What Suffering Shows Us
Suffering is revealing.
It’s one thing to sing about God’s goodness, say “Amen” to biblical truths, underline promises in our Bibles, and pray confident prayers when the sun is shining and life is good.
While there’s nothing wrong with rejoicing in God’s blessing, the true test happens when the looming clouds of hardship roll in. That’s when our theology, our faith, and our perseverance matter.
If dark clouds linger, the testing not only intensifies, but it can also reveal some latent idols: the things in which we placed too much emotional trust.
Yet the unearthing of idols is part of God’s plan in suffering.
The book of Lamentations laments a long season of suffering. We love the hope of chapter three—“the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases. His mercies never come to an end” (Lam. 3:22). But chapter 4 is still dark.
In fact, it mourns over the lingering effects of the nation’s idols. Soong-Chan Rah, in his book Prophetic Lament, suggests that this chapter highlights the way “symbols of success and power are deconstructed.”1
In other words, it mourns the idols upon which we place too much hope. In this way, lament not only expresses sorrow over a loss; it also mourns misplaced trust. When your culture or city or life falls apart, it can be revealing.
As we think about the hardship of COVID-19 and the tensions of a national election, consider the following idols from Lamentations 4.
1. Fixating on Financial Security
Lamentations 4 begins by lamenting the loss of the security and glory of Jerusalem’s wealth:
How the gold has grown dim,
how the pure gold is changed! (v. 1)
The city of Jerusalem was the economic and spiritual center of Israel. The temple rose over the horizon with its grand architecture and gleaming jewels. The ark of the covenant, the walls of the sanctuary, the vessels and utensils, and even the shields were made from precious metals (1 Kings 6:20–22). Gold was everywhere.
This wealth made a statement, because gold is connected to glory. But now the gold is dim.
The city has lost its luster. The temple has been destroyed. Cherished symbols lie in a dust-covered heap of ruins. Any trust in what the temple and its gold represented has vanished.
I trust you know that money has power. It provides security. It creates identity. It gives options. If we are not careful, money can fuel self-sufficiency. That’s why a recession, the loss of a job, the failure of a business, or a city with shuttered factories is an opportunity to reflect on our misplaced trust in our paper-thin financial security. When a 401(k) loses its value, or a downsizing announcement arrives in your inbox, lamenting the loss can awaken your soul to the foolishness of trusting in financial security. The security of money or the fear of financial loss can easily become a functional god in our lives. Hardship or financial stress can reveal an idolatrous fixation with the security that money provides.
Money can be a common idol beneath the surface of our lives. Do you know its subtle captivity? For you it could be the image of success, the temporary satisfaction of something new, the assurance of providing for your family, or the security of your future. Regardless of the expression, it is easy for money to become an object of trust. When loss or uncertainty enter the equation, it’s remarkable how quickly this idol rears its ugly head. Lament penetrates the vault of our self-sufficiency and shows us the spiritual bankruptcy of trusting in financial security.
2. Treating People like Saviors
Suffering can also reveal a second object of misplaced trust: people. We can come face-to-face with how much we believe people can fix the problems around us. Whether it’s politics, business, or religion, we can easily pin our hopes on others. That is part of the reason we are so enamored with fame and power. We live vicariously through those who lead us. We believe life will be better if “our people” are in control.
Laying in the rubble of Jerusalem was not only the gold but also any hope that a leader could fix the mess of the people’s lives. The culture of the nation was broken like “earthen pots” (Lam. 4:2), and there was no one to stop the destruction. The wealthy were rummaging through the ash heaps (Lam. 4:5). Princes, known for beauty and fame, were now deformed and unrecognizable (Lam. 4:8–9). Even the king was captured. Jeremiah 39:1–10records the tragic events surrounding King Zedekiah’s arrest as he fled the city. His children were slaughtered, his eyes were gouged out, and he was deported to Babylon. Lamentations 4:20helps us to feel the symbolic value of this disheartening moment:
The breath of our nostrils, the Lord’s anointed, was captured in their pits,
of whom we said, “Under his shadow we shall live among the nations.”
This lament reminds us that there are limitations to human leadership. The power of man-made government, the theories of economics, and the security of national defense are not ultimate. These systems and those who lead through them are frail.
Lament reminds us about the danger of putting too much hope in human leaders. The book of Lamentations warns us that our deliverer does not occupy a seat on the Supreme Court, reside at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, sit in the boardroom of a company, or stand behind a pulpit in our church. Seasons of uncertainty and loss reveal the vanity of putting our ultimate hope in anyone but God.
3. Craving Cultural Comfort
The dark clouds of desperation over Jerusalem changed the way people treated one another. And it wasn’t for the better. There was an erosion of social values. The people were cruel, neglecting even compassion that animals give their offspring (Lam. 4:3). Helpless nursing children were starving. When they begged for food, “no one [gave it] to them” (Lam. 4:4). Hopelessness settled in the city, and the people wished for death (Lam. 4:9).
The point of this dark material is to show the complete unraveling of the social fabric in Jerusalem. Cultural norms collapsed as the city and nation crumbled. Basic relationships were dysfunctional. Compassion was gone.
Jeremiah uses lament to shine a bright light on this degradation. He mourns the loss as a warning of how broken our society can become.
Our love of peace and safety can create a heartless disregard for the problems under the surface or just a few miles away. It can be easy to insulate ourselves from cultural problems by retreating to the manicured lawns and gated communities of the suburbs.
