Jeremiah and Fear

How would you like to be remembered? I recently saw a copy of an oil painting from 1630, called Jeremiah lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem. The artist is the seventeenth century Dutch painter Rembrandt. The beautiful use of light draws the eye towards a pensive, ageing man, alone in his inner thoughts. This man is an Old Testament prophet who witnesses a slow-motion crash from the side-line, as his beloved city of Jerusalem and its people fall prey to a neighbouring nation.

It is very difficult to encapsulate an entire person’s life in one painting, as any artist is no doubt aware. Rembrandt’s painting certainly arouses the viewer’s sympathy. Jeremiah cuts a solitary figure, sitting on the ruins of Jerusalem. He could be worthy of our pity. He is a disappointed, beaten man. His posture suggests he is weighed down, not only by the emotional pain of seeing the Judean nation slip away from its special allegiance to God but also of being unable to persuade its people to turn away from idol worship and back towards godly fidelity. His message has, after-all, fallen upon deaf ears and stubborn hearts. Consequently, the temple, so central to the nation’s religious identity, is destroyed.

A similarly melancholic portrayal of the prophet is Michelangelo’s The Prophet Jeremiah, completed in 1512 and adorning the Sistine Chapel ceiling. The downcast Jeremiah appears pre-occupied, ruminating over ‘what might have been.’

A prophet is supposed to persuasively speak as The Voice, re-awakening listeners to their better nature, but Jeremiah hasn’t delivered outcomes in the same way that others had before him. He hadn’t freed people from slavery as Moses had. He hadn’t performed miracles as Elijah had. He didn’t correctly prophesy the defeat of a foreign enemy as Isaiah did.
 
Has he failed to accomplish anything worthy of note? Will he top the list of failed prophets?

I believe his story needs to be heard again.

We need to see the real Jeremiah again, because no other Old Testament prophet expressed such honest authenticity in their relationship with God.

Could his apparent lack of success serve to highlight his real, lasting legacy?

Could Jeremiah, rather than ending up looking like a beaten man, show us again the way to adventurous living as Jesus-followers in God’s kingdom?

Here is a saying that carries a lot of sense:
“If you sow a thought, you reap an act.
If you sow an act, you reap a habit.
If you sow a habit, you reap a character.
If you sow a character, you reap a destiny”.
The life of the mind is a heady mixture, a swirling combination of our own thoughts with those put there by others. Out of this grows our cognitive response to the external world, both positive and negative. We choose to believe this, but not that. We respond to this, but not that. We do this, but not that.

Some thoughts become embodied, they take on flesh and we act upon them. Others fleet in and out of our heads and are of little or no consequence.

What is going on in your inner thought world? What conversation are you having with yourself in the privacy of your own mind? Facebook prompts us to answer the question ‘What’s on your mind?’ and to share it with others. We choose what and what not to share. We mind and we don’t mind where our inner thoughts have taken us.

It is important to pay heed to our mind’s thoughts, in particular to where they are heading. When life is going well it does not seem necessary to say to one self “PMA, must have PMA (positive mental attitude).” But when circumstances are tough the mind is more susceptible to being swallowed whole by recurring negative patterns of thinking and the inner voice struggles to see anything positive.

On a family day trip to London to watch the Olympic women’s marathon event in August 2012, I stood outside St Paul’s Cathedral and felt the need to check my bunch of keys were still safe in my pocket. I fumbled around for what seemed an eternity but could not see them. Again and again I repeated my systematic search. My inner voice was on overdrive. I had pressed its panic button. “No keys. No keys. When did I last have them? Did I drop them on the London Underground? Shall I retrace my steps along pavements, escalators and platforms? Where will I get new keys cut? Why did I not hear them drop to the ground? Have I been pick-pocketed? How will I get in my car and home? How will I live on from here? I have NO KEYS!” With heart pumping, adrenaline surging and wrists shaking I made one last attempt to find them and discovered they were in my waist bag where I’d put them at the start of the journey! They had not moved an inch. As my nerves settled down I realised what had just happened. I had become a victim of fear.

