Suffering in the Service of Christ

One of my Biblical heroes is the prophet Jeremiah. But boy, I would not want to have had his life! For his life, like Paul’s, was a series of horrible events that would probably cause even the most mature believers to rethink their commitment to Christ. His countrymen continually refused to believe him, and chose rather to plot his destruction in order to silence him. And if this were not enough, he also had the misfortune to live through the destruction of Jerusalem and the beginning of the exile of the Hebrews in Babylon. Literally no thing in his life was stable enough to provide him any comfort or security.

But what makes Jeremiah different from Paul, and what inspires such fear and trembling in me when I read his story, is his sensitivity to the horrors of his life. While I love Paul for his emphasis on grace and his humility regarding his weakness and sin, I can’t quite sympathize with his calmness in the face of disaster. Jeremiah, on the other hand, cries out — quite loudly! He holds back nothing in his reaction to the events around him. His lamentations over the destruction of Jerusalem show a soul deeply afflicted by the suffering of the very people who refused to listen to his warnings. Even though he had foretold all of it, he was still deeply grieved by Jerusalem’s fall. Where we might expect him to say “I told you so”, we get rather a series of well-crafted verses filled with horror, fear, sorrow, and, surprisingly, hope.

But the Book of Lamentations is only one side of Jeremiah’s sensitivity to suffering. The other side is found in the book which bears his name, in which his prophecies to his people are interlaced with his complaints to God over his situation. I can think of no Biblical author whose personal misery is so well-recorded; only the agonies of the Passion narratives come to mind as comparable depictions of one person’s agony in following the will of God. To give an example of his suffering, at the height of his misery, having been framed and thrown into a dungeon, Jeremiah is convinced that he will die (37.20). He wins a reprieve from the king, but this does not do him much good, as the king almost immediately hands him over to the Jews to be put to death; he is imprisoned in the muddy pit of a cistern until he is rescued from certain death by an Ethiopian eunuch. Certainly it is Jeremiah who offers up the most frightening prayer in Scripture. His prayer in chapter 20 opens with the lines “O Lord, thou hast deceived me and I was deceived” and concludes with what must be the only pro-abortion passage in the Bible: “Cursed be the man who brought the news to my father, saying, ‘A baby boy has been born to you!’…Because he did not kill me before birth, so that my mother would have been my grave…Why did I ever come forth from the womb to look on trouble and sorrow, so that my days have been spent in shame?”

As much as I wish Jeremiah did not have to endure such suffering, I love his outspoken honesty regarding how miserable his life is. His prayer in chapter 20 comforts me because it shows me that I can be completely honest with God. I do not have to pretend that everything is great just because I am saved. God is big enough to handle my bitterest complaints, and God’s love for me is so great that my cursing and swearing cannot separate me from it. Jeremiah’s honesty to God is as inspiring in these days of feel-good Christianity as it is frightening. We in the church have not been taught to admit how hard our walks are, much less that we are anything less than satisfied with what God is doing with us.

To illustrate this attitude, let me recount an exchange that occurred in my Sunday School class’ series on the Book of Lamentations. While we were discussing how miserable Jeremiah’s life was and how unhappy he was, one of my classmates said, “Well, when you go against God’s will, you can expect to be unhappy.” “But Jeremiah wasn’t disobeying God,” I shot back, “he was doing everything exactly as he was told. Jeremiah was miserable because he obeyed God!” Perhaps it is merely coincidence, but I don’t recall ever seeing my classmate in Sunday School again.

Jeremiah’s honesty is indeed comforting and inspiring, but this does not make his life less frightening. I am truly amazed that someone as sensitive as he was survived (physically) as long as he did; I take this to be a sure sign of God’s presence as the strength of Jeremiah’s life. How else could someone so apparently unsuited to his calling remain so faithful? I am convinced it was only because it was God who called him to the task. In the modern American church, we hear from well-meaning encouragers that God never gives us more than we can bear. In fact, we are told this so often that we have actually begun to believe it! But the uncomfortable truth is, God often and deliberately gives us more than we can bear. Why would God do this? So that the world may see that there is something more-than-human in our ability to withstand life’s horrors. God uses us to reveal God’s own power and God’s own love, to reveal that God is both capable of and willing to see us through every challenge we face.