Prayers of lament can give us new eyes to see the true condition of our society. Rather than holding the groan of our culture at a distance or ignoring it altogether, lament has the potential to open our hearts to enter into the pain. It can topple the idol of wanting to live in Mayberry, an idealistic world insulated from the problems around us.
Lament calls us not to ignore the cries of our culture.
4. Idolizing Spiritual Leaders
A cultural crisis directly affects relationships with spiritual leaders. In Lamentations, moral authority vanished, and the text mourns the loss of credibility among those who were supposed to be righteous. The spiritual leaders were complicit in the decay of the nation (Lam. 4:13), and they reaped the tragic consequences. Jeremiah describes these leaders as wandering, blind, isolated, and defiled (Lam. 4:14). The people call them “unclean!” (Lam. 4:15), an ironic charge, given the position of purity spiritual leaders were to maintain. Their honor vanished (Lam. 4:16). In short, the religious leaders lost their credibility and influence. They became fugitives in their own broken culture.
Lamentations 4 shows us how far spiritual leaders can fall. A lament like this should be a somber warning for those in spiritual leadership. Spiritual apathy from religious leaders was one reason why Israel lost its way. The lament of chapter 4 shows us the connection between a vacuum of spiritual leadership and divine discipline.
Rather than trying to leverage the church’s political capital to win the culture wars, we ought to take a close look in the mirror. Spiritual leaders should walk alongside their people and model self-examination and repentance. Exile provides an opportunity for God’s people to lament spiritual drift, not only of a culture but also of the church. We could echo the lament of Daniel who prayed:
O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, we have sinned and done wrong and acted wickedly and rebelled, turning aside from your commandments and rules. We have not listened to your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name to our kings, our princes, and our fathers, and to all the people of the land. To you, O Lord, belongs righteousness, but to us open shame, as at this day, to the men of Judah, to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to all Israel, those who are near and those who are far away, in all the lands to which you have driven them, because of the treachery that they have committed against you. To us, O Lord, belongs open shame, to our kings, to our princes, and to our fathers, because we have sinned against you. (Dan. 9:4–8)
The lost ground of spiritual authority might be regained if we were more careful to not idolize those in spiritual leadership and if spiritual leaders lead in lament.
5. Presuming Divine Favor
The final potential idol relates to the assumption of the blessing of God. No nation would have greater reason to claim a most-favored status than Israel. They were God’s chosen people. The Old Testament affirmed this. But divine favor does not give people permission to proudly ignore God’s warnings. “Prior to Jerusalem’s fall,” says Soong-Chan Rah, “the Israelites had come to see themselves as a special people who had deserved and earned their great city, rather than recognize that everything they had accomplished was by the grace of God.”2
Lamentations makes it clear that the nation was under the discipline of the Lord. Jeremiah uses shocking language. He describes their chastisement as greater than Sodom (Lam. 4:6). In verse 11, we read, “The Lord gave full vent to his wrath.” There was a foreboding sense that their days were numbered and that the end was drawing near (Lam. 4:18). The blessing of God was covered with a cloud.
The culture of the United States is enamored with optimism. The “American Spirit” is the deeply rooted belief that life will get better, recessions will end, opportunities will abound, and “the sun will come up tomorrow.” While I appreciate this optimism at one level, I wonder how many American Christians make cultural optimism an idol. Or how many directly connect this optimism to the belief that we are “blessed by God.” Perhaps this is partly why some Christians react negatively to the effects of our exile status. It seems that we are unfamiliar with spiritual survival in a culture where a recession doesn’t end and where the social structures continue to work against a bright future.
I fear that too many of us, including myself, are so emotionally and spiritually tied to this optimism that we don’t know how to live in a culture reaping what it has sown. Throughout the centuries, Christians have found a way forward while their culture was hostile or falling apart.
By reading books like Lamentations, we are reminded that divine blessing does not guarantee a pain-free life or a receptive culture. Lament helps us to see the way believers persevered while living in a society rampant with idols. But it also allows us to search our own hearts for the ways those idols have invaded our lives as well.
Lament is the song you sing when divine blessing seems far away. Lamentations 4 helps us see the subtle idols that lie under the surface. Financial security, people, cultural comfort, spiritual leaders, or divine favor are just a few of the mini-gods that can capture our hearts. Losing them, in part or whole, presents an opportunity to be reminded where our affections should lie. Lamenting the toppling of our cultural idols can reorient Christian exiles as to what King and what kingdom we were supposed to long for.
Not without Hope
The unearthing of idols is part of God’s plan.
When pain topples our idols, lament invites self-examination. We can see more clearly the misplaced objects of trust that surface when the layers are peeled back. Pain helps us to see who we are and what we love.
As you walk through various moments of loss, don’t miss the life-changing lessons that are part of the process. Emotional healing, while a good and right goal, should not be your only focus. This valley can be one of the most important learning opportunities of your life. Pain is an uncomfortable but helpful teacher. Rather than resisting the exposure of your misplaced trust, embrace the journey. Talk to God about what you are learning. Seek his forgiveness. Ask him to help you change.
Lamentations was written as a memorial for these lessons. It shows us how to think and what to pray when our idols become clear.
- Soong-Chan Rah, Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times(Down- ers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015), 171.
This article is by Mark Vroegop and is adapted from Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy: Discovering the Grace of Lament.