Suffering is all around us and is both bewildering and confusing, leaving us feeling emotionally wrecked. When suffering hits us, we often reel, confused by how to reconcile our belief in a merciful, benevolent, loving God with the difficult things that knock us down and with the sheer harshness of life. Often, our suffering is compounded by this sense of feeling forsaken of abandoned in a time of crisis. The psalms frequently reflect these feelings (e.g. Ps 13, Ps 74, Ps 88).
I have been reading recently about the Ninth of Av, an annual day of fasting in the Jewish calendar when Jews fast and mourn for the truly horrendous things that have happened to them – initially looking at the wilderness years when the people of God were unwilling to go into the Promised Land through to the destruction of the temple by the Babylonians and the destruction of the second temple by the Romans… not to mention more modern tragedies such as the Holocaust. The book of Lamentations is read out during this day. Lamentations was written after Jerusalem fell to the Babylonian armies and the leaders and many of the people were marched 600 miles away into exile; it is described by Eugene Peterson as ‘a funeral service for the death of the city’ (‘Five Smooth Stones For Pastoral Work’, P 115) and describes horrendous suffering. (Lam 2:20-22) Yet within that book are declarations of praise and trust in a God whose mercies, compassion and love are not at an end. (Lam 3:19-24)
Suffering will not last for ever and does not have the last word. Lamentations is rooted in history, but it reminds us also of a loving God even while it faces the terrible events suffered by His people. We need to be rooted in history, for if we fail to maintain that perspective and foothold, ‘suffering is like a helium-filled balloon’ which ‘lifts us off the ground’ so that we ‘drift, directionless, through the air at the mercy of emotional air currents and the barometric pressure of hormonal secretions. Sorrow that does not have historical ballast becomes anxiety and turns finally into mental illness or emotional bitterness. History is necessary, not to explain, but to anchor.’ (Eugene Peterson, ibid., P126) Lamentations gives expression to our suffering and sorrow, but also anchors us to God. In that way, even when external circumstances are dislocating and painful, we are held by a God who will not walk out on us, even when everyone else does. (Lam 3:28-33, The Message)