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The Painful Call of Ministry: Jeremiah and Lamentations


The following was a college essay written by German Lopez. It has been edited and approved by Christopher Centrella. If you have a Theology essay that you would like published that received a grade of an A- or higher, please be sure to contact us.

By German Lopez, University of Dallas

The National Certification Standards for Lay Ecclesial Ministers says that “the hunger of the lay ecclesial minister for union with the Triune God is constant. The result of this hunger is the call to holiness, built on the Word of God… and formed through suffering.”[1] Why does suffering play a forming role in the call to ministry? To answer that question, the Bible holds two books that examine what suffering is, how it affects those called to serve God, and how it can be used to grow closer to Him even in the midst of pain and feeling separated from Him. In the book of Jeremiah, suffering as a result of doing God’s work is seen in Jeremiah’s personal laments to God in chapters 12, 15, 17, 18 and 20. Lamentations, traditionally associated with Jeremiah, also explores this concept, but chooses to focus more on the elements of sorrow, of loss and despair that follow in the aftermath of tragedy. These two books are set in the dying embers of Judah’s time, characterized by rampant moral abuses, rejection of God’s laws and the persecution of His prophets, Jeremiah chief among them.

The first book shows Jeremiah preaching the message of repentance to a stone-hearted people, and dealing with the painful rejection by his people of both him and his message. This is where the “confessions” of Jeremiah provide a window into the suffering of the prophet as a result of this message he was called to deliver.[2] These five passages remind ministers that the truth God calls us to deliver to people will not be universally accepted, and that we will face rejection and hostility if we live and do what God would call us to do. One of the most significant examples in the book of Jeremiah that reflects the rejection and pain Jeremiah felt as a result of his mission comes in 15:10-11, where he breaks from the prophecy against Israel to express his own feelings: “Woe to me, my mother, that you have borne me as a man of strife and a man of contention to all the land! I have not lent, nor have men lent money to me. Yet, everyone curses me.” No one asks to give a message of foreboding doom to their own people, to tell their king and nation that the end is near. That is a duty given, not requested. Jeremiah, as a man, is obviously sensitive to the outspoken, hostile criticism. In this passage, it’s also evident that it does get to him; he is deeply affected by how ostracized he has become.[3]

Rejection and pain breed a sense of self-pity and loneliness within the affected party, but the larger, more noticeable emotion that jumps from this is usually anger and frustration. Jeremiah was not a stranger to this, and the best example of these emotions on display in the book are found within 20:7-10: “…All day long I am an object of laughter; everyone mocks me….Yes, I hear the whisperings of many: Terror on every side! Denounce! Let us denounce him! All those who were my friends are on the watch for any misstep of mine. ‘Perhaps he can be tricked; then we will prevail, and take our revenge on him.’”

 The discouragement bleeds from the text; one can imagine the prophet’s pen shaking in his hand out of anger at what he is going through. However, his most heartfelt words are reserved for his own prophecies, not the reaction of the crowds: “Whenever I speak, I must cry out, violence and outrage I proclaim; the word of the Lord has brought me reproach and derision all day long. I say I will not mention him, I will no longer speak in his name. But then it is as if fire is burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones; I grow weary holding back, I cannot!”  Jeremiah knows that he’s been selected by God to be a prophet, so here he is not questioning why he has been chosen; he understands that this is the plan that God has for him. Rather, he is asking why this special job God has chosen him for doesn’t feel so special. As F.B. Huey states in his commentary on Jeremiah: “Jeremiah faced an impossible dilemma. If he spoke, his audiences would abuse him. If he did not speak, he had no inner peace. Jeremiah discovered that ‘his word’ was in his heart like a burning fire stored up in his bones. Though proclaiming the word brought ridicule and pain to Jeremiah, he was exhausted from holding it in.”[4] Perhaps this passage is where we receive the inspiration for the word “burnout”. If so, Jeremiah provides for us the definition in his words. He is at the end of his rope, beaten down by the hardships that his supposedly fulfilling work has brought upon him, something he could not have foreseen when he accepted his mission. It is a truly low point, but there is a very good reason that this is the fifth and final passage in the “confessions of Jeremiah”.

This is because ministry is not simply formed by rejection, but by the response to it. In this is where Jeremiah’s significance is revealed.[5] He is downtrodden, discouraged, frustrated and angry but continues to hold belief in the words God has given to him, even when he doesn’t want to speak them. In the face of this suffering, Jeremiah continued to preach not because he hoped it would eventually bring him a friend or two; he must have eventually made peace with the fact that the only thing that would give him acceptance in the eyes of his people was the lie of a happy future. In his eyes, however, he would rather suffer the painful consequences of telling the truth to those he loved than to go against God and allow his country to be destroyed without hearing the warning he carried.

While we might not be called to the same scope of preaching that Jeremiah found himself carrying out, we will undoubtedly face smaller-scale situations that force us to tell a hard truth rather than a soft lie, and we will need to be able to deal with the fallout as Jeremiah did; by trusting in God’s plan for us and in his support for us in the face of such difficulty. This is wonderfully expressed in the verses immediately following his outburst of anger in chapter 20: “But the Lord is with me, like a mighty champion: my persecutors will stumble, they will not prevail. In their failure they will be put to utter shame, to lasting, unforgettable confusion…for to you I have entrusted my cause.” When his spiritual well ran dry of endurance, of patience, of belief in his life’s mission, Jeremiah did not bother continuing to draw from it. Instead he immediately turned to the Lord’s overflowing fountain, from which he received what he himself no longer possessed. How else could someone write so convinced of God’s support mere lines after saying he would no longer prophesy? Jeremiah is a shining example of humanity’s weakness being the conduit for God’s power. His own dedication and mission were skewered by his emotions, doubts, and fears, to the point where he even wanted to quit. But for all his prophetic messages and writings, perhaps his biggest contribution to the Bible is the affirmation that God uses imperfect people to do great, beautiful work, which inspires in me the hope that He can do the same with all of us someday, if we only respond with a “yes, Lord.”

The book of Jeremiah and its “confessions” give ministers a wonderful example of how to deal with our own personal suffering and the reality that God continues to support our mission even in the midst of it. What happens, however, when you encounter someone who is dealing with suffering themselves, or the aftermath of your own tough personal event? This is where Lamentations comes in. The book is a collection of five poems written after the cataclysmic events of the Babylonian conquest and destruction of Jerusalem which alternate from a third-person narrator viewing the affliction of “daughter Zion” the character representing Israel, to a first-person view of the desolation and despair of Zion.[6] It’s a story of the aftermath of a terrible time, and reading it gives an incredible account of what suffering is and how it feels. It’s a journey that every minister should be prepared to enter into; the world is full of broken people, and it is only a matter of time before we are brought into interaction with someone that desperately needs our help. It’s probably the toughest aspect of a ministerial career, the knowledge that you are seen as the support by so many for the tough times. How do we become pillars to hold up the world of others when it comes crashing down?

The first step, I would posit, towards training ourselves to become comforting witnesses to the reality of suffering is familiarizing ourselves with our own. This means eliminating the denial that we often employ to cope with hardship. Interviews of Holocaust survivors showed that the difficulty didn’t come from the survivors being able to speak about the horrors they encountered, but the interviewers being able to listen to the stories. Continually, they attempted to spin the stories as some sort of testimony to human resilience.[7] Lamentations doesn’t deny the pain felt by the survivors of the exile; it tells their story in a poetic form honoring the authentic feelings of fear, sadness and doubt.

The first chapter is full of these miserable sentiments, with 1:14-16 being an outcry of daughter Zion, the personification of Israel, responding to the horrible events of the fall of Jerusalem: “The yoke of my rebellions is bound together, fastened by his hand. His yoke is upon my neck; he has made my strength fail. The Lord has delivered me into the grip of those I cannot resist. All my valiant warriors, my Lord has cast away; He proclaimed a feast against me to crush my young men…For these things I weep—My eyes! My eyes! They stream with tears! How far from me is anyone to comfort, anyone to restore my life. My children are desolate; the enemy has prevailed.” There is no denial of the terrible loss that daughter Zion feels, the crushing sadness that results from its mistakes that have been so strongly, justly punished. The narrator simply allows this story to be told, for the suffering of daughter Zion to come through clearly in the words. He does not attempt to steer the broken Zion to hope, to look to better times, but allows her to stay in her pain. There is no denial of the truth or validity of her pain, which is the example ministers should follow. Too often, we assume our job is to solve the world’s problems when our true vocation is to help, to serve. The greatest service we can give to someone who is suffering is to validate their pain, to be a comforting witness to them…after we have been that same comforting witness to ourselves. Lamentations calls us to hear and honor our own personal pain, to see it, stop denying it, comparing it or trivializing it. It means entering it fully and squarely, even if it is difficult, especially if it is difficult. By doing so, one is empowered to give genuine love and action to others that are dealing with their own suffering. In giving this gift to others, we may in fact find that they have a greater gift to give to us: the gift of their humanity.

The ancient proverb “physician, heal thyself”, reminds us that to help someone in need, we must first come to terms with and begin the healing process for our own wounds. Ministers should be prepared to reflect on, identify and enter into their own sufferings in order to properly minister to those suffering themselves. We cannot wipe away pain instantaneously from the lives of ourselves and others, but we can wipe away our tears to look to the light of Christ. Before we can do that, however, we must allow ourselves to cry them first.

Bibliography

Feinberg, Charles Lee. Jeremiah, a Commentary. Zondervan Pub. House, 1982.

Fretheim, Terence E. Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Jeremiah. Smith & Helwys, 2002.

Huey, F.B. The New American Commentary: Jeremiah and Lamentations. Broadman Press, 1993.

O’Connor, Kathleen M. Lamentations and the Tears of the World. Orbis Books, 2007.

O’Connor, Kathleen M. The Confessions of Jeremiah: Their Interpretation and Their Role in Chapters 1-25. Scholars Press, 1988.

Renkema, Johan. Historical Commentary on the Old Testament: Lamentations. Peeters, 1998.


[1] Alliance for the Certification of Lay Eccleisal Ministers, “National Certification Standards for Lay Ecclesial Ministers ,” Professional Standards for Lay Ecclesial Ministers – Alliance for the Certification of Lay Eccleisal Ministers, accessed October 7, 2020, https://lemcertification.org/page/LEMStandards.

[2] O’Connor, Kathleen M. The Confessions of Jeremiah: Their Interpretation and Their Role in Chapters 1-25. Scholars Press, 1988.

[3] Fretheim, Terence E. Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Jeremiah. Smith & Helwys, 2002.

[4] Huey, F.B. The New American Commentary: Jeremiah and Lamentations. Broadman Press, 1993.

[5] Feinberg, Charles Lee. Jeremiah, a Commentary. Zondervan Pub. House, 1982.

[6] Renkema, Johan. Historical Commentary on the Old Testament: Lamentations. Peeters, 1998.

[7] O’Connor, Kathleen M. Lamentations and the Tears of the World. Orbis Books, 2007.

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