became a “stacking” enterprise where ranks of power, privilege, and purity pushed God (at least this religion’s god) up and out of human reach.

At the time this letter was likely written, Christians (still as a messianic sect of Judaism) were being persecuted by order of the Roman emperor Domitian (81-96 CE) for not honoring his office with proper worship. During this period – and during subsequent periods of persecution and hardship, down to the present day – there was tendency to shift the focus of Jesus’ original vision, out and away from the present reality of suffering, to a heavenly realm up there, over there, and in the next life.

The classical Jewish hierarchy of priests and sacrificial rituals lent itself as a ready analogy to this author. Jesus did his work on our behalf, interceding for our sins. Afterwards he was exalted above the heavens, where he now continues to make God approachable to us and us acceptable to God.

This is where the Christ of orthodoxy made its fateful departure from the Jesus of history.

ISAIAH 49:8-16a

Thus says the Lord:
In a time of favor I have answered you,
    on a day of salvation I have helped you;
I have kept you and given you
    as a covenant to the people,
to establish the land,
    to apportion the desolate heritages;
saying to the prisoners, “Come out,”
    to those who are in darkness, “Show yourselves.”
They shall feed along the ways,
    on all the bare heights shall be their pasture;
10 they shall not hunger or thirst,
    neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them down,
for he who has pity on them will lead them,
    and by springs of water will guide them.
11 And I will turn all my mountains into a road,
    and my highways shall be raised up.
12 Lo, these shall come from far away,
    and lo, these from the north and from the west,
    and these from the land of Syene.

13 Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth;
    break forth, O mountains, into singing!
For the Lord has comforted his people,
    and will have compassion on his suffering ones.

14 But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me,
    my Lord has forgotten me.”
15 Can a woman forget her nursing child,
    or show no compassion for the child of her womb?
Even these may forget,
    yet I will not forget you.
16 See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands;
    your walls are continually before me.

The writer known as Second (Deutero-) Isaiah flourished in ministry during the Babylonian exile (587-538 BCE) and lived among the community of those who had been taken from their homes in Jerusalem. Defeat by the Babylonian army and deportation to a foreign land induced an identity crisis of the first order. When your monotheistic beliefs trace the causality of what befalls you to the will of God, every upset and loss begs the question: Why?

Especially when a respectable reputation and your honest efforts at living right still land you in a dark and painful place, this question of the relation of your suffering to God’s will can cut deep into your faith. There were many contemporaries left behind in Jerusalem (Zion, the mount on which the temple was built had become a synonym for Jerusalem itself) who felt compelled to conclude that God had simply forgotten his covenant with Israel. Divine amnesia was at least more theologically sustainable than the idea that God had deliberately abandoned them.

Away in Babylon, Isaiah was hearing similar cries among the exiles. God had promised a long and prosperous future to his people. What happened? Were they being punished for some unbeknownst sin – perhaps for the sins of their ancestors? This was one answer. But Second Isaiah (along with a fellow exile who adapted the story of Job) insisted on the innocence of his generation, and outright rejected the popular idea that God punishes children for the sins of their parents.

Following an insight that would later have revolutionary implications in the Christian era, Isaiah turned the crisis of exile into redemptive suffering on behalf of the entire nation. His generation, a collective taken as an individual, had served as the ratifying sacrifice of God’s renewed covenant of blessing. Their affliction and loss had opened a new future of hope and salvation for everyone.

1 PETER 4:12-14; 5:6-11

12 Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed. 14 If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you.

Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. 10 And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. 11 To him be the power forever and ever. Amen.

Theism is generally the belief in a god (or gods) who exists in some higher (supernatural) or hidden (metaphysical) location, supervising human affairs. A god may be more or less directly involved with these humans (commonly called believers or devotees). There is typically a reciprocal relationship between believers and their god, where worship, offerings, and obedience are directed toward the deity in exchange for protection, blessing, and perhaps beatitude in the next life.

