Anyone who has spent years (decades?) praying for a loved one to be healed, a handicap or weakness to be removed, or for a certain situation to improve, likely has felt angry with God at one point or another. I know I have. I am grateful for a lesson taught by David Couchman, on how Jeremiah handled being frustrated with God.
Learning more about the Biblical Jeremiah really helped me understand and express my frustration. Jeremiah spent years (decades!) obeying God without seeing much — if any — of what we’d call success. If anyone had a reason to throw in the towel, it was Jeremiah. I have a lot to learn from him…
It is well worth your effort to read the transcript of Mr. Couchman’s entire talk. It was a bit too long to include in a singe post here, so let me highlight some points from the portion before reprinting the second portion:
First, Jeremiah was a prophet before Jesus’ time. In Chapter 20, verse 7, Jeremiah prayed to God angrily, “O Lord, you deceived me, and I was deceived!” When I read that, at first I couldn’t believe Jeremiah had the guts to say it! But then I remember all the times I’ve said (OK, yelled) stuff like that to God… usually from within the safety of my car.
Couchman suggests that in order to make sense of that prayer, we need to understand a few things about Jeremiah. To begin with, his ministry was a complete failure, as least from our human standpoint. “He was God’s person, in God’s place, with God’s message, doing what God wanted – and it didn’t make a blind bit of difference. The people didn’t listen to him. They didn’t turn back to God. And Jerusalem wasn’t saved.”
Couchman goes on to say, “There’s a lesson in this for us, because we have a love affair with success. We want our church to be big, our services to be full, and to have a good reputation. We want what we do to be seen to be successful. If something fails, we think that someone must have been outside God’s will, or they didn’t pray enough, or it was wrong in some other way. But Jeremiah’s life says that you can be God’s person in God’s place doing what God wants and still not succeed. And Jeremiah kept on for forty years, in the face of hostility and rejection.”
Wow. Did you catch that? Jeremiah was doing God’s will, but nothing was changing… and that didn’t mean he was doing anything wrong. Huh. There’s a lot to digest there for anyone who has ever felt like a failure when doing God’s work. And for Jeremiah, who had been at it for quite some time, it seems he finally reached his breaking point when he gives that angry prayer:
O Lord you deceived me, and I was deceived;
you overpowered me and prevailed.
I am ridiculed all day long;
everyone mocks me.
Whenever I speak, I cry out
proclaiming violence and destruction.
So the word of the Lord has brought me
insult and reproach all day long.
“Jeremiah feels that God has forced him into being a prophet,” says Coachman. “He didn’t have any choice about it. And God has misled him about the outcome. He’d taken up the work expecting that God was going to change things through his ministry – but nothing has happened. Instead of giving him success, it looks like God has abandoned him to failure and shame.”
Ever felt that way? Ever felt boxed in by what you thought was God’s great plan for your life, only to end up abandoned, alone, and confused? Remember, our God is absolutely not the God of confusion! He has a plan to bring beauty from your ashes, no matter how charred. But when you’re in the midst of that fire, Jeremiah’s prayers show it’s OK to get real honest with God about how you’re feeling.
David Coachman’s explanation* of the rest of this prayer certainly doesn’t need my explanation, so I will leave you with it below:
So he decides to stop. He’s going to give up his ministry, and go back to farming, or whatever. I guarantee you that everyone who’s in any kind of Christian ministry has had times when they’ve felt like this. But he can’t do it (verse 9):
But if I say, ‘I will not mention him
or speak any more in his name,’
his word is in my heart like a fire,
a fire shut up in my bones.
I am weary of holding it in;
indeed, I cannot.
So he wants to stop, but he’s compelled to keep speaking. And all around him, even his ‘friends’ are waiting to see him slip up. (verse 10):
I hear many whispering,
‘Terror on every side!
Report him! Let’s report him!’
All my friends
are waiting for me to slip, saying,
‘Perhaps he will be deceived;
then we will prevail over him
and take our revenge on him.’
“As the saying goes, with friends like that, who needs enemies? In verses 11-13, he re-asserts his faith, and prays that God will judge his enemies:
But the Lord is with me like a mighty warrior;
so my persecutors will stumble and not prevail.
They will fail and be thoroughly disgraced;
their dishonour will never be forgotten.
O Lord Almighty, you who examine the righteous
and probe the heart and mind,
let me see your vengeance upon them,
for to you I have committed my cause.
