We have all been affected by the social restrictions imposed on us over the past couple of years in an endeavour to limit the spread of COVID-19. Many young couples’ wedding plans have been thrown into disarray. For others, the pain of bereavement has been excruciatingly intensified, being denied precious parting moments and comforting companionship in times of bitter loss.
Apart from that, the pandemic has taught us how important social interaction is for our mental and emotional well-being, as we have felt the inability to share each other’s joys and bear each other’s burdens.
These frustrations give us a better vantage point from which to appreciate the personal pain and cost of the self-denial to which Jeremiah was called, which comprises his second action sermon described in chapter 16.
The Implications of Jeremiah’s Self-Denial
The imposition on Jeremiah was threefold. First, he was forbidden to marry and have children. Second, he was forbidden to mourn or attend funerals. Third, he was forbidden to participate in wedding feasts and other celebrations.
As people’s personalities differ, so some are more suited to a life of solitude and more resilient to criticism than others. There are many clues to suggest that this was not the case with Jeremiah, and that he truly suffered as a result. The cultural importance of weddings, feasts and funerals, and the stigma associated with remaining single made the Lord’s prohibition a heavy burden to bear.
His call to life-long solitude seems to have been misunderstood and misconstrued. He was regarded with suspicion, and when he left the city on legitimate business during the siege he was accused of deserting to the enemy (Jer 37:12-14). The mockery and whispering of his compatriots caused Jeremiah such emotional anguish that he cursed the day he was born to such a life: “Cursed be the day on which I was born! The day when my mother bore me, let it not be blessed! … Why did I come out from the womb to see toil and sorrow, and spend my days in shame?” (Jer 20:14-18).
So why was he called to suffer thus?
Justification for Jeremiah’s Self-Denial
Strengthening His Message
There was twofold significance in his self-denial. At its most basic and obvious level, it foreshadowed the actual conditions which would exist when God’s judgement fell. People would be bereft of their loved ones but have to mourn alone, and the joy of feasting and weddings would be but a distant and fading memory.
On another level, Jeremiah’s loneliness seems to be a metaphor for the spiritual conditions that called for judgement. It gave him a deeper sensitivity to the Lord’s own loss of His people, described as a “treacherous wife” and “faithless children.”
Jeremiah’s message was of impending calamity which would rend families apart and bring untold sorrow. However, he was ministering to people who were unmoved by what he said. Their lack of reaction was evidence of lack of conviction about the credibility of his message. Had they believed what Jeremiah said, they would have done something about it.
Lot’s sons-in-law considered him a jester. Presumably, his apparent affinity for life in Sodom robbed his censure of the city of its credibility. By contrast, denying himself the comforts of ordinary life demonstrated that Jeremiah took his message very seriously.
Simplifying His Ministry
The demands of Jeremiah’s ministry entailed much personal hardship. Sometimes he had to make long journeys which would have been complicated by family commitments. Being without responsibility for dependants presumably made it much simpler to fulfil the requirements of such a ministry. As an aside, the extremity of the suffering which would shortly befall Jerusalem meant the prohibition against marrying and raising a family certainly spared Jeremiah the anguish of seeing them suffer, as they surely would.
Application of the Principle of Self-Denial
Applying Jeremiah’s experience specifically to our mission, it should be obvious that if we expect people to take our message seriously, then we need to demonstrate that we take it seriously ourselves. Could our assertion that we are spiritual people be undermined by our grasp of material things, or our claim to living for the future be discredited by our attitude to the present?
I greatly admire Christians I’ve known who chose a life of singleness to devote themselves wholly to the service of the Lord. Such a life is not for everyone. Paul recognised it as a special calling, a gift from God (1Co 7:7), and, presumably, answering a call to singleness has its own special reward.
However, every Christian is called to self-denial. It should go without saying that we must deny sinful lusts (Gal 5:24; Titus 2:12), but Paul also wrote, “Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him” (2Ti 2:3-4). If we want to be useful to the Lord, we must be careful not to become entangled in things which may distract our attention or limit our ability to respond to His directions.
Particularly, we need to guard against the real possibility that the legitimate need to make a living could subtly become greed for more and better things. We must equally be careful that the responsibility to be faithful and diligent in business or employment does not morph into selfish ambition that devours time and energy which could otherwise be usefully employed by the Lord. Perhaps, rather than pushing our children to have “successful” lives, we should urge them to simple lives. “Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you’” (Heb 13:5).
My wife and I are thankful for advice received as a young married couple to learn to live, as far as possible, within our financial means, avoiding credit to fund discretionary purchases and improve our standard of living. It would have been difficult, perhaps impossible, to respond to God’s call to missionary service with a mountain of credit card debt or loans to repay.
Living, as we profess to believe, in the closing days of God’s grace, the striking challenge of Jeremiah’s second action sermon is whether we are affected as we ought to be by the knowledge of the calamity about to befall our sin-sick world. Taking a slight liberty with the eschatology, “since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness …” (2Pe 3:11).
 All Scripture quotations in this article are from the ESV.