Successful Misfits? People of Repentance, People of Fierce Hope.
Here comes success! Part 3: Jeremiah
This is part of a workwise series on biblical paradigms for rethinking success.
"To be messengers of peace in a world of strife, we must sometimes be messengers of strife in a world of false peace."
(Oliver O'Donovan, according to Jeremiah 6:13-15)*
Imagine yourself in a situation where you are constantly warning against an imminent accident and being derided for doing so. Then when it does happen, you are held responsible, as if you wished for it to happen. To the frustration of issuing warnings which are largely ignored, add the burden of always being suspected of dishonest motives, threatened and persecuted. How do you keep going without being resentful? How do you maintain your trust in God and your compassion for the people who refuse to turn from their disastrous ways?
Jeremiah, the courageous, persistent yet broken prophet, maintained his integrity without becoming resentful towards the people who constantly ignored his message of repentance. He experienced great hardship while remaining true to his calling. In times of peace he was mocked for being a prophet of doom. When his warnings came to pass, he suffered terribly; yet he refused an ‘I told you so’ posture and took no joy in being validated as a true prophet. When the disaster which he had warned against materialised, this faithful prophet identified with and stood by his people, bringing fierce hope and news of redemption.
He went down in history as “the weeping prophet”. Indeed, he wept a lot as he lived through turbulent times and witnessed both the moral decay of his society and the shifting of the geopolitical landscape, which involved much political turmoil, bloodshed, and devastation.
The worst part is the suffering of his own people was not inevitable, yet it came to pass. Things could have been different for the people of Judah. God showed Jeremiah beforehand what everyone else refused to see: the rise of Babylon and the certain disaster that would follow, unless the people of Judah repented. Seeing the upcoming disaster and warning against it in vain must have been heartbreaking.
Is this success? Yes, it is. He remained true to God’s calling for him. It’s just not the kind of success you and I usually strive after.
Preaching repentance in a complacent environment will not make anyone popular. What do we do when we feel alone in acknowledging serious problems in our workplaces and societies? Do we speak out and risk being marginalised or ridiculed? Or do we shut up and mind our own interests? If we do speak up, do we speak with compassion or self-righteousness?
It is not easy to hold your ground when you seem to be alone. It takes character and integrity to go against the grain, to become unpopular and risk your own wellbeing, even your life, for the sake of remaining faithful to God and the people you love. We hardly ever count this as success, or actively pursue it. Yet, if we consider things not from a worldly standpoint but from God’s, it definitely is success!
Jeremiah was a living signpost in his generation, in constant opposition to the prevailing attitudes of society at large: in times of false security, he warned against imminent disaster and preached repentance. In times of manifest desolation, he preached hope and restoration. Just as the Babylonians were capturing Jerusalem and all seemed lost, Jeremiah bought a field, as a sign that there was still hope for the people and their land.
One important lesson from Jeremiah’s life is that witness is not simply a matter of being nice to everyone. Sometimes it requires us to question the compromises society takes for granted, and to accept disapproval from the people we care about.
For us, as for Jeremiah, the life of witness requires not only an endless faithfulness to God and his message of reality, but also an endless faithfulness to those who live in ignorance of his truth and hope.
* Oliver O’Donovan, Entering into Rest. Ethics as Theology 3, page 101