Early polytheism entertained a variety of deities – and devils, who were mischievous or malevolent deities – representing the forces of nature and concerns of cultural life. When the Mosaic revolution in Judaism rejected the existence of any god but Yahweh, something had to be done with them besides simply dismissing them out of hand, along with their diabolical counterparts.

One solution was to preserve the existence of these other deities and devils, but demote them to subordinate status as angels and demons. A variant of this was employed later, in the idea of a divine council assisting Yahweh in his administrative duties. As a member of this heavenly committee, Satan was depicted as “the adversary” who tested the faith and loyalty of Yahweh’s human subjects (as in the literary example of Job).

At about this same time (sixth century BCE), a prophet known as the Second Isaiah suggested the more radical idea that Yahweh is the only one behind the “weal and woe” that humans experience. For this writer, having one supreme cause behind everything that happens was a way of giving meaning to the universe and all possible events. This was his way of answering the national tragedy of exile by the Babylonians (587-538 BCE).

Eventually, however, the generally accepted solution to the problem of good and evil was a dualistic one. God was put in charge of the good (blessing, prosperity, salvation) and Satan was moved out of the heavenly boardroom and into his own nether region, where he orchestrates the cause of evil (iniquity, calamity, and damnation).  As a messianic movement within Judaism in the first century, Christianity carried forward this dualism, joining it to an apocalyptic expectation of a fast-approaching end of the world.

Wherever we may stand on the issue – one god with several angelic and demonic ministers, a single supreme will behind everything, or a polarity of agencies in the war of good and evil – the key to remember is that all solutions are efforts to make meaning of what human beings sense, suffer, care about and hope for. Truth is not really a question of accuracy, but therapy in helping people work through the challenges and opportunities of life.

1 PETER 3:13-22

13 Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? 14 But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, 15 but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; 16 yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. 17 For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil. 18 For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit,19 in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, 20 who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. 21 And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.

You just have to wonder where an author finds the chutzpah to invent a doctrine about Jesus preaching to the departed souls in limbo (which in later doctrine became Purgatory) so they, too, could have a chance to accept the offer of salvation.

Or was it inspiration? Did the Holy Spirit put this idea in his mind by supernatural revelation? If we agree, then the discussion is closed. God said it, I believe it, and that does it.

But this might be another example of the emerging religion of Christianity establishing itself by setting in place the necessary mythological foundations. As the questions came up – Who was Jesus, really, and what was he about? How is our movement connected to our parent religion of Judaism? Did Jesus have to die that way? Did his death mean something? How is the world different after Jesus, and what are we supposed to do now? – a demand for meaningful answers required the tailoring of current myths from elsewhere along with some creative invention of their own.

We can only imagine what the question behind this particular “solution” might have been. What about the people who died before the time of Jesus? If his death fixed the problem (first assumption), and if salvation is dependent on hearing the doctrine (second assumption) and accepting that all this was done for you (third assumption), then they missed out. Are they in hell for something they couldn’t know and have a chance to accept? That wouldn’t be fair! So let’s get Jesus in front of them to proclaim the good news …

The apostle Paul had an easier and more reasonable solution to the problem of salvation before Jesus. If they didn’t have the special revelation of the Law and Prophets (Judaism), then at least God’s “eternal power and divine nature” are evident throughout creation (Romans 1:19-20). Each of us will be held accountable for the choices we make in the light we are given. Fair enough.

But wait a second, already by this time (late 60s CE) Christianity had made a decisive move, from a spiritually grounded moral revolution with dangerous political implications (under the leadership of Jesus) to a messianic sect of Judaism with a strong missionary campaign to win Gentile converts (under the leadership of Paul). As it went on, the new religion needed a devotional focus (Jesus the savior) and an orthodox company line (something like: Confess your sins, believe in Jesus, get baptized, and come aboard).

Now we have insiders (the properly saved) and outsiders (the unrepentant or ignorant throng). One day very soon Jesus is going to swoop down with his angels and take us with him to heaven, leaving the rest for unpleasant times ahead. In the meantime, if anyone interrogates your beliefs, here’s what to say; if they persecute you for what you believe, then you have good precedent in Jesus himself.