Let us be honest for a minute: how many of us, as gay, bisexual, or transgender men and women following Christ, have not at some point understood Jeremiah’s prayer in chapter 20? How many of us have not wished never to have been born rather than to struggle with our sexuality on the one side and our church on the other? Even after God has reconciled us to our sexuality, how many of us have never felt that our calling to proclaim God’s salvation to the queer community is a burden? Do we not get tired of having to refute the same arguments with every person we meet? Do we not see our friends and loved ones turn against us for proclaiming a pro-gay theology? Do we not feel that, no matter how much we want not to enter into the fray again, the truth of God’s gospel simply will not stay silent within us? Do we not find ourselves shaking one fist at God for our situation and lifting the other in praise to God’s faithfulness? Jeremiah’s prayer in chapter 20 easily covers the entire span of emotions we face as queer believers. And like Jeremiah, God will use our weakness to reveal God’s power and love.

But if Jeremiah was obedient, then why was his life so miserable? It was because of the content of God’s message to Judah: God would no longer protect their beloved nation. Jerusalem would fall. They must go to Babylon and pray for the well-being of their enemies. And lest the people misunderstand, chapter 24 makes the message clear: the people God finds favor with are the ones who go into exile; being spared the agony of captivity is not a sign of God’s favor! This must have challenged everything the Hebrews thought they understood about the nation of Israel. Can you imagine if the Christian church in America was told by its prophets that America would be conquered, Washington destroyed, and that we would be taken into exile in Russia? How would we react if we were to learn that losing everything we have is a sign of God’s favor? It’s no wonder the people of Judah refused to believe Jeremiah! God’s word to them contradicted everything they thought they knew about God’s work in their history.

This is exactly where we as queer disciples of Christ fit in today: We are proclaiming a message from God that goes counter to everything the church and society have understood for centuries. We are the outsiders proclaiming to have found God’s favor, and this threatens the church’s view of itself. Our message forces it to question whether is has greatly misunderstood scripture. Our calling by God raises the threat of changes that will force our culture to let go of some of its most cherished tenets. Our presence forces people to consider their deepest prejudices about what is acceptable to God. But we must not forget that Jeremiah’s message went unheeded, and that unfortunately, we have no guarantee that ours won’t follow suit. We hope not, but with each new referendum and election our hope takes a beating. Still, God has brought us a long way, and if God is willing, we will have the success that Peter and Paul had in bringing the Greeks into the kingdom rather than the rejection Jeremiah had in getting his people to repent.

But the final result is not for us to worry about. We have been given a message of hope and restoration, and we must be faithful to proclaim it. It will not be easy, and we can be certain that at times our lives will be miserable and our suffering unbearable almost to the point of death. But if we are living in obedience to God, then we are in the safest place imaginable. For God will be our strength, our peace, our hope, and our glory; these are not things we will have to find within ourselves. We will find them in God’s presence in our lives, in God’s whispers of love which wash over us and refresh us, and in God’s faithfulness to keep the promises we have received through scripture and through the Holy Spirit. In the midst of our suffering, God is with us, closer to us than we are to ourselves, and God’s concern for us is even greater than our anxiety for ourselves. In the midst of our suffering as a result of our faithfulness to God, there truly is no better place for us to be.

Jeremiah, with God’s help, endured the worst of lives in order to deliver one of the most challenging prophecies in scripture. Likewise, we are delivering a challenge to our church regarding what God is doing, and we too can count on God to sustain us. And let us not forget that Jeremiah was also given a message of hope and of restoration, including one of the most comforting passages found in scripture: “For I know the plans that I have for you … plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope.” God is good, and God is faithful. We are not guaranteed that our obedience will prevent us from suffering, but we can rest assured that God will bring us into safety and into joy, and that the time will soon come when all the nations shall hear our song of praise and see our dance of victory and shall rejoice with us in the fellowship of believers.