ScriptureSufferingTheology & Spirituality

Jeremiah and the Burden of Being

Woe to me, mother, that you gave me birth!
a man of strife and contention to all the land!
Because I bore your name,
O LORD, God of hosts.
I did not sit celebrating
in the circle of merrymakers;
Under the weight of your hand I sat alone
because you filled me with indignation.
Why is my pain continuous,
my wound incurable, refusing to be healed?
You have indeed become for me a treacherous brook,
whose waters do not abide!
-From Jeremiah 15-16

In the depths of a fever dream, I curled into the fetal position. My head rested on a pillow and my body was completely ensconced in a tomb of blankets. It felt, viscerally, like I had returned to the womb. I extended an arm over my face and pressed inward—the force of body-against-body was unspeakably powerful—and I experienced, for a brief moment, what humans are always seeking: love, warmth, and nourishment.

We have all been ripped away from warmth. Yet we seek it constantly. It’s as if the entirety of life is simply our response to an original trauma—or an “original sin,” if you will—the trauma of losing oneness. The shock of being catapulted into a new and barren awareness: we must mold ourselves to a foreign and unfriendly world or perish. And yet we don’t want to mold. Like the hapless half-men of Aristophanes’ tale, we are forever searching for someone else to make us whole. We want someone who will return us to that state of bliss, or more accurately, to that state of belonging.

Jeremiah pinpoints the problem: “Woe to me, mother, that you gave me birth!” He recognizes that no thing or person can explain his birth. No thing or person can remove the fundamental struggle and tension of living—not even God: “Under the weight of your hand I sat alone / because you filled me with indignation.” There are no easy answers. There is no “quick fix” to the basic fact that we cannot return to simple belonging.

Jeremiah is filled with a sense of hopelessness. He finds no peace in life, only “strife and contention.” This passage reveals the futility of human attempts to lull ourselves into false security—to replace that longing for warmth with foolish and vain pursuits that mute it, or with ego-nourishing narratives that are like “junk food for the soul.” These narratives briefly satiate our urges, but then the lust grows back ten times stronger.

Sin creates distance between act and intent. It makes intimacy a mystery—an enigma only glimpsed in rare moments—or worse, a puzzle to be solved, an end drawn forth from utilitarian dreams.

Yet as I’ve written before, a life without suffering is no life at all. Thankfully for us, Jeremiah’s wisdom continues:

Thus the LORD answered me:
If you repent, so that I restore you,
in my presence you shall stand;
If you bring forth the precious without the vile,
you shall be my mouthpiece.
And I will make you toward this people
a solid wall of brass.
Though they fight against you,
they shall not prevail,
For I am with you,
to deliver and rescue you, says the LORD.
I will free you from the hand of the wicked,
and rescue you from the grasp of the violent.

God’s answer to the problem of primordial violence is to experience it. God, in the person of Jesus Christ, becomes one who is born, one who lives out the same trauma and longing that defines the human condition—yet always with a soul open to growth, change, and self-gift.

We cannot eradicate our own longings for wholeness; we can, however, recontextualize longing itself as the capacity for God (capax Dei). Christ shows us the way to do so. Bearing the ontological wound of separation with dignity, he puts an end to scapegoating (think of how Jeremiah is thrown into the cistern), and fully cohabits with us in every way without sin.

Our challenge is to realize, with our Savior, that sin and suffering don’t always go hand-in-hand.

Benjamin Winter

Benjamin Winter

Dr. Benjamin Winter is assistant professor of theology at Divine Word College. His research interests include scholasticism, Christian mysticism, science and religion, and philosophical theology. Before matriculating from Saint Louis University with a doctorate in Historical Theology, Ben completed a Master of Arts in Theology at Villanova University. His undergraduate degree comes from Truman State University, where he studied English and Philosophy. Ben’s life is enriched daily by his wife Elizabeth and their twin daughters Julian and Lillian. His interests outside the Academy include creating electronic music, travel, swimming, science fiction, and podcasts of all sorts.

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