He had to suffer for our salvation, an innocent victim for the sinful race. There is no forgiveness without repentance, no pardon without satisfaction. Redemption through violence: it is God’s way.

Never mind that it contradicted the original gospel of Jesus himself.

 

PSALM 66:8-20

Bless our God, O peoples,
    let the sound of his praise be heard,
who has kept us among the living,
    and has not let our feet slip.
10 For you, O God, have tested us;
    you have tried us as silver is tried.
11 You brought us into the net;
    you laid burdens on our backs;
12 you let people ride over our heads;
    we went through fire and through water;
yet you have brought us out to a spacious place.

13 I will come into your house with burnt offerings;
    I will pay you my vows,
14 those that my lips uttered
    and my mouth promised when I was in trouble.
15 I will offer to you burnt offerings of fatlings,
    with the smoke of the sacrifice of rams;
I will make an offering of bulls and goats. Selah

16 Come and hear, all you who fear God,
    and I will tell what he has done for me.
17 I cried aloud to him,
    and he was extolled with my tongue.
18 If I had cherished iniquity in my heart,
    the Lord would not have listened.
19 But truly God has listened;
    he has given heed to the words of my prayer.

20 Blessed be God,
    because he has not rejected my prayer
    or removed his steadfast love from me.

There is a moral impulse in all of us, a need to believe that life is fair and people get what they deserve. The mere suggestion that it might not be so can provoke some to throw up their hands and threaten to quit the whole business. What’s the point then? they will protest. If the universe isn’t set up to favor the righteous and crush the wicked, then why work so hard to be good?

Many psalms hold this perspective, with the poet lamenting how the faithful suffer as sinners prosper. His resolution of the problem represents one of four ways that individuals have worked through this apparent moral contradiction in reality. His way is to re-frame hardship and loss as a means by which God tests, purifies, and strengthens our faith.

This might be something God does directly or else leaves to the member of his heavenly council named Satan (literally the adversary) whose job is to “prove” the character of believers by pushing them to the wall or tripping them into the fire. God blesses and the devil burns; together they work out the balance.

If the gap of retribution – that is, the elapse of time between a good or bad deed and the appropriate payback – is too long, one might begin wondering what God is up to. One compensatory adjustment looks for the reward or punishment to be paid out on an individual’s descendants. A corollary of this is to see your present suffering (or prosperity) as a consequence of your ancestor’s moral character.

Eventually the gap can become so great that your only comfort is in knowing that we will all get what we deserve in the next life. Heaven and hell, then, help resolve the problem of moral inequity by ensuring that no one escapes the long arm of God’s law. Look at those slugs and scoundrels driving their fancy cars. Their day of reckoning is coming, and it won’t be long before they’re writhing in torment with the rest of God’s enemies. Just knowing this makes us smile.

Of course, it can also happen that a believer stops believing at this point. If God’s purpose is to get everything started, supervise the process and occasionally intervene, allocating rewards to the good people and penalties to the bad people, then he’s not doing his job very well. How deserving of worship is a God who can’t even manage his responsibilities on the job? He might as well not exist. Life isn’t fair and people don’t get what they deserve. It sucks, but that’s how it is.

This might seem to exhaust our options, but there is one more response to the moral inequity of life. We don’t dismiss it as only apparent or make God into a cosmic quality control officer.  Nor do we need to push out the time frame across generations or into the next life. We can agree that life isn’t fair and people don’t get what they deserve. But it doesn’t suck. Instead of retribution or karma at the heart of reality, it’s all grace.

Grace is the principle that transcends morality. It declares that the grounding mystery of existence is creative, generous, provident and forgiving. It’s not about making things even and setting the balance right. You can’t earn it, steal it, bank it, or lose it. It doesn’t come to you because you’re good enough or better than the next guy. It falls as spring rain on the fields of the just and unjust alike.

