From the Father’s Heart

A dear friend and I spoke yesterday. We spoke of the difficulties of dealing with ourselves, of living with our problems. There’s something so crushing about seeing the sin to which you are so prone-of acknowledging that you aren’t what you want to be, and you’re honestly clueless as to how to become that person. It’s hard, and there are no pat answers, no easy formulas to apply.

And we are not alone. The prophet Jeremiah felt the same way. (Interesting that often the people God works most powerfully in question His work most deeply, but that’s another post). Jeremiah wrote Lamentations chapter 3 under just such a weight as my friend and I admitted to carrying-the weight of wondering if God was ever going to be pleased with him.

There is so much hope in this passage, but it starts, as we often do, with despair:

1 I am the man who has seen affliction
under the
rod of his wrath;
2he has driven and brought me
into darkness without any light;
3surely against me he turns his hand
again and again the whole day long.

We often feel this, don’t we? That God has been against us. That He is angry and frustrated with us, and so is not working for our good.

4He has made my flesh and my skin waste away;
he has broken my bones;
5 he has besieged and enveloped me
bitterness and tribulation;
6 he has made me dwell in darkness
like the dead of long ago.

7 He has walled me about so that I cannot escape;
he has made my chains heavy;
8though I call and cry for help,
he shuts out my prayer;
9 he has blocked my ways with blocks of stones;
he has made my paths crooked.

This is the human experience. Crooked paths. Not knowing where we’re going, or what’s going on. Praying for direction and finding confusion.

10 He is a bear lying in wait for me,
a lion in hiding;
11 he turned aside my steps and tore me to pieces;
he has made me desolate;
12 he bent his bow and set me
as a target for his arrow.

13He drove into my kidneys
the arrows of his quiver;
14 I have become the laughingstock of all peoples,
the object of their taunts all day long.
15 He has filled me with bitterness;
he has sated me with

16 He has made my teeth grind on gravel,
made me cower in ashes;
17my soul is bereft of peace;
I have forgotten what happiness
18 so I say, “My endurance has perished;
so has my hope from the LORD.”

Jeremiah takes stock of his life, and feels the utter absence of peace and joy, amidst the crushing presence of difficulty and trial. There is no peace; no happiness. And with that, his hope in the Lord perishes. He can’t go on. He’s giving up.

So Jeremiah prays. Not a hopeful prayer, but a desperate and very honest one:

19 Remember my affliction and my wanderings,
the wormwood and the gall!
20My soul continually remembers it
and is bowed down within me.

Jeremiah asks God to remember the fact that he is wandering around, looking for hope. Wormwood and gall are used elsewhere in Scripture to illustrate the rotting of a soul when God’s ways are rejected. Jeremiah, though, doesn’t seem to be particularly rebellious. He actually seems like he wants God in his life very badly. I think he’s doing what we are often asked to do: wrestling honestly with the condition of his heart. He’s acknowledging that for all his best efforts, he has yet to achieve goodness. All he sees when he looks at himself is sin. His soul, he says, is “bowed down” because of this.

But, as C.S. Lewis would say, there is a deeper magic here-a mercy that Jeremiah had forgotten. Just in time, the Spirit breathes on him, and he remembers:

21But this I call to mind,
therefore I have hope:

22 The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
23they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.

This is perhaps my favorite promise in all of Scripture: mercies that are new every morning. I need that, because my sin is new every morning too. Try as I might, I can’t fix me. Jesus is working on me, but the process is long and the progress is slow. In the meantime, I still struggle with the sin that “clings so close” to quote another part of Scripture. I need to know that God will remain faithful to me, even when I am not faithful to Him. Here, in the midst of one of the most depressing passages of Scripture, we see that. At the end of Jeremiah’s rope, is the loving embrace of a merciful God.

24 “The LORD is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I will hope in him.”

Somehow, this mercy, this knowing that he is loved in spite of his sin, gives Jeremiah hope to keep walking.

25The LORD is good to those who wait for him,
to the soul who seeks him.

26 It is good that one should wait quietly

for the salvation of the LORD.

I often think that God isn’t hearing me when I pray. But it’s not that-it’s that His help is coming, but it takes time. He is good to those who wait.

Skipping down a few verses, we see God’s heart in all of this:

31 For the Lord will not
cast off forever,
32but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion
according to the abundance of his steadfast love;
33 for he does not willingly afflict
grieve the children of men.

According to John Piper, the word translated “willingly” here is the Hebrew word “millibbô,” which literally means “from His heart.” So God causes grief, yes, but not from His heart. What does that even mean? It sounds so confusing.

I think, contrary to how Jeremiah seems to feel about God earlier in this passage (and if I’m honest, how I so often feel), it means that when things go badly for us, and when our sin causes us to despair, God is not displeased with us. Though He may be disciplining us, working in us to change our hearts, He is not punishing us. His heart is not like ours-He doesn’t rejoice in hurting those who step out of line.

That is where our despair meets his divinity-in His compassion. I wonder if Jeremiah had to give up on himself before he could truly understand how deep the Father’s mercy runs. It’s one thing to believe in God’s mercy when you’re a decent person who is basically okay. It’s another thing entirely to believe it when all your best efforts have failed, when you have given up on succeeding, when you’re just not sure what kind of person you are anymore.

So God brings us there, so we can know how committed He is to us-He brings us to honesty about ourselves, so He can prove to us that He really does love us unconditionally. This is hard, though, because He does this by showing us that we’ve failed all the conditions. And that process is excruciating. It’s terrifying to realize that you don’t have any goodness to impress God with. And yet, He comes to us and tells us we never needed to impress Him-He loves us independently of anything we can do for Him. He will cause grief, yes. He will cause despair, to turn us away from looking to ourselves to save us, but the story neither begins nor ends there. The story is His compassion. The story is His mercy. The story is His heart.

And what does His heart look like? In Luke 12:32, Jesus said this:

“Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.

That is what His heart looks like, at its deepest. A Father who wants to provide for His children. A Father who enjoys to provide, who actually gets pleasure out of giving to us. And not just providing our necessities, but providing for us a Kingdom. And He does this in the most amazing way: by sending Jesus to die. In the Cross we see what is meant by a God who causes pain, but not “from His heart.” He loved Jesus, but put Him to death on a cross so that we would not die. He loves us, and will give us pain, yes, but only to lead us to a truer and more lasting peace. And that is His heart for you: peace. He wants, so desperately wants, for you to know that He loves you. He wants it enough that though it grieves Him, He will allow you to experience the pain involved in giving up on your own ability to work hard enough to get His approval, so that He can give you the joy of trusting the work of Jesus to provide that approval.

He is with you. He is for you. His love and pleasure in you will not end, because they are tied up in His heart (not in yours), and He will not end. You are loved.

Grace and Peace to all who trust Jesus.

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