Prophesying Uncomfortable Truth

It is difficult to ever say that one “takes comfort” in Jeremiah. Jeremiah’s message, after all, is extremely distressing and disconcerting. He is the epitome of the “doom and gloom” prophet.

On the other hand, there is a reason why he must be the “doom and gloom” prophet. He is given the unenviable task of prophesying the most uncomfortable truth, a truth that the people do not even want to consider.

Some of the best insights from the book of Jeremiah have less to do with what Jeremiah and more with the people of Israel around him. After all, as we read Scripture and understand the historical events, it is easy for us to wonder why it is that no one ever seems to listen to the prophets. Did they not understand? Did they not consider the message?

When we see the “one side” of the story, the presentation of the true prophets of God, these questions are difficult to answer. Yet, when we see the perspectives set forth in Jeremiah, it is more easily understood.

What we set forth must be understood in context, and we cannot allow our understanding of what will take place to slant our perspective. The disaster of 586 BCE is still in the future for these people; they do not know, as we know, what exactly will take place. These are the Israelites, the people of God. Sure, God exiled the northern tribes, but they were clearly in sin because they served the golden calves in Dan and Bethel (cf. 1 Kings 12, 2 Kings 17). They lived in Judah. The Temple of YHWH was in their midst. The mighty Assyrian empire came a century earlier, and, indeed, devastated the region, but God struck them so that they could not take Jerusalem (2 Kings 18-19). Isaiah had indicated that such would take place.

Yes, there was the new menace of Babylon, but was Babylon really any stronger than Assyria? After all, YHWH is the God of Israel. YHWH would not allow His holy Temple to be defiled by the Babylonians.

In this context, the “prophecy” of Hananiah makes complete sense:

And it came to pass the same year, in the beginning of the reign of Zedekiah king of Judah, in the fourth year, in the fifth month, that Hananiah the son of Azzur, the prophet, who was of Gibeon, spake unto me in the house of the LORD, in the presence of the priests and of all the people, saying,
“Thus speaketh the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, saying, ‘I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon. Within two full years will I bring again into this place all the vessels of the LORD’s house, that Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon took away from this place, and carried to Babylon: and I will bring again to this place Jeconiah the son of Jehoiakim, king of Judah, with all the captives of Judah, that went to Babylon,’ saith the LORD; ‘for I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon'” (Jeremiah 28:1-4).

And Hananiah spake in the presence of all the people, saying,
“Thus saith the LORD: ‘Even so will I break the yoke of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon within two full years from off the neck of all the nations'” (Jeremiah 28:11).

Let us revisit the question: why do the people not listen to the prophets? Hananiah really provides the answer: the people do listen to prophets. They just listen to the prophets who speak the message that is consistent with their perspective and their expectations.

Jeremiah stands up and dares to assert that YHWH will hand over His city, His Temple, and His people Israel to the pagan Babylonians, and that all nations will have to submit to the yoke of Nebuchadnezzar, since YHWH has handed all things over to him (cf. Jeremiah 27). Meanwhile, Hananiah says that YHWH will destroy Nebuchadnezzar and restore the fortunes of Judah. Which message do people really want to hear? Which message is consistent with their expectations?

We can understand this further from some of the words of the enemies of Jeremiah:

Then said they, “Come, and let us devise devices against Jeremiah; for the law shall not perish from the priest, nor counsel from the wise, nor the word from the prophet. Come, and let us smite him with the tongue, and let us not give heed to any of his words” (Jeremiah 18:18).

These enemies do not like Jeremiah, in part, because he dares to challenge their fundamental worldview. He prophesies what is “impossible.” After all, God said in the Law that the priests would always set forth the Law to the people. There had been prophets speaking the word of YHWH since Moses.

Thus, one of Jeremiah’s great hindrances is that he dares to prophesy uncomfortable truths– truths that thoroughly disturb the people of Judah to their very core. Yes, it is true that in reality the people have misplaced their confidence: they should trust in YHWH and seek to do His will, and not rely on the idea of YHWH’s Temple or His priests or prophets. Nevertheless, it was easier to continue to believe the lie than to face the uncomfortable reality, even after the uncomfortable reality came to pass.

