A few times in the last few weeks I have been asked to speak at prayer evenings for India and the Asian subcontinent as they are in the throes of the devastating second wave of Covid. My preparation for speaking at these prayer evenings has been a great encouragement to me, as I have drunk deeply from the book of Lamentations and the way the author(s) articulate their despair at the destruction of Jerusalem in 587BC by King Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians.
In fact, whether it is the second wave of the Covid pandemic in the majority world, or people starving to death in famines, or the ongoing pain of religious extremism which leads to deaths around the world, or the emotional turmoil that comes with broken relationships in our own families – suffering is a part of our world. Amidst all that we face as Christian people wading the mess of this world while fixing our eyes on Jesus, the Bible continues to be a great comfort. God does not shy away from suffering; quite the contrary, he himself knows what it is to suffer (Isa 53:3; Heb 2:9). And he shows us how suffering is an integral part of our Christian life, as it is a pattern that we emulate in following our crucified Lord (see e.g. 1 Pet 2:21-24).
In the book of Lamentations, and as we trace the suffering motif throughout the rest of the Scriptures, one thing is clear: God is sovereign, and so our suffering doesn’t happen unbeknownst to him. In fact, it is quite the opposite. God is very clear in Lamentations that not only does he know about his peoples’ suffering, but he has affected their suffering (Lam 1:5; 2:17a). Part of the cry in Lamentations is a slow awakening of God’s people as they understand that their rebellion against him has devastating consequences for them. So here is the problem the people had: if God is against us, what can we do? God brought their suffering as the consequence of rebellion against him, and they had no bargaining chip or leverage to appease the wrath of God by their actions, words or good intentions.
But Lamentations was also written for us. It is in this discomfort of God’s rebellious, suffering people that we see the theological answer to the question of suffering as the crescendo reaches its climax in chapter 3 of Lamentations. For the first time in the book, the collective lament of God’s people focuses in on an individual man. And this man too expresses his lament:
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” (Lam 3:16-18).
However, his lack of hope makes a sharp turn within the space of three verses, as he calls to mind the very character of his God:
steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I will hope in him” (Lam 3:22-24).
The following verses flesh this out for us. The writer reflects on the reality that it is good for us to wait quietly on our Lord, trusting him in all things. Why? Because the Lord does not remain angry forever, but though he causes grief, he will have compassion, as his nature throughout the Bible suggests – “according to the abundance of his steadfast love” (Lam 3:32). So the writer of these words has hope as he looks to the history of God’s past interactions with him and his people, as he comes back to the truth that God is sovereign, and compassionate, and so this suffering is part of what needed to happen. He may not have known exactly how, but we do! We are in the privileged position of looking back to the cross of Jesus Christ where God’s justice and compassion fully met.
Knowing then of God’s rightful anger at our rebellion, juxtaposed against his compassion, loving-kindness and faithfulness to his promises, we ought to repent. That is the response of God’s people in Lamentations, as they hear the lament and testimony of this man. They come together to test and examine their ways, and to return to the Lord. Just as they came to understand the error of their ways, so we ought to return to the Lord in all things. This is the way that Jesus and the New Testament writers apply suffering in the Christian life. In the infamous Tower of Siloam incident, when questioned about whether the Galileans died because they were worse sinners, Jesus’ response is telling: “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3). Similarly, the apostle Paul writes to the church in Corinth: “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death” (2 Cor 7:10).
As Christians now, when we go through suffering, it is possible to answer the question when God is against us, what can we do?. We can repent. We can come back to God, through trust in Jesus, and have assurance of not only a way through suffering, but to eternal life. In fact, we have certainty because the Lamentations pattern of suffering, then repentance, then hope, anticipates what it means for us to follow Jesus. We take up our cross and follow Jesus, knowing the trustworthy saying that if we die with him, we will also live with him (cf. 2 Tim 2:11).
join me in praying for India, and indeed for our world, that God would draw
many people to himself through his Son Jesus, and for relief from the pandemic.
 When we read this in 2021, we need to understand the relationship between sin and suffering. It is not that we sin specifically and we are therefore facing specific suffering from God as retribution; Lamentations was written first to God’s ancient people Israel. So it would be a misapplication of Scripture to assume that the particular sinfulness of the Indian government has the consequence of the second wave of Covid being particularly severe, causing mass death. Jesus himself teaches us that this would be a misapplication (cf. Luke 13:1-5). Rather, the consequences of our broken relationship with our Maker means that suffering is part of this world.