Have you ever wondered if God is really listening? I know that we believe, in our hearts, that God is there and He wants us to pray, but how many times have you prayed and it seemed like nothing happened?
The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much.
- James 5:16b
Doesn't it seem that sometimes our prayers, no matter how fervent, how faithful, how righteous, come back to us empty? We pray and...
- the person we're praying for dies anyways
- the marriage that we're praying for falls apart anyways
- the company closes down anyways
- the illness continues anyways
- the direction that you're asking for doesn't appear and you make a costly mistake anyways
When these things happen it becomes easy to doubt one of God's most wonderful qualities: His mercy towards us. When we are in this position it is comforting to know that we are not alone, many people in the Bible felt this way.
Jeremiah and Lamentations
One example of a person who had this kind of doubt is Jeremiah, the inspired author of the book of Lamentations. Jeremiah wrote this "lament" after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonian army in 587 BC. The small kingdom of Judah (where the city of Jerusalem was located) was forced to pay tribute to Babylon and its king who ruled as a world power at that time. Zedekiah, the king of Judah, decided to break his agreement with Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, and stop his tribute. The Babylonians responded by surrounding the city of Jerusalem, laying siege to it for 18 months in order to starve the inhabitants into submission and eventually killed most of those remaining, destroyed the temple and burned the city to the ground.
In the book of Lamentations, Jeremiah describes the scenes and feelings of the people during the siege.
1How lonely sits the city
That was full of people!
She has become like a widow
Who was once great among the nations!
She who was a princess among the provinces
Has become a forced laborer!
2She weeps bitterly in the night
And her tears are on her cheeks;
She has none to comfort her
Among all her lovers.
All her friends have dealt treacherously with her;
They have become her enemies.
3Judah has gone into exile under affliction
And under harsh servitude;
She dwells among the nations,
But she has found no rest;
All her pursuers have overtaken her
In the midst of distress.
- Lamentations 1:1-3
In chapter 2 he describes God as the one who is doing this to Jerusalem (because He is allowing the Babylonians to successfully attack them). They have prayed for relief and He has not answered.
How the Lord has covered the daughter of Zion
With a cloud in His anger!
He has cast from heaven to earth
The glory of Israel,
And has not remembered His footstool
In the day of His anger.
- Lamentations 2:1
In this and other chapters, Jeremiah describes the terrible suffering experienced by the people: people dying of starvation, mothers killing and eating their own children, etc. (Lamentations 4:9-10).
He also describes his own feelings about God because of the things that have happened in Jerusalem. In chapter 3 he talks about the physical suffering (vs. 4); and the emotional trauma that he personally has experienced (vs. 13); and the spiritual despair that he feels because of what has taken place (vs. 16-18).
Here is a righteous man who has done God's will, who believes and has dedicated His life to serving the Lord, and for his trouble:
- His people die in the streets in a horrible way.
- His nation is taken over and destroyed by an ungodly people.
- His church (the temple) is desecrated.
- His own body and emotions are put through intense suffering.
All of this takes place despite his prayers to the contrary. In the middle of his crisis, Jeremiah rises up and expresses his continued belief that despite the pit of suffering that he is in at the moment, his God is a God of mercy and love.
21This I recall to my mind,
Therefore I have hope.
22The Lord's lovingkindnesses indeed never cease,
For His compassions never fail.
23They are new every morning;
Great is Your faithfulness.
24"The Lord is my portion," says my soul,
"Therefore I have hope in Him."
- Lamentations 3:21-24
Jeremiah was beaten but not broken, down but not out because he understood three things about God and his relationship with Him in times of trouble.
1. God was sometimes silent, but He was never absent.
We are a generation that is used to speed, everything must move quickly or else we discard it. The reason for this is that we are subject to time (we only have so much of it) and so it is precious to us because we feel the "ticking" of the clock.
God is not subject to time. He moves and accomplishes His will with perfect timing, but is not distracted or pressured by time like we are. Because of this, we sometimes mistake God's silence for God's absence, His lack of action in our care for lack of love.
Even though God seemed to be silent in answering Jeremiah's prayers, Jeremiah knew from God's dealings with him and the Jewish nation throughout history that He was not absent.