Sing to the Lord.
Give praise to the Lord.
He rescues the life of the needy
from the hands of the wicked.
Jeremiah has had a turn around, and it all ends OK. It’s a bit like some of those Psalms, which start with someone right down in the pits, and then end up with them praising God. Well, of course, you say. That’s how things are supposed to end, if we’re God’s people. We may start angry or in the pits, but if we think about things a bit, if we pray a bit, if we sing a few worship songs, it will all turn out OK in the end.
Except that… except that for Jeremiah, this isn’t how it ends. Because in verses 14-18, he’s back in the pits. Verse 14:
Cursed be the day I was born!
May the day my mother bore me not be blessed! …
And in verse 18:
Why did I ever come out of the womb
to see trouble and sorrow
and to end my days in shame?
I don’t know what the Christian equivalent of ‘political correctness’ is. Maybe it’s ‘spiritual correctness.’ Jeremiah’s prayer isn’t very ‘spiritually correct’ is it? It doesn’t end in the right place. But it’s the reality that lots of us live with. You ask questions. You stretch out in faith and pray and praise – but then the next moment, you’re back in the pits again.
The kind of spiritual and emotional roller-coaster that Jeremiah went through is something that anyone who has had this kind of experience will recognise. One moment you’re affirming your faith in God; the next, you’re shouting at him – or perhaps you aren’t even sure he’s there. This is how it is.
There’s something really important I want you to notice in this story – or rather, something that isn’t in the story:
God doesn’t condemn Jeremiah. Jeremiah says ‘You deceived me, God. You seduced me. You enticed me. You coerced me.’ And God takes it on the chin. He doesn’t smite Jeremiah dead, or reject him as a prophet.
So what can we learn from Jeremiah’s prayer here in chapter 20? I’d like to suggest two main things. First…
Let’s get real with God
- It’s OK to be angry with God – Surely the main thing to learn from this story is that it’s OK to be angry with God. Talk to God when you’re angry with him. When Jeremiah is angry with God, what does he do? He talks to God about it. He prays. God wants us to talk to him about it. And Jeremiah’s prayer is honest. God wants us to be honest. He doesn’t want us to put on a ‘spiritually correct’ performance.It isn’t that God needs us to be honest – he sees through the performance anyway. It’s that we need us to be honest, so that we can move forward spiritually. The more we lie to ourselves, to God, and to other people, the more impossible it is for us to move on.One of the most important things to do when you’re angry with God is to talk to God about what you’re angry about. Tell God honestly where you are. It’s good to be honest with God
- Keep working when you’re angry with God – Then another important thing to do when you’re angry with God is to keep going at whatever God has given you to do. Jeremiah wanted to stop, but he didn’t. In fact he says that he couldn’t. God’s message was like a fire in his bones. He kept on speaking out for God. One of the things that will help us not to lose the plot spiritually is to keep going, even when we’re angry.
- Be careful how you’re angry – But be careful how you’re angry with God. There are a couple of important warnings here:
- Be careful what you think God has promised – Apparently Jeremiah thought God had promised that his ministry would succeed. But he hadn’t. He’d told Jeremiah what to do, but didn’t give him any guarantees about the outcome. In fact, God had warned Jeremiah right at the start that he was going to have a really tough time. You can read about it in chapter 1. God hadn’t actually deceived Jeremiah, although he felt betrayed and let down.Be careful what you think God has promised. God doesn’t promise us success in ministry, or financial well-being, or a marriage made in heaven, or physical health. The times I’ve most felt angry with God have been when I’ve thought God had promised something, and it hasn’t turned out, or hasn’t gone how I expected.But later on – maybe years later – when I calm down and look back, I realise that God never promised what I thought he’d promised. Be careful what you think God has promised. Check it out against the Bible.
- Be careful what you say to God – It’s OK to be angry with God, and it’s good to talk to God about how you feel – but be careful what you say. Anger can very easily tip over into something more dangerous. You may remember the story of Job. He was someone else in the Old Testament who had a raw deal from life. Like Jeremiah, Job got around to questioning what God was doing, and to cursing the day he was born. You might remember that Job’s wife egged him on to curse God himself. The Bible says: ‘His wife said to him, “Are you still holding on to your integrity? Curse God and die!” He replied, “You are talking like a foolish woman. Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?”In all this, Job did not sin in what he said. (Job 2:9-10). Job was angry. Job asked questions. Job yelled at God – but he didn’t sin in what he said. He didn’t say that God was responsible for evil. One of our big problems when we get angry is that we quickly lose control of what we say.The book of Ecclesiastes, which is part of the Wisdom literature, says this: ‘Guard you steps when you go to the house of God. Go to listen, rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools, who do not know that they do wrong…’
(In the Bible, a fool isn’t just someone who is stupid; it’s someone who is morally defective as well.)