Hananiah was dead wrong. Jeremiah, unfortunately, was right. Jerusalem was captured by the Babylonians. The king’s sons were killed, and the king was blinded and imprisoned. The city and Temple were thoroughly burned and plundered. A large proportion of the population was exiled. Some remained. Difficulties ensued, and the people consider moving to Egypt (Jeremiah 39-41). Before they go, they want Jeremiah to ask YHWH whether they should stay or go. He does, and YHWH’s message is clear: stay in the land (Jeremiah 42).

If ever there were more justification to listen to Jeremiah, this would have been the time. What he spoke happened without fail.

And it came to pass that, when Jeremiah had made an end of speaking unto all the people all the words of the LORD their God, wherewith the LORD their God had sent him to them, even all these words, then spake Azariah the son of Hoshaiah, and Johanan the son of Kareah, and all the proud men, saying unto Jeremiah,
“Thou speakest falsely: the LORD our God hath not sent thee to say, ‘Ye shall not go into Egypt to sojourn there;’ but Baruch the son of Neriah setteth thee on against us, to deliver us into the hand of the Chaldeans, that they may put us to death, and carry us away captive to Babylon.”
So Johanan the son of Kareah, and all the captains of the forces, and all the people, obeyed not the voice of Jehovah, to dwell in the land of Judah (Jeremiah 43:1-4).

What indignity! After everything that happened, after all that Jeremiah personally suffered because of his prophesying, his motives are now questioned! Even after all the devastation, despite all the distress, people still rebel against the word of YHWH. They still refuse to trust in YHWH and not in their own reasoning. Jeremiah 44 indicates that many of the Jews did not even trust in YHWH, but returned to making offerings to the “queen of heaven, ” believing that their distress was caused because they stopped making offerings to her!

For many such Jews, the disaster did not bring them back to repentance; it merely solidified their previously existing beliefs. But it did chasten many others. Many Jews would return to the land and not commit the same sins as before. Yet they were still wedded to their particular worldview.

Jesus therefore said to those Jews that had believed him, “If ye abide in my word, then are ye truly my disciples; and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”
They answered unto him, “We are Abraham’s seed, and have never yet been in bondage to any man: how sayest thou, ‘Ye shall be made free?'”(John 8:31-33).

When they were not taking pride in the Temple, the Jews took pride in being the “children of Abraham” and therefore “entitled” to the privileges of covenant. When Jesus dares to assert that, in truth, they have become children of Satan because they sin without repentance, the Jews who believe in Him turn against Him, ready even to stone Him (John 8:34-59)! Uncomfortable truth still did not sit well with people.

Today we do not have inspired prophets speaking forth the word of YHWH as before (1 Corinthians 13:8-10). Nevertheless, I believe that those who believe in Jesus Christ and seek to serve Him do have a burden to speak the prophetic word. It may not be directly inspired, but it is to be based in the message of the prophets of old and the message of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, this prophetic message is going to involve the same types of uncomfortable truths as in days of old.

We are living in very trying times economically. There are many “prophets” out there who are trying to make people feel better and promote a message that is satisfying to them. “The economy will recover soon.” “Job growth will happen.” “Everything will be back to the way it was soon.” These messages are popular– they comfort, and they appeal to people’s expectations.

This is not limited to the economy. It is also true about climate change, healthcare, violence, and a host of other issues. Plenty of “prophets” stand up and say what people want to hear. They will make statements that satisfy people’s expectations.

On the other hand, what if the economy will not recover soon? What if this economic downturn really is exposing major faults in the way that we view the world? What if the challenges we are suffering with the economy, climate change, healthcare, and other matters really reflects fundmental worldview problems that need to be addressed?

The uncomfortable truth for Americans is that we are reaping what we have sown. We have lived on credit and the bill is coming due. Things will not really get better until we scale back our expectations and our lifestyles. We must return to the virtues of self-discipline and sober-mindedness (1 Peter 4:7). We must return to God’s intention for finances: work an honest job, making honest money, having enough for one’s needs, and having something to give to those in need (Ephesians 4:28). If we scale back in our consumption and work to exist sustainably on the earth, we will be also addressing some of the root problems of climate change. If we return to a more holistic and proper diet, we might even reduce healthcare costs over the long term!

Why is this message not being shouted on the rooftops? The same reason why Hananiah’s messaeg was more popular than Jeremiah’s. Sacrifice is not easy, especially when society has presenting the message of self-gratification for years. Long-term gains come only at the cost of short-term sacrifices and challenges, and humans rarely have the stomach to suffer in the short-term for the benefits of the long-term. It is quite telling when presidents of this country boldly affirm that the standard of life that Americans have come to enjoy is not negotiable. Such a statement evokes the “confidence” of the Jews of Jeremiah’s day: “the law will not perish from the priests, nor the word from the prophet.” We shall certainly see!

