Key Texts: Jeremiah 18:18-23; 20:7-13, 14-18
The theme for this lesson in the standard Sabbath School lesson guide is similar to the one for the last lesson (“Rebuke and Retribution”) in that both focus on the difficulties which the prophet experienced, but without a concerted focus on the way Jeremiah handled these difficulties.
The two “confessions” in this week’s lesson raise some of the same issues as noted in last week’s lesson. But rather than cover the same ground, let’s take the next step and ask how one can move from the point where we express our anger and vengeance to the point where we can actually pray for our enemies – as Jesus did. My suspicion is that when Jesus told us to love our enemies his first concern was not for the enemies, but for ourselves. Something like that is reflected in this observation by Frederick Buechner:
“It is generally supposed that to obey somebody is necessarily to do something for somebody else’s sake. That is a tragic misunderstanding. When Jesus asks people to obey above everything the Law of Love, it is above everything for their own sakes that he is asking them to do it.” – Whistling in the Dark, p. 98
But before we address the question of how we move toward the ideal, let’s capture the vividness of these “confessions” from Jeremiah. The first one is Jeremiah 18:18-23, cited here in the Contemporary English Version (CEV), the first translation designed to be heard by the ear rather than see by the eye. All tongue-twisters are avoided so that it reads smoothly. If you are in a place by yourself, read these words out loud. They are explosive:
19 Please, Lord, answer my prayer.
Make my enemies stop accusing me of evil.
20 I tried to help them, but they are paying me back by digging a pit to trap me. I even begged you not to punish them.
21 But now I am asking you to let their children starve or be killed in war.
Let women lose their husbands and sons to disease and violence.
22 These people have dug pits and set traps for me, Lord.
Make them scream in fear when you send enemy troops to attack their homes. 23 You know they plan to kill me. So get angry and punish them!
Don’t ever forgive their terrible crimes.
Also from the CEV is Jeremiah’s lament from Jer. 20:14-18:
14 Put a curse on the day I was born! Don’t bless my mother.
15 Put a curse on the man who told my father, “Good news! You have a son.”
16 May that man be like the towns you destroyed without pity.
Let him hear shouts of alarm in the morning and battle cries at noon.
17 He deserves to die for not killing me before I was born.
Then my mother’s body would have been my grave.
18 Why did I have to be born? Was it just to suffer and die in shame?
Now to the question of how one moves from such sentiments to a position of quiet trust in God.
1. Question: Is it possible to suppress our anger when it actually should be allowed to boil at injustice? Ellen White’s interpretation of the “wrath of the lamb” (Revelation 6:16) is revealing:
“How would a father and mother feel, did they know that their child, lost in the cold and the snow, had been passed by, and left to perish, by those who might have saved it? Would they not be terribly grieved, wildly indignant? Would they not denounce those murderers with wrath hot as their tears, intense as their love? The sufferings of every man are the sufferings of God’s child, and those who reach out no helping hand to their perishing fellow beings provoke His righteous anger. This is the wrath of the Lamb.” – The Desire of Ages, 825
From a New Testament perspective it is helpful to note that anger does not appear on any of the New Testament virtue lists. Patience appears on them all. But one passage actually commands anger: Ephesians 4:25-27: “So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. 26 Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and do not make room for the devil” (NRSV). This passage commanding anger can be seen from the perspective of three kinds of anger:
A. The anger of communication. This is where Ephesians 4 fits in. It is in the context of communication. Graham Greene puts this quote in the mouth of one of his short-story characters: “In her experience [Marie Duval] it was only when a man became angry that he told the truth.” – “An Appointment with the General”in The Last Word and Other Stories (p. 148).
B. Murderous anger. This is the anger that Jesus condemned in the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’ . . . But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment (Matt. 5:21-22, NRSV). In the light of Jesus’ teaching and example, we must say that murderous anger is always wrong.
C. Anger of purity. Some evils demand an angry response. Perhaps Ps. 139:21-22 would be in that category: “Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you? I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies” (NRSV).
2. Question: Can one think of personal examples where an angry outburst was quite justified and/or when it was not justified? Jonah claimed the former, but was pointed toward the latter. After becoming angry at the withered bush, God asked Jonah (4:9): “Is it right for you to be angry?” Jonah replied, “Yes, angry enough to die.”
3.Question: Can one imagine Jeremiah’s prayers coming from the lips of Jesus?
4. Question: Can one imagine Jeremiah’s prayers coming from our own lips without pangs of guilt and self-recrimination?
5. Question: Is it healthier for us to get our anger out in the open rather than trying to suppress it? In that connection these vivid lines from H. A. Williams (b. 1919), Anglican Dean of Trinity College, Cambridge, seem appropriate (cited in English Spirit, 229-30):
So shocked are we at the irreverence and so ashamed of the rational absurdity of letting off our aggressions against God, that we repress them so far as God is concerned and appear to ourselves not to feel them. And then we wonder why, after we have prayed so devoutly, we feel so bloody-minded towards poor inoffensive John Smith or sweet little helpful Mary Jones or, more often, the members of our own family. Your wife, you see, has very often to have thrown at her the rotten eggs you really want to throw at God. And the joke is that God is not in the slightest degree taken in by the pantomime by which you deceive yourself. He knows what we won’t admit to ourselves, that the rotten eggs are really meant for him.
When we experience God as a meeting with another to whom we are closely linked as to a father or a friend, then the ambivalence of our feelings is inevitable. It is far better to accept that fact honestly and admit it to ourselves than to repress it. There is great wisdom in Mrs. Patrick Campbell’s warning not to do it in the street and frighten the horses. But that prudent condition observed, if you want to blaspheme, then for Christ’s sake blaspheme. If you want in your prayers to grouse, then for Christ’s sake grouse. If you hate God, then for Christ’s sake tell him you do and tell him why. He will know that these things are the necessary obverse of your love for him and that he is himself responsible for having made you that way. By having the courage of your aggression you will show greater trust in him and greater love for him than by all that “resigned submissive meek” stuff which leaves you to take the hell out of other people, and not least out of yourself so that in consequence there is far less of you to give away.