When our lives are surrounded by troubles, our bodies and spirits wasted by constant trials, and our prayers seem to be falling on deaf ears - remember that God may be silent for the moment, but He is still God and is still there. This sentiment is expressed beautifully on a wall in Cologne, Germany, scrawled there during the insanity that was World War II, "I believe in the sun, even when it's not shining. I believe in love, even when I don't feel it. I believe in God, even when He is…silent."
2. When Jeremiah was beset with trouble, he needed to let God know.
Many times when we pray, we offer God solutions to our problems or complain about our problems instead of pouring out our problems before God through prayer.
Some people see the book of Lamentations as a man whining and complaining about tragedy. However, the book of Lamentations is the work of a man pouring out his heart and soul before God in times of trouble.
Human beings need to experience grief when trouble comes and part of that experience is the emptying out of our hearts and souls of the pain, frustration, anger and fear that is generated by tragedy.
6Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time, 7casting all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you.
- I Peter 5:6-7
All of Jeremiah's weeping and review of his problems before God did not change the situation, but it did change Jeremiah.
Once he got the hurt out, Jeremiah was able to relate to His God again. Through this lamentation he gained a clearer perspective which enabled him to hope for a better tomorrow.
When we hurt we need to let God know. Part of the healing process is produced through the action of emptying ourselves of the details and feelings associated with the problem and setting these down before a loving and merciful God.
3. Jeremiah understood that God had a purpose.
The people of Judah were being polluted by idols and corruption which were leading them away from God. This was jeopardizing God's plan of bringing the Messiah into the world through them. If they continued in their idolatry, they would eventually abandon God's word and the temple worship so necessary to give meaning to the work of the Savior when He would come. Their actions were risking not only their salvation but the salvation of those coming after them. Had God not intervened, we, in our generation, would be lost as well!
The destruction and exile of the Jewish people of that time accomplished several important things:
- It preserved a small group of Jews who remained faithful and were purified through their trials in exile.
- It was during the exile that the synagogue system began and served the Jewish people so well as they travelled and settled in various foreign nations. It was this network of foreign synagogues that Paul used to establish the first churches in the Roman Empire six centuries later.
- The Jewish people never again went into idolatry after this exile. This punishment taught them a lesson they would never forget.
And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.
- Romans 8:28
The suffering that Jeremiah witnessed and felt was used by God to accomplish His purpose, and in this we obtain a better understanding of what Paul is talking about from Romans 8:28.
- God uses all things for His purpose.
- All things (that includes good and bad).
- He uses them for His purpose, not ours.
- We become discouraged because we cannot see the why or wherefore of our suffering, and God is not explaining it to us.
- Who, however, said that God always uses the events that cause us hurt to serve us? It says that He uses all things for His purpose and His purpose may not include us at the moment.
- The Jews who suffered the loss of home and family, and died in exile did not know that their pain would serve others in the far future, but it did.
- All things are used for good, for His purpose and in His good time.
- We want His purpose to serve us and to serve us right away.
- However, God may use something in one century to serve the good of someone else in another century, place or culture.
- Walking by faith requires that we endure the trials in our lives even when we do not see how and for whom God will use them. "You have taken account of my wanderings; Put my tears in Your bottle. Are they not in Your book?" Psalms 56:8
- It should be enough that we know that God has His plan and that He weaves every event (good and bad) into it for His glory and our ultimate good - which is salvation.
When my life seems to be out of control, my hopes in ashes and my nights never-ending, it is comforting to realize that it is not wasted. God can and will fit my life, and all its good and bad, into His purpose.
In "grief support" classes that I teach, I always tell my group to not be surprised when trouble comes. Trouble always comes, you just never know when it does.
Sometimes when trouble comes and it seems that all you have heard and learned about God does not ring very true because your trouble seems, for the moment, greater than your God, remember:
- God is sometimes silent, but He is never absent. Do not mistake His silence for lack of love, or the ability to act.
- You need to unburden your heart before God if you are to heal. Sometimes we cannot fix what is broken or done. Fervent prayer to God, however, is always a medicine to the heart.
- God has a purpose. It is not so much that God has a purpose for your life, but that God has an overall purpose, and your life will fit into His purpose if you offer it to Him in faith.
I encourage you to keep trusting and praying to God even when you cannot hear or see Him working in your life. Also, consciously offer the life you do have (in whatever shape it's in) to God for His purpose. He does not expect a perfect life, He has already received one of those from Jesus Christ. He wants your life in whatever condition it's in so He can use it in the way he sees fit.