By Chad Ragsdale
Not long ago I was asked to preach a sermon as part of a series on forgiveness. It was a good idea for a series. There are few things as “Christian” as forgiveness. My topic was a little different from the ordinary sermon on forgiveness, however. I was asked to preach a sermon on forgiving God.
I admit I didn’t have the best attitude about the topic. Forgiving God seems like a modern man’s dilemma. Modern man has attempted to kill God but continues to be haunted by his presence. God, the hero, is dismissed and mocked while God, the villainous bully, is reviled.
It reminds me of a conversation TV character George Costanza had with his therapist on an episode of Seinfeld years ago. George was convinced God was going to give him cancer just as he was becoming successful. His therapist said, “I thought you didn’t believe in God.”
George’s response was typical for modern man: “I do believe in God . . . for the bad things!”
Forgiving God is not a theme found in Scripture. Of all the people who might have had reason to forgive God in Scripture, I couldn’t find one verse that said, “And they found the place in their hearts to forgive God and move on with their lives.” Only modern man—with his inflated view of himself—dares to say, “How many times must I forgive God when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” The idea of forgiving God seems so sacrilegious.
But if you look again at Scripture, you find quite a lot of questioning, confusion, and even anger directed at God. You hear it sung from the mouth of David, prayed from the mouth of Hannah, and cried from the mouths of Elijah, Isaiah, and Job. You hear it from the saints in Heaven in Revelation 6. You hear it from Jesus himself when he quotes the psalmist while hanging on the cross.
This type of complaint punctuates the book of Lamentations. As its name implies, you don’t expect a bunch of sunshine and lollipops from this book. In antiquity, the book was known by its first Hebrew word, ekah, which means “how.” But in Lamentations, this word isn’t followed by a question mark, but an exclamation point! The word is full of shock and wonder at such destruction that Jeremiah can only look and exclaim, “How deserted lies the city, once so full of people!” (Lamentations 1:1). Lamentations is a post-apocalyptic book, a funeral song for a city laid waste by the great power of Babylon.
The book is a beautifully and carefully constructed poem. The first four chapters form acrostics using the 22-letter Hebrew alphabet. But while the structure is beautiful, the language is jarring. Consider this:
Look at us, God. Think it over. Have you ever treated anyone like this? Should women eat their own babies, the very children they raised? . . . Boys and old men lie in the gutters of the streets, my young men and women killed in their prime. Angry, you killed them in cold blood, cut them down without mercy (Lamentations 2:20, 21, The Message).
A text like that will ruin your devotional moment. It isn’t Bible bookstore poster material. But if you take Scripture seriously, it isn’t long before you cut yourself on the sharp edges of human experience.
Lamentations is full of accusations against God.
“The Lord is like an enemy (2:5, NIV).
“I’m the man who has seen trouble, trouble coming from the lash of God’s anger. He took me by the hand and walked me into pitch-black darkness. Yes, he’s given me the back of his hand over and over and over again” (3:1, The Message).
“Even when I call out or cry for help, he shuts out my prayer. He has barred my way with blocks of stone; he has made my paths crooked” (3:8, 9, NIV).
This is a far cry from the God who leads me beside still waters and restores my soul (Psalm 23). These accusations give voice to an important scriptural theme. Questioning God, complaining to God, and feeling frustrated and abandoned are a common part of the human experience in Scripture and in our lives. All of us have had moments that seemed to overpower our theology.
Too many choose to walk away from God in such moments. Few things in life are as toxic as maintaining an unforgiving grudge against God. It’s another form of the serpent’s question to Eve. “Did God really say?” “Did God really say he would take care of you?” “Did God really say he loved you?”
When we are angry, that bitter fruit can taste good for a moment. But in the end, it separates us from our creator, wrecks our lives, and ruins any real chance at joy. It also renders completely meaningless the suffering that caused the questions in the first place. Abandoning God doesn’t make the pain go away. It just makes the pain more meaningless.
So how do we keep these experiences from overwhelming us? How do we forgive God? We run into problems almost immediately because forgiveness makes at least two important assumptions. First, forgiveness assumes a wrong has been committed; and second, forgiveness assumes this wrong has been committed by one guilty party against another innocent or less-guilty party. So, when one of the parties involved is the sovereign God of the universe, you have to reconsider both of these assumptions.
I’ll start with the second assumption first. When bad things happen, our first inclination is to assign blame. Who or what is responsible? It’s only natural eventually to blame God. After all, isn’t he supposed to be in charge of everything?
