For my family, like so many others, 2016 was a year punctuated by loss and grief. It was a year of watching as people we loved fought heroic battles, some ending with partings we prayed would not come. In the autumn, on the heels of all that had gone before, a new and unwelcome challenge came into our lives.
Sometimes when a storm is gathering it is possible to read the signs. A dip in temperature. An increase in wind. A darkening sky. This particular storm was unleashed without warning, tearing at our roots in its attempt to carry us, disoriented, into the unknown.
In September, at the end of what I believed was a pretty routine hospital appointment, a consultant took me into a private room and told me he was almost certain I had colon cancer. I’ve often tried to imagine how I would feel in such a moment. I think, with the ignorance of a melodramatic introvert who spends too much time thinking, I had almost romanticised the grief. The three months that followed were anything but romantic. I found myself plunged into a world of tests, surgery, uncertainty, ugly words, and a stripping away of dignity that made me want to curl into a ball and cry.
There are undoubtedly seasons when you are ready to read about triumph and perseverance but there are also times when you just need someone to sit with you in weary sorrow. I think that’s why I found myself in the book of Lamentations.
Strangely, it was amidst the apparently hopeless grief of God’s people that I found a reminder of Truth that is bigger than any individual circumstance or emotion, no matter how overwhelming it feels. Lamentations gives me hope because it is real and raw. Its inclusion in Scripture assures me that God is not oblivious to my tears and that my weakness does not in any way compromise His strength. It gives me hope because it reminds me that one story of pain should never be read in isolation.
Lamentations opens with these words,
“How lonely sits the city
That was full of people!
She has become like a widow
Who was once great among the nations.” (NASB)
The story continues in a similar vein. Grief. Suffering. Loss. Fear. Jerusalem is empty and desolate. God’s people are in exile. On every side there is death and oppression and pain. The groans and cries of the dying are met only with the silence of Heaven.
The language is haunting. For a widow, pain and loneliness are heightened by the knowledge of what has been. The seat beside her was not always empty. The bed was not always cold. The questions were not always met with silence. Solitude is mocked by the memory of intimacy and the knowledge that it is gone forever.
It must have seemed that way to Israel. The old stories were too painful to tell. The temple was destroyed, the walls were broken and their shame was complete.
On my second reading I noticed something that changed my understanding of Lamentations. In verse two Israel is not described as a widow but like a widow. In that one small word is the seed of hope.
If Israel is a widow then God is dead, hope is gone and despair is the only reality. If she is like a widow then the rich and raw language simply describes the viewpoint God’s people have in that singular moment. A view that is limited by time, experience and understanding.
With no such limitations, God’s perspective is entirely different.
There is a beautiful passage in Isaiah 54 v 4-8, written over one hundred years before these events took place. Not only does it provide an insight into God’s heart for His people, it also serves as a much-needed reminder that He can see beyond the enormity of our circumstances. Looking ahead, with full knowledge of all that was to come, He warns His people of the danger they are in. He reminds them that, even when the shadows come, they have not been abandoned. Long before the storm clouds start to gather, this is His reassurance,
“Fear not, for you will not be put to shame;
And do not feel humiliated, for you will not be disgraced;
But you will forget the shame of your youth,
and the reproach of your widowhood you will remember no more.
For your husband is your Maker,
Whose name is the Lord of hosts;
And your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel,
Who is called the God of all the earth”. (NASB)
In Lamentations 1 v 4 the streets of Jerusalem are abandoned and the gates are desolate. The place of feasting is filled with groaning, affliction and bitterness. If the story ends there then it is a bitter conclusion indeed. Through the window of history we can look ahead, setting the grief of theses verses alongside the rejoicing of Nehemiah chapter 8. The once empty streets are ringing with joy as the people return from exile. While the pain of Lamentations was undeniably real, the truth of Nehemiah 8 turns it from a bitter and hopeless ending into a painful chapter in a story that is far from over.
Within the sorrow of Lamentations there is a bigger truth unfolding. If truth depends simply on what the eyes can see or what the heart can feel then the grief of Lamentations is total. Hope is narrowed until it is hemmed in by the limits of basic human understanding. If we are to survive in the dark days, perhaps even with hope and peace that sit comfortably in tension with our sorrow, we need to catch a glimpse of God’s perspective. To immerse ourselves deeply in His character, His promises and His story in a way that allows us to live honestly in a broken world without surrendering to hopelessness.
His goodness is neither proved nor called into question by my story.Heidi Johnston
On December 16th, the day before my fortieth birthday, I was told that my original consultant had been mistaken. While some pre-cancerous cells were removed during surgery there was no further treatment required. Throughout the many tearful conversations that took place that day, one theme kept recurring. Again and again I spoke and heard the words, “God is good!” It wasn’t until some time afterwards that I began to reflect on that instinctive response. God is indeed utterly good and I am so thankful that this chapter of my individual story ended well. Having said that, I can’t help but wonder how often I measure God’s goodness by the outcome of my particular circumstance.
If my story had ended differently, requiring me to walk the path I feared most, my heart may have faltered and my courage given way but God would still have been good. His goodness is neither proved nor called into question by my story. The truth is, God was good before the answer came. He was good in the uncertainty and the fear, just as He was in the rejoicing. He was good when I received the news and, while I almost hesitate to say it out loud, He would have remained good had the outcome been all that I feared. His goodness is a fact that is bigger than my circumstances and can be relied on as absolutely true.
We live in a world that is increasingly hostile to the idea of truth. So much so that the Oxford Dictionaries selected post-truth as their “word of the year” for 2016. In their explanation of the choice, post-truth is defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’. My problem is that if truth depends on my experience or my feelings then my strongest anchor point is myself.
Back in September I expected that the journey I was facing would change me in some neat, definable way. I thought I would be asked to prove my faith, emerging stronger and wiser, more patient and less broken. It turned out that my emphasis was wrong. There was a test but I was not the one to prove myself. Inevitably, I stumbled and failed in so many ways, confirming little more than my own weakness. God, however, was proving Himself to be all that He had claimed. Walking with me into the shadows, He showed me again that He can be trusted.
He could still be trusted a month later when I stood at the funeral of one of my closest friends, helpless in the face of her grieving husband and five teenage children. He could be trusted when I got a call to say that someone else I love had been diagnosed with cancer. He can be trusted when the evil and suffering spilling from my television is almost overwhelming and He can be trusted when I am tempted to believe the whispered suggestion that He has forgotten us.
I came out of 2016 infinitely more aware of my own weakness. Yet, even as I felt myself unravelling, I was at the same time sinking more deeply into a truth that is bigger than all my fears. Even as I write this, I have no idea what the future holds for me or for the people I love. I don’t know what storms we will find ourselves walking through or what I’m going to hear the next time I turn on the news. However, if God’s character and goodness are determined by circumstance then my peace and security are held hostage by a frankly terrifying world.
In the midst of the lament we need truth that is stronger than our feelings in any given moment. We need it in moments of courage, when we pin hope to our breast like a shield and we need it when we find ourselves face down in the dirt, broken by grief and afraid that God is nowhere to be found. Regardless of circumstance, truth assures us that we are not alone. It reminds us that the God who is present in our pain can see beyond the shadows to the moment when this brokenness will be redeemed forever.
Heidi Johnston is the author of Life in the Big Story and is currently the Rabbit Room’s only Irish contributor. She studied law at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland and now, amongst other things, teaches a class on “Poetic and Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament” at Belfast Bible College. Heidi is passionate about getting people to engage with the Bible and has a fascination with the book of Deuteronomy.