Being More Spiritual than the Inspired Writers
Sometimes it seems that we Christians today are guilty of being more spiritual than the inspired writers of Scripture. This is evident in the way that we have lost the language of lamentation among Christians. We seem to think, however subtle and unspoken it might be, that if we just maintain a certain level of piety and devotion, we will not be left with some of the dark experiences that men of God had in Scripture. And if any man should confess to others in the church what men confessed in Scripture, it would be immediately judged as a mark of impiety by a man who surely must have forgotten the grace of God. We have no category for periods and seasons of darkness and unanswered prayer in genuine Christian experience. So we have cultivated a superficial kind of subtle legalism which has no place for grace in the midst of darkness.
The Lamentations of Jeremiah
This subtle unspoken legalism which is evident in the way we have lost the language of lamentation becomes clear when we look at a man like the prophet Jeremiah. Are we more spiritual or more godly than this inspired writer? Is our level of devotion and piety greater than that of one of the great prophets in Scripture? Are we more filled with the Holy Spirit and devotion to God than him? Any man with a biblical bone in his body would quickly confess, surely we are not!
Yet, look at the language Jeremiah uses. Read these words carefully. Let them sink in. In Lamentations 3:1-18 we read these unfamiliar sounding words of deep sorrow and despair,
“I am the man who has seen affliction
under the rod of his wrath;
he has driven and brought me
into darkness without any light;
surely against me he turns his hand
again and again the whole day long.
He has made my flesh and my skin waste away;
he has broken my bones;
he has besieged and enveloped me
with bitterness and tribulation;
he has made me dwell in darkness
like the dead of long ago.
He has walled me about so that I cannot escape;
he has made my chains heavy;
though I call and cry for help,
he shuts out my prayer;
he has blocked my ways with blocks of stones;
he has made my paths crooked.
He is a bear lying in wait for me,
a lion in hiding;
he turned aside my steps and tore me to pieces;
he has made me desolate;
he bent his bow and set me
as a target for his arrow.
He drove into my kidneys
the arrows of his quiver;
I have become the laughingstock of all peoples,
the object of their taunts all day long.
He has filled me with bitterness;
he has sated me with wormwood.
He has made my teeth grind on gravel,
and made me cower in ashes;
my soul is bereft of peace;
I have forgotten what happiness is;
so I say, ‘My endurance has perished;
so has my hope from the LORD.’”
I dare say that if any man spoke like this in a Christian church he would be immediately corrected, if not shunned and outcast altogether. He would be thought to be a man devoid of the Holy Spirit and any true evidence of grace. We would look at such a man and conclude: “Surely this man knows nothing of the grace of the gospel!”
Look at what Jeremiah says. He says that he is ‘under the rod of God’s wrath,’ and that ‘God has driven and brought me into darkness without any light; surely against me God turns his hand again and again the whole day long.’ Here is Jeremiah, a justified man of God indwelt by the Spirit of the living God, and yet he says that he is “under the rod of his wrath.”
Jeremiah also speaks of unanswered prayer. It’s not as though things were merely going rough in God’s providence, but his “prayer life” was also not going well. He says, “though I call and cry for help, he shuts out my prayer.” He is not guilty of being negligent in prayer. He is praying earnestly, but rather than God hearing his prayer, “he has blocked my ways with blocks of stones; he has made my paths crooked.”
Every element of the prophet’s life was filled with darkness, and he makes it clear that this was for no short period of time. For we read, “surely against me he turns his hand again and again the whole day long.” This is “again and again” for days on end. He didn’t just quickly pass through darkness, “he has made me dwell in darkness.” He dwells there day after day. Darkness is where the prophet now lives. Darkness is his home.
Even the inward life of the prophet is bleak. He writes, “my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is.” He does not have any sense of the peace of God. At present, he has no comfort in the gospel, and he has been in this spiritual state so long that he has even “forgotten what happiness is.” He dwelt in this desolate condition with the face of God hidden from him for such an agonizingly long period of time that he says, “My endurance has perished; so has my hope from the LORD.” All seemed lost, and that, not only for a few days, but for an extended season filled with bitter darkness.
When the Darkness Will Not Lift
We would look at such a morose character and shun him before his despondency affects the rest of the church and diminishes everyone else’s joy. Or perhaps we would seek to correct his lack of understanding of the gospel. We may be tempted to point him to his own words in verses 19-24. Yet, in so doing we would forget that the experience of the prophet lasted for a long season, and that even while he had in mind “The steadfast love of the LORD,” (v22) his present experience was still bitter beyond any words of comfort or consolation.
Why do I care about this? One reason is because this is my own present experience. I feel like Jeremiah felt. His words soak up into my bones and resonate with my soul as my own present experience. And why should my present experience be any different? I have personal sins even as the prophet was surely a mere man fraught with besetting sins. And like the prophet who lived in declining times, so we too live in an evil day. Our sins are piled far higher than that of ancient Israel. The visible church has far more corruption, idolatry, and false doctrine in it than Israel. As a society we have profaned marriage, destroyed the family, indoctrinated the youth into a godless worldview, and we have shed innocent blood through the premeditated murder of over 60 million unborn babies.
These are days filled with unspeakable evil. How many churches can report genuine conversions every week…or even every month for that matter? Week after week unconverted people sit in our churches and the Holy Spirit is absent from our midst. He does not comes with effectual grace to soften harden hearts. We are living in a nation that is under the divine wrath of God, and the lack of genuine conversions is one great testimony against us that we are under God’s judgement. We should take heed of the exhortation of James, “Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom.” (James 4:9)
So, why should my own experience be different? In fact, I would be tempted to flip the question around: In such an evil generation, full of wickedness of every conceivable sort, why is the language of lamentation not frequently on the lips of more Christians? Should we be happy while souls are lost and remain unconverted in the church? Should we be happy while the name of God is blasphemed everywhere around us? Should we be happy when our own lives are only sustained by trivial little superficial joys of leisure and entertainment? Should we be happy when our own lives are beset with various sins? No, it ought to be a time of mourning and bitter-sweet lamentation.
As I say all of this, we also need to realize that sometimes the Bible doesn’t give us an immediate word of hope. Therefore, this blog will end in darkness, even as the words of Psalm 88:14-18 end in deep darkness, because this is where God in his wisdom and his grace sometimes leaves us. The Psalmist writes,
“O LORD, why do you cast my soul away?
Why do you hide your face from me?
Afflicted and close to death from my youth up,
I suffer your terrors; I am helpless.
Your wrath has swept over me;
your dreadful assaults destroy me.
They surround me like a flood all day long;
they close in on me together.
You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me;
darkness has become my only companion.”