In 1948, Andrew Wyeth painted “Christina’s World,” portraying a woman whose degenerative illness deprived her of the ability to walk. Instead of a wheelchair, she chose to crawl and drag herself across her house and farmland. The painting shows her painstakingly making her way across a vast and barren field. Each of us does this, in our own way. In a barren land, it is a struggle to find our way home again. With trembling hands we claw at the soil, inching our way closer, day in and day out.
Everything is broken. We need look no farther than the evening news to recognize that we live in a world that is marked and marred by suffering.
So when we return our attention to Jeremiah’s laments, we find a picture that isn’t that different than what we’d find on our evening news reports:
How the gold has grown dim, how the pure gold is changed! The holy stones lie scattered at the head of every street. 2 The precious sons of Zion, worth their weight in fine gold, how they are regarded as earthen pots, the work of a potter’s hands! 3 Even jackals offer the breast; they nurse their young, but the daughter of my people has become cruel, like the ostriches in the wilderness. 4 The tongue of the nursing infant sticks to the roof of its mouth for thirst; the children beg for food, but no one gives to them. 5 Those who once feasted on delicacies perish in the streets; those who were brought up in purple embrace ash heaps. 6 For the chastisement of the daughter of my people has been greater than the punishment of Sodom, which was overthrown in a moment, and no hands were wrung for her. 7 Her princes were purer than snow, whiter than milk; their bodies were more ruddy than coral, the beauty of their form was like sapphire. 8 Now their face is blacker than soot; they are not recognized in the streets; their skin has shriveled on their bones; it has become as dry as wood. 9 Happier were the victims of the sword than the victims of hunger, who wasted away, pierced by lack of the fruits of the field. 10 The hands of compassionate women have boiled their own children; they became their food during the destruction of the daughter of my people. 11 The LORD gave full vent to his wrath; he poured out his hot anger, and he kindled a fire in Zion that consumed its foundations. (Lamentations 4:1-11)
What can we possibly do to undo this level of chaos, this level of brokenness? In the 1500 years since these words were written, there have been no political ideas, no social programs, no religious prayers, no clever distractions that have succeeded in untangling the web of hurt in which we’re all suspended.
A SHALOM STORY
To understand this web, we have to go back to the very beginning. The story of the Bible is a story of shalom. The word shalom means “peace,” yes—but it also means more than that. Shalom refers to wholeness, to goodness, to prosperity, to wellbeing. Shalom refers to everything being as God intended it to be. And so when God created man and woman, He created a set of shalom relationships—different spheres in which we exist.
We experience spiritual shalom—a direct relationship with God. We experience social shalom—man and woman were originally “naked and unashamed” (Genesis 2:25). And we experience environmental shalom—man and woman were created to work and keep the garden (Genesis 2:15).
But a terrible thing happened. We decided that God’s plan wasn’t good enough, so we disobeyed. Sin entered the world. Now each of those shalom relationships would crumble, and from their ashes comes all of the pain and brokenness that we now experience.
This means that the primary (though not ultimate) effect of sin is estrangement. Betrayal. Unforgiveness. Divorce. War. These are the fruits of social brokenness. Disease. Natural disaster. Oncology reports. Death. These are the fruits of environmental brokenness. And most significantly, we experience spiritual death. Separation from God. Without intervention, our eternal destiny is death and judgment.
A FUTURE KINGDOM
But even Jeremiah turns his trust over to God:
19 But you, O LORD, reign forever; your throne endures to all generations. 20 Why do you forget us forever, why do you forsake us for so many days? 21 Restore us to yourself, O LORD, that we may be restored! Renew our days as of old– 22 unless you have utterly rejected us, and you remain exceedingly angry with us. (Lamentations 5:19-22)
Lament cannot be the end of the story. Do you remember the idea of the Day of the Lord? It meant at least two things. In the days of Israel’s exile, it referred to the judgment of God over His people. But it also referred to the future Day of the Lord, when Jesus would physically return to establish His kingdom on earth.
You see what that means? It means that the story of the Bible—the very plans of God—are about putting the brokenness back together again. Shalom will be restored. Death will be a distant memory.
So now, we can finally return to Zephaniah. Do you remember the message of Zephaniah? Judgment precedes blessing. We finally see that Zephaniah points us toward a kingdom without brokenness and without end:
14 Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem! 15 The LORD has taken away the judgments against you; he has cleared away your enemies. The King of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall never again fear evil. 16 On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: “Fear not, O Zion; let not your hands grow weak. 17 The LORD your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing. 18 I will gather those of you who mourn for the festival, so that you will no longer suffer reproach. 19 Behold, at that time I will deal with all your oppressors. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. 20 At that time I will bring you in, at the time when I gather you together; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes,” says the LORD. (Zephaniah 3:14-20)
But isn’t this just wishful thinking? It was Marx who described religion as “the opiate of the masses.” By that he meant that the best way to oppress people was to offer them a fairy tale about future blessings. People are willing to endure unimaginable hardships if they’re promised a reward.
If eternity doesn’t exist, then suffering indeed is meaningless, and in the truest sense hopeless. Christianity becomes reduced to Marx’s “opiate” or a fairy tale. But the the resurrection of Jesus—an event that Zephaniah probably never really even imagined—tells us that these are not fairy tales or fables. They are a reality. And, to quote a writer named Os Guiness, the distance between God’s promise and God’s fulfillment is as close as the distance between the lightning and the thunder.
HEALING OUR WORLD
In the film Spitfire Grill, a young woman bandages the injured leg of her friend. “You suppose some hurts go so deep that healing them hurts just as bad as the thing that caused it?”
Sin created an open wound on our world. Healing this wound would hurt just as deeply. But that’s the beauty of the gospel. Jesus took on the hurt of our world when He went to the cross: “he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5). Do you hear that? Let’s read it again—with the original Hebrew: “upon him was the chastisement that brought us shalom.”
The gospel tells us that because of Christ’s sacrifice, the world can be whole again. You and I can be new again. And that’s a beautiful thought. In the meantime, our task is to live as sojourners in this broken world. Why? Because sometimes living with the ache is the only thing that reminds us of the healing to come. It’s an ache that points us to a greater physician, a greater world, and a greater healing.
So if you are sick, then live with the ache of sickness.
If you are childless, then live with the ache of childlessness.
If you are alone, then live with the ache of loneliness.
If you are poor, then live with the ache of poverty.
If you are suffering, hurting, bleeding, in any way—then live with the ache of this hurting world. Meet it not with clenched, angry fists but soft, mature tears.
We shall all find our way home again.