We observe this in Lamentations. Jeremiah is angry with God, holding him responsible for the bad things happening to Israel. But Jeremiah also realizes many of Israel’s troubles were the result of her own unfaithfulness. “The Lord has brought her grief because of her many sins” (1:5). “Jerusalem has sinned greatly and so has become unclean” (1:8). As gruesome as it was, Jerusalem had brought this judgment upon herself.
This is not popular to say, but there are moments when this is also true for us. We don’t like to admit it, but most of our suffering results from our own choices or the choices of others.
This is not to say all of our pain and suffering is our own fault or the by-product of living in a messed-up, sin-tossed world. That is too simplistic. But it is healthy to admit we don’t know who is at fault when bad things happen.
When I was in high school, my older sister died in a car accident. After the accident, some people told me her accident was caused by God to protect her or because he needed another angel in his choir. (Gag me!) Others said Satan caused it to harm our family. The police said it was caused by a combination of rain, the lack of a seat belt, and distracted driving.
Did God cause it or allow it? Was it God’s plan from the beginning or was it just a tragic consequence of living in a world where car accidents happen? It remains a mystery to me. Honestly, I have given up asking why, because it’s impossible to know, and in the end, it doesn’t matter. Being angry with God didn’t get me anywhere and brought me no satisfaction. Ruminating on such a thing never changes the facts of the situation.
This leads me back to the first assumption—that a wrong has been committed. On the surface, this sounds so ridiculous and insulting that I hesitate to even say it. Of course this thing that has happened to me is wrong, unjust, and evil. How could it possibly be understood any other way? But we are not always in the best position to judge what is wrong in any final, universal sense.
Let me illustrate. A friend asked me to imagine a red button was on a table in front of me. If I pressed the button, it would undo my sister’s accident. She would be alive and happy. Do I press that button?
My gut-level response is yes, of course I would press it! But then I began to think about the sequence of events that have happened since my sister’s death—some a direct consequence of it. My choice to go to Bible college and pursue ministry. Meeting my wife. Having three children. Welcoming an adopted sister into our family. How many of those very good things (and so many others) would change if I pressed that button?
Maybe I don’t know as much about what is “good” for me as I think. I assume God’s primary purpose is to make me happy. But God’s purpose isn’t really my happiness, but my holiness. When bad things happen, I worry about my happiness while God asks, “Who told you the most important thing in your existence is to be happy?” Our pain and suffering is often so intense it is impossible to see beyond our suffering to a greater plan and purpose.
So what should we do when we experience feelings of anger, frustration, or abandonment? Lamentations offers us wisdom if we are willing to listen. First, Lamentations shows us we don’t need to be falsely happy, since God knows us better than we know ourselves. Just as a loving parent learns to patiently endure the anger and frustration of her child, your God can handle your questions, tears, anger, and your loneliness. Jeremiah learned that centuries ago, and Lamentations teaches us to take those feelings to God.
Second, Lamentations teaches us the most important thing we can do when we are angry at God is to worship him. Many people are familiar with only one passage of Lamentations—“Great is thy faithfulness” (3:23, King James Version). We have sung the words since we were children. But most are unaware of the context. In the first 18 verses of chapter 3, the godly pronouns he and his are used 18 times. Jeremiah is bringing his charges against God. But a change starts to take shape around verse 18,
So I say, “My splendor is gone and all that I had hoped from the Lord.” I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall. I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me. Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness (vv. 18-23).
There, did you catch it? In the midst of his accusations, the second-person pronoun! Worship has just happened. He has moved from talking about God to talking to God! As Jeremiah remembers the steadfast love of God—a covenantal love that rises above the fickle and shallow love of our world—he is drawn to worship. It’s a reminder that God’s people do not just sing songs of joy. We also sing songs of lament. We don’t just sing songs about God’s great dance floor. We also sing, “It is well with my soul.”
Sometimes worship happens through gritted teeth and despondent hearts. In worship, our focus is taken off of our sufferings and placed upon a God who is faithful through it all. Our focus is taken off of our happiness and placed upon our hope.
And lest we forget, we have seen God’s faithfulness in ways Jeremiah could only dream about, for we live on the other side of the cross. God has not been silent. God has not abandoned us to our afflictions. Things are still not what they should be or what they will be. Babylon still rampages through our world. But our lament is never the final word. Hope is.
We worship in a hope informed by the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. So we look forward in hope to that day when the song of lament gives way to that victory song of Revelation: “Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great!” (Revelation 18:2; see also 14:8).
Chad Ragsdale serves as professor of New Testament and assistant academic dean at Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri.