A Cry beyond Lament
Tim Boland (MA Theological Studies '12) hails from upstate New York and, much to his own surprise, has lived in Vancouver for the last seven years. He is the Acting Manager on Regent's Development team and enjoys teaching from the Old Testament whenever possible.
Reflections on Jeremiah 20
Scripture may not teach directly on mental illness as we understand it, given how recently most of our diagnostic categories have developed. But mental illness often involves unrelieved experiences of frustration and isolation—wondering (among other things) if God is actually there, and if he is the kind of God he promised to be. These are experiences that Scripture is very familiar with, and in few places more powerfully than Jeremiah 20.
The chapter opens with a story of how Jeremiah’s preaching in the Temple provokes the authorities to arrest, beat, and publicly humiliate him. In this arena, Jeremiah does not back down; he remains obedient to his prophetic commission, every bit the “hero of the faith” that we would all love to be at such times.
Then, after the story, we find an intriguing, and oddly encouraging, sort of prayer. Vv. 7-13 are a typical lament, albeit with some unusually strong language. Throughout the prayer, Jeremiah’s complaint to God is clear: you got me into this; I didn’t have a choice, and look where I’ve ended up! You said you’d be with me, but all I’m getting right now is pain, humiliation, and alienation, and I don’t really see your presence or your work around me. I need you to follow through on what you promised. This is far, far more straightforward than many of us would dare to be with God, yet there’s no indication here that Jeremiah has stepped out of line or expressed something inappropriate. The prayer seems to draw to a sort of conclusion in vv. 11-13, expressing the kind of trust and praise to God that we see in other laments. But while v. 13 ends the “proper” way, with a strong confession of faith, it’s followed immediately by the dreary shrieking of verses 14-18. It’s as if Jeremiah puts down his stylus for a moment, takes a deep breath, and realizes, we’re not done here.
So we plunge into a cry that seems beyond lament—beyond neatness, form, or propriety. Jeremiah feels so trapped, so hopeless and alone, that he doesn’t even want to die. He wishes he’d never been born. His ministry, faith, and entire existence all feel like a meaningless joke, a pointless waste of a human life that should just be erased.
In fact, Jeremiah feels so isolated that he doesn’t address this cry to anyone in particular—not to God, not to himself, not to a friend. The key verbs are aimless passives and jussives: “Cursed be...! Let that man...!” Jeremiah, like Job, refuses to “curse God and die,” but otherwise, he holds nothing back in expressing his sense of personal absurdity.
These dark and heavy words are not unique in Scripture. We don’t read these passages often, and we don’t usually draw attention to them. These aren’t the passages that show up in Christian memes on Facebook. (“Cursed is the day of my birth! Click ‘Like’ if you agree!”) But they’re there for us, awaiting our company in life’s darkest moments, if we will stop to hear them.
Consider Job 3.3-4: “Let the day perish on which I was born... let that day be darkness! May God above not seek it, nor light shine upon it.” Or Lamentations 3: “I am the one who has seen affliction by the rod of God’s 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.” Or Psalm 88, a lament that ends without assurance: “You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me; my companions have become darkness.”
Many of these testimonies come from indisputably righteous and faithful followers of God. They remind us that there are simply times in our lives where it feels like God is asking too much of us, where he has left us hanging out to dry and doesn’t seem inclined to help anytime soon, if at all.
So passages like Jeremiah 20 are vital for the health and endurance of our faith. We are invited to recall that we are not the first to feel this way. We are not alone in our sorrow, grief, and confusion, and it is fine with God that we give full expression to every last drop of our pain, resentment, anger, and feelings of abandonment. To do so is not to abandon our faith or betray our God. To pray this way is to seek deeper intimacy with him and integrity before him.
For if this passage teaches us anything, it’s that the point of prayer is not to “feel better.” Prayer is not primarily therapeutic. That’s why this doesn’t end at v. 13. If we reach the end of a time of prayer without feeling a super-spiritual “buzz,” or without a sense that our problem is “fixed,” that’s not necessarily a sign that something is wrong. Because the point of prayer is not to “feel better;” the point of prayer is to know and be known. Sometimes, that will mean a desperate confession that we feel like our whole life has been a joke, that God has led us down a dead end, and that we’d rather not even have been born.
In fact, we should notice that in this passage, neither the narrative nor the prayer really resolve. We don’t see the end of the encounter between Jeremiah and Pashhur, which is unusual in biblical narrative. There’s a setting, a conflict, a complication, and a climax—but no resolution. We are left only with Pashhur’s actions and Jeremiah’s words hanging in the air, presenting two different visions of reality for our possible allegiance.
The prayer likewise leaves us hanging. The chapters leading up to this one have involved extensive discussion and interaction between Jeremiah’s opponents, Jeremiah himself, and God. But this time, God doesn’t answer. Jeremiah’s final question simply hangs, his desolation stretching out to an unknown horizon.
Although their life circumstances are different from Jeremiah’s, many Christians living with mental illness might say that Jeremiah’s prayer in 20.14-18 captures their daily, ongoing reality. My hope is that reflecting on these verses will help us to see that such experiences do not put us outside the bounds of God’s faithful people. The absence of any emotional assurance of God’s faithfulness and presence hardly writes one out of his story. Quite the contrary. This cry from Jeremiah is one of many assurances in Scripture that this experience and these questions count. There’s room in the story for the anguished voice too, and we need not wait until we “feel better” before we belong. In our pain, as we are, we are still welcome before God, and among his people.
This article is adapted from a sermon originally preached at West Point Grey Baptist Church in July 2015. The full sermon is available here.