‘Do not be quick with your mouth,
do not be hasty in your heart
to utter anything before God.
God is in heaven
and you are on earth,
so let your words be few.’
The idea here is that God is great in power, utterly in control of all that happens. Yes, he is kind and understanding towards us when we’re angry with him – but he’s also a God of justice and righteousness, so be careful what you say to him.
So we’ve said let’s get real with God:
- It’s OK to be angry with God
- Talk to God while you’re angry
- Keep going even when you’re angry
- Be careful how you’re angry
But then the second important thing to learn from Jeremiah’s prayer is:
Let’s get real with each other
- It’s OK to be honest with other people – It’s OK to be honest with other people when you’re angry with God. Jeremiah was angry with God, and he wrote about it in his prophecy. People have been reading what he wrote for two and a half thousand years. And God, apparently, didn’t mind him being honest about it. God can cope with it. In fact, if we believe that God inspired the Bible, God chose for Jeremiah’s angry words to be included in his inspired Word. This means that it’s OK to be honest with other people when you’re angry with God.
- How do we react when people are honest with us? But let’s turn it the other way round for a moment: how do we react when people are honest with us about being angry with God? If it’s OK to be angry with God, and it’s OK to be honest with other people… why are we sometimes so hard on people when they’re honest about how they’re feeling? When they’re honest about feeling angry with God, or upset or disappointed with God? Why do we make it so difficult for them? Why do we add to their difficulties?If someone is angry with God, or if they have some other issue, and they’re honest with you about it, don’t jump in to sort them out. God is big enough to cope with it.
- Listen to them.
- Don’t rush to judge them
- Don’t feel the need to put them right
- Don’t feel the need to put them down
- Don’t gossip about it. Pray for them!
In the New Testament, Paul says: ‘Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.’ (Galatians 6:2).
I’ve sometimes wondered why we’re so reluctant to be honest about some things, with other people in the church. Could it be because we think we know how they’ll react? We think they’ll react with condemnation, correction, and gossip. And we don’t need that, so we decide not to say anything.
Let’s be careful and prayerful how we respond when people are honest with us about how they feel about God. Let’s carry each other’s burdens, and in this way, let’s fulfill the law of Christ.
- Leaders have a special responsibility – Then Jeremiah’s prayer has something special to say to you if you’re a leader – whether you’re an elder, or a leader in junior church or a home group. Leaders have a special responsibility to create a safe place in the church where people can be real with each other. As a church we want to be dependent on God – we want to be praying people. We want to be an authentic community. These are good things. But we can’t just take it for granted that they will happen. They’ll only happen if we’re real with God and real with each other, as Jeremiah was. And we’ll only be real when we know that it’s safe to do so. That’s why leaders have a special responsibility to create a safe place. A place where we don’t have to be afraid of being real. A place where we don’t have to be afraid of being shut down or condemned or corrected if we start saying the wrong thing. That kind of place would be much more healthy for us, spiritually. It is so easy to live in a culture of spiritual unreality, and leaders have a special responsibility to make sure we don’t do this, by creating a safe place.
So let’s get real with each other:
- It’s OK to be honest with other people when you’re angry with God
- How do we react when people are honest with us about being angry with God? Do we carry each other’s burdens?
- Leaders have a special responsibility to create a safe place.
‘Lord, you deceived me, and I was deceived.‘ It isn’t what we think of as a conventional prayer, but it’s about being real with God, and real with other people.
Although Jeremiah’s ministry was a failure in his own day, he was God’s person, in God’s place, with God’s message, doing exactly what God wanted. And because he was real with God and with other people, he still speaks to millions of people all around the world today.
What can we learn from Jeremiah’s prayer? Let’s get real with God, and let’s get real with each other.
*David Couchman’s commentary was originally available at Focus Radio when this post was first written. However, as of 2019 the original link is no longer valid and no replacement could be found.