Hardship and fortune don’t need to be moralized; ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are value judgments we impose to make things meaningful (or bearable). Life is a mixture of pain and pleasure, love and loss, joy and sorrow. Happy is the person who moves through it all with faith, releasing all expectation and just resting in the grace of each moment.

Don’t worry, there is enough for everyone!

JEREMIAH 31:1-6

At that time, says the Lord, I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people.

2 Thus says the Lord:
The people who survived the sword
    found grace in the wilderness;
when Israel sought for rest,
3     the Lord appeared to him from far away.
I have loved you with an everlasting love;
    therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.
4 Again I will build you, and you shall be built,
    O virgin Israel!
Again you shall take your tambourines,
    and go forth in the dance of the merrymakers.
5 Again you shall plant vineyards
    on the mountains of Samaria;
the planters shall plant,
    and shall enjoy the fruit.
6 For there shall be a day when sentinels will call
    in the hill country of Ephraim:
“Come, let us go up to Zion,
    to the Lord our God.”

Jeremiah was the son of a priest and very likely had been one himself, when he felt God’s calling out of the religious establishment and into the streets as a prophet. Mounting tension in Judah’s international relations was causing concern for many, especially as the superpowers of Assyria, Babylonia, Egypt and Persia were becoming increasingly interested in its prime real estate.

The response from the religious establishment was effectively no response at all. Generally the belief was that God would protect his temple, the holy city, and its people from harm since they had been chosen for a long and bright destiny. God wouldn’t let his most important project fail, and since the Jews figured so centrally in that project, he wouldn’t let any harm come to them either.

But as we know, the city walls did come down and its temple was destroyed, an event that was not only a political catastrophe but an existential crisis of the first order. All at once, the fabric of meaning was ripped to shreds and the foundations of security were shattered into pieces. Jeremiah had sounded the warning, but no one listened. Now in the aftermath and amid the wreckage, he could only say, “I told you so.”

But he didn’t. Instead, he helped his generation through a process of serious self-examination. Their self-righteous complacency and sense of entitlement had made the nation vulnerable to collapse. It wasn’t the Babylonian army that overpowered them, and it wasn’t because God had abandoned them. Rather they had lost their vision, forgotten their divine appointment, and allowed their once-vibrant faith to recede from the edge of risk and fall asleep under the hedges of orthodoxy.

                                                                                                 

Only after coming to terms with their own responsibility in this tragedy could the survivors really find healing. This has always been true. When your circumstances close in around you, when it feels like God isn’t hearing your prayers and other people don’t care, it is tempting – almost irresistible – to look outside yourself for both the culprit to blame for your troubles and the savior who will rescue you from them. In either case, the locus of creative control is deferred somewhere other than where it really belongs, which is inside yourself.

That’s not to say that you must take the blame, or conversely pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. Taking responsibility is importantly different from taking blame. Blame is really a story you tell yourself for the purpose of assigning a cause to your pain and anger. Beyond pinning your troubles on someone or something else, blame has the additional benefit of letting you do nothing but stand there and point. Or if you are blaming yourself, it can leech like a paralyzing anesthetic into your soul. As a consequence, your personal challenges can slowly evolve into chronic problems – not going away but instead getting worse.

To take responsibility you need to stop looking behind, around, or even up ahead for the solution you seek. While it is certainly true that these dimensions of your situation can contain insight, resources, and guidance, your salvation starts as you find your center and place both hands on your pain. However it got here, it is yours. Insisting that someone else did this to you doesn’t take away the responsibility of dealing with it.

The way of healing and freedom begins at the point where you realize that you have control over whether and to what extent you allow this ordeal (loss, hardship, betrayal, or abuse) to define you and determine the rest of your life.

Jeremiah grieved with his people as they stood in the rubble of their beloved homeland. He helped them take responsibility by accepting the reality of their experience. But then he challenged them to hold a different frame around their pain, one that could let them see that this experience was not just an ending but the start of something new.