We may dislike ourselves and feel useless, but this does not mean we are fruitless in the work of God.
If every book of the Bible were a website, Jeremiah would receive fewer hits than most, certainly fewer than its neighbour, Isaiah. Jeremiah’s job specification, to prophesy the unavoidable fall of Jerusalem and the taking of its people makes for a difficult and unsettling read, like being made to watch a film you know will end badly and make you unhappy. There remains a cultural bias against Jeremiah, his name being synonymous with predictive gloom. Yet there is much that is gripping about the book and this has a lot to do with what we would today call Jeremiah’s back-story.
Scripture is an involving mix of sweeping narrative and personal concern. We obtain insights into many of its characters by virtue of how they act; occasionally there are fascinating glimpses of self-revelation. Jeremiah is one of these, the story of a reluctant and conflicted minister of God. The prophet was young when he was called, being sensitive and reflective in nature; it is unlikely any sound career advice would have led him down the road he took. While most prophets had short life expectancy, many could at least preach hope amid their stringencies; the era that Jeremiah lived in sealed off any such current prospect.
Any city or nation enduring the hostile threats of a violent neighbour inevitably coheres. The disagreements and disputes of mundane life dissolve in the face of mortal threat. Pessimists are not tolerated; any hint of treachery is pounced upon. It was into such a heavy atmosphere of suspicion that Jeremiah was called by God. His prophecy that the people should give themselves up to the Babylonian army rather than attempt to hold out with others in any siege of Jerusalem was deemed treasonous. We can hardly blame the establishment for the dark instinct to punish Jeremiah for his insubordination, for the pressure to conform was intolerable. If other prophets were preaching messages that were easier on the ear and conscience, we can imagine how strong the urge was to believe God was speaking through them rather than the awkward and disagreeable Jeremiah. What they did not realise was just how conflicted Jeremiah felt privately.
The twentieth chapter of Jeremiah reads like an existential blog, where the prophet shares his misery with countless anonymous readers. He seems to hate his life with a vengeance: cursed be the day on which I was born (verse 14). Even as he speaks the truth in God’s name, he cries: why did I come forth from the womb to see toil and sorrow, and spend my days in shame (verse 18). He has a dark sense of being duped by God: O Lord, you have enticed me (verse 7) yet he is unable to resist the divine calling: If I say ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name’, then within me there is something like a burning fire (verse 9).
Jeremiah’s canvass may be panoramic, but we are given these insights for a purpose. Much ministry (and the term ministry should be understood as the work of all Christian people acting out of love for God in the daily routines of their lives) is done from confused motives and conflicted emotions. We may not like the people we have to minister to and we tend to think these feelings invalidate our work but we should resist the temptation of succumbing to futility. There is a profound difference between liking someone and loving them; to love someone is to do the right thing by them, irrespective of our feelings towards them.
We may dislike ourselves and feel useless, but this still does not mean we are fruitless in the work of God. Much ministry is done in the shade between darkness and light, where we aspire to the latter but feel assaulted by the former. The modern focus on personal human emotion means the way we feel assumes the greatest importance in the delivery of ministry and obscures our view of what has been achieved in God.
We may feel ambiguous about God himself: Jonah can testify to how much work is done for God by sulking people who are tetchy and disillusioned and would rather be somewhere else. Jeremiah was distressingly ill at ease in his relationship with God during the most powerful phase of his ministry, but it did not prohibit the grace of God working through him.
The particularly modern abhorrence of hypocrisy means we are jumpily sensitive to any lack of integrity or coherence in the ministry we offer, yet we see this only from a human perspective. God knows our hearts are flawed and he sees in us far worse than we realise, but grace overwhelms our perceived inadequacies with a torrent so powerful that we only have to put ourselves in the way of it to be swept away; God sees to the rest.
Jeremiah’s personal dilemmas suggest to the discouraged that they shouldn’t withdraw from practical ministry. God uses us in spite of the mood we are in and he will use other flawed people to minister to our need. After all, how often do we know the state of mind of the person who blesses us?
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