But the challenge of “prophesying” uncomfortable truth is not just present on the societal level. It is also quite true in the church.

While many would focus on the “distinctive issues,” and declare that speaking about them is “uncomfortable” for many, such is not really the truly uncomfortable truths that bedevil the church. While some in the church may have some discomfort in terms of the “distinctives,” most people in the pews entirely agree regarding the “distinctive issues.” It has come to the point where preaching on the distinctives constantly is, essentially, “soft preaching.” It is unoffensive to the people who sit in the pews, since they are already in agreement, and everybody walks out the door afterward feeling as if the Gospel has been preached and their worldviews validated.

The “uncomfortable truth” is whenever our mentalities or worldviews clash with revealed truth. The Scriptures speak a lot of “uncomfortable truth” about the role of women and how they are to “submit to their husbands” and be “workers at home” (Ephesians 5:22-24, Titus 2:4-5). There’s “uncomfortable truth” about being as diligent to do good things as we are in avoiding evil (Romans 12:9, James 4:17). Other topics include matters of marriage, divorce, and remarriage, association with those who practice adultery on account of their views of marriage, divorce, and remarriage, women and the assembly, involvement in the political realm, and a host of other challenges that have faced the church for years.

But a lot of “uncomfortable truth” that does not get said or realized is the sad state of affairs in the area of congregational growth.

There is a natural tendency to appreciate “comfort” in religion. People seek stability and comfort from their religious beliefs. To a point, that is well and good, as Paul indicates in 2 Corinthians 1. On the other hand, Christianity was never meant to be static or “comfortable.” Jesus demands change; after all, that’s what repentance means (Acts 2:38). We are called upon to be transformed to reflect the image of Christ, and that process is neither easy nor comfortable (Matthew 10:37-39, Romans 12:1-2, Galatians 2:20).

Furthermore, we are called to be lights in the world for Christ, constantly seeking to build up the Kingdom (Ephesians 4-5). If all things work properly, growth is the result.

Most everyone will agree with much of what is said. The difficulty, however, that is a challenge to face is that we’re not really growing.

When anyone starts talking about why we are not successfully reaching people with the Gospel, talk immediately begins to shift toward “the other.” People are just not interested anymore, many will say. People aren’t willing to change, say others. Christians who fall away? They should just “know better.”

All of these are the “easy” answers. They are comfortable in our worldview because they absolve us of any challenge.

But here’s the rather uncomfortable truth: part of the reason why we are not more successful in our evangelistic endeavors involves ourselves and our habits.

Are believers active in reflecting Christ’s love and speaking to others about the truth of God? How well does the church climate welcome those who are not of the fold? When those who are outside see the association of believers, do they see anything different about them, or do they see the same type of worldliness they see everywhere else? Are there unspoken yet strongly present prejudices that hinder effective encouragement of the lost soul? Are the members of the congregation rather welcoming? Are they honest and open with one another, living out authentic Christian lives? Or, quite frankly, is the church acting like a holy country club that is full of a bunch of people who are putting on pretenses?

That sounds harsh and is doubtless not true about many, at least according to their intentions. On the other hand, uncomfortable truth is no more easily swallowed today than it was in the days of Jeremiah. Sure, it is true that even if our efforts were everything they were supposed to be, many would not heed the call. Many in the world are attracted to that which pleases them according to their own perspective and expectations, and in twenty-first century America, there is no lack of religious organizations that try to accommodate those expectations. Nevertheless, the situation is likely not nearly as grim as it is often portrayed.

It’s just easier to always blame “the other” and not ourselves. If we have a share in the responsibility, that challenges not only our actions but our perspective, and that may lead to some discomfort. Yet, in truth, spiritual growth only comes through discomfort (James 1:2-3).

At many points in life, a prophetic message of uncomfortable truth is exactly what the Great Physician orders. We can either choose to swallow hard, accept the hard truth, change, and grow, or we can refuse to accept that message and choose to continue to look at things the way we always have. We just need to remember that we can hold off hard reality for only so long. The day of reckoning will come.

Ethan R. Longhenry