Fear can be destabilising and disabling. Fear can cause us to overestimate a threat,  view situations out of proportion and underestimate our ability to respond. It was fear on one occasion that led me to believe I was about to suffer a heart attack at the wheel of my car, half a mile from home. I could see myself losing control, narrowly avoiding other vehicles, careering over the roundabout, slumping into the steering wheel and putting my family’s lives at risk. My chest was tense and my inner voice screamed “It’s coming, it’s coming, any moment now, here it……”

It never happened.

On another day fear led me to believe I had momentarily lost the ability to read in public and my mouth wasn’t going to be able to speak the words I’d prepared for a sermon. I would stand speechless.

It never happened.

A mind repeatedly subjected to (irrational) fear of people, places or situations turns us inward, causing an unhealthy sense of foreboding and brooding on too many ‘what if…?’ questions. Often the conclusion the mind jumps to is to expect a worst-case scenario or outcome. We begin to doubt our capacity to respond so we don’t take any positive steps forward. We are then in the paralyzing grip of fear. A good, therapeutic response is to say that we should not let negative beliefs in our inner thought world become self-fulfilling prophecies.

How does this relate to Jeremiah’s opening chapter?

Read Jeremiah 1:1-8 [read online]

It had been a dark period in the history of Israel. Ungodly leadership had meant Judah was in real danger of losing hold of its faith in Yahweh, God of Israel. Its heritage and identity as a monotheistic movement was slipping away and Jeremiah was called to alert the nation not to err any further lest it fall apart at the seams.

Jeremiah was appointed by God to a prophetic vocation. “You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you” (1:7). He is still a young man in 627BC, not likely to have been more than in his mid-twenties. The formidable task set before him causes Jeremiah to fear. He appears reluctant to embrace his vocation, citing incompetence, inexperience and inadequacy as reasonable grounds to dismiss the call of an inter-national ministry. “I do not know how to speak; I am only a child” (1:6). I imagine God heard the reply of a wavering, stuttering voice on that occasion, with no small measure of fear mixed in too.

Jeremiah would have known the story of God’s special relationship with Israel, revealed in the Torah. I wonder if he had also heard of other prophets who had gone before him? Perhaps he was fearful of not matching up to the likes of Amos, Hosea, Isaiah and Micah in the eight century BC kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Perhaps he feared not being able to advance the religious reforms that king Josiah had implemented in 2 Kings 22-23, in the year before Jeremiah’s call? Jeremiah was coming after numerous godly examples. Weren’t they enough? Why did God need to add another? Roosevelt is quoted as having said “Comparison is the thief of joy.”

Fear has a pernicious way of persuading its victims that they really are not up to the task. Jeremiah’s instinctive reaction was to underestimate his ability positively to embrace God’s call. He responded in the negative. He wanted to excuse himself. Perhaps he had been influenced by Moses’ similar reluctance generations before (Exodus 4:10)? How was he, single-handedly, going to turn around such ubiquitous spiritual and moral decline?

Jeremiah had sown the thought in his mind that God might sympathise with his excuse, accept the young man’s reticence and allow him to opt out of prophetic action.

Not so! He could not out-manoeuvre God. The call came with two fundamentally important pronouncements. First, the call had been in God’s mind long before Jeremiah heard it. He had been consecrated, set apart, before he’d even been shaped into being in his mother’s womb. Jeremiah could not fight a call that originated before his birth! Secondly, God encouraged him not to make a negative cognitive response. His inner thoughts must not lead him to resist the call, but positively stride into the future with the promise of divine presence and protection. “Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you,” declared his sovereign Lord (1:8).

Have you ever shirked the call of God and later regretted it?

When you consider it preposterous that God could employ you in some aspect of his Kingdom work is it False Evidence Appearing Real that is holding you back?

Have you a role to play in encouraging someone else to realise they are chosen by God and called to live an authentic life in His Kingdom?

“Fear of man will prove to be a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is kept safe” (Proverbs 29:25).
Andy Scott, 12/02/2014