Theme: When Christians Suffer
This week’s lessons from Psalm 119 show that suffering can bring us closer to God and his Word.
Scripture: Psalm 119:65-88
Most people have heard the tired atheistic rebuttal to Christianity based on the presence of suffering in the world. It has been expressed in different ways depending upon the viewpoint of the unbeliever who uttered it. But one common form of the rebuttal goes like this: “If God were good, he would wish to make his creatures happy; and if God were almighty he would be able to do what he wished. But his creatures are not happy. Therefore God lacks either goodness or power or both.”1 That objection is insulting in its superficiality, for it assumes that the ultimate good in this world is our lack of suffering and that the only possible factors in our quandary are the alleged benevolence and alleged omnipotence of God.
Any serious thinker and all Christians know that there is more to the problem of suffering than this. Nevertheless, the problem of pain is a big one. What is more, it is also personal and inescapable, because there is no one on earth who does not go through some suffering at some time.
Our psalmist endured a lot of it. We have already looked at some of this man’s trials in an earlier study, focusing on those that came to him because of his determination to live faithfully by God’s Word. In the sections of the psalm to which we come now (teth, yodh and kaph) we see trials of a much broader nature, trials which the writer refers to as afflictions. That is the new word in these stanzas. “Afflicted” occurs three times in verses 65-88. It is found twice in stanza nine (vv. 67, 71), once in stanza ten (verse 75) and, although it does actually occur in stanza eleven, that stanza describes the poet’s afflictions in the saddest and most pitiful language of all.
Taking these stanzas together and in sequence, they teach us about the purpose, source, and end result of suffering for the Christian.
Why do the righteous suffer? What is the purpose of affliction in their lives? When we look for the answer to these questions given in the Bible as a whole, we find that there are various explanations, which is not surprising since this is not a simple problem.
First, some suffering is simply the common lot of man. We live in an imperfect world. We get hurt; we get sick; we die. It is not always the case that we are to read great cosmic meaning into such afflictions. That great sufferer Job said, “Man is born to trouble as surely as sparks fly upward” (Job 5:7).
Second, there is suffering that is corrective. This is the most obvious category of suffering for most Christians, and it is what the psalmist is chiefly speaking of in this psalm when he says, “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word” (v. 67). He is confessing that the afflictions he endured were sent by God to get him back onto the path of obeying God’s Word.
Third, some suffering is constructive. That is, it is used by God to sharpen our skills and develop our character. Paul wrote of this in Romans 5, saying that “suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character, and character, hope” (v. 4).
Fourth, some suffering is given only that God might be glorified in it and by it. The afflictions of the man born blind were of this nature, for Jesus explained that he had been suffering neither for his own sin nor that of his parents, but only that the work of God might be displayed in his life” (John 9:3). He meant that he had been allowed to endure blindness his whole life in order that, at this point in history, Jesus might heal him and so bring glory to God as the one who gives physical and spiritual sight.
The fifth purpose of suffering is cosmic, and Job is the Bible’s most profound and detailed exploration of it. It is to demonstrate before Satan and the angels that a person can love and trust God for who he is in himself and not merely for what he gets out of him.
1This is the way C. S. Lewis states the critic’s objection at the start of his study of human suffering in The Problem of Pain (New York: Macmillan, 1962), p. 26. It is also the problem raised by the Boston rabbi Harold S. Kushner in When Bad Things Happen to Good People (New York: Avon Publishers, 1981), though Kushner, being a rabbi, does not deny God’s existence. He solves the problem by denying God’s omnipotence. He advises us to love God and “forgive him despite his limitations” (p. 148).
Why is it insulting to define God’s character based on whether or not all people are happy?
List and explain five reasons for suffering.
How does the fourth explanation for suffering give a proper view of who we are?
Reflection: Reflect on suffering you have endured. Identify a purpose for your suffering, and what God may have wanted to do, or is doing, through it.
Key Point: The problem of pain is a big one. What is more, it is also personal and inescapable, because there is no one on earth who does not go through some suffering at some time.
For Further Study: Various kinds of suffering come to all of us, and the Psalms contain much to help God’s children as they struggle and wait on the Lord. Is there someone you know going through a very difficult time who could profit from these studies on the Psalms? The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals is offering James Boice’s three-volume paperback set at a special price of 25% off the regular price.