Christ's Grace and Your Sufferings
Desiring God 2005 National Conference
Suffering and the Sovereignty of God
This message appears as a chapter in Suffering and the Sovereignty of God.
How does God meet you in trouble, loss, disability, and pain? You probably already know the “right answer.” He does not immediately intervene to make everything all better. Yet he continually intervenes, according to gracious purposes, working both in you and in what afflicts you. If you’ve read Psalms, if you’ve heard a sermon on the second half of Romans 8, if you’ve worked through 1 Peter in a Bible study, if you’ve read the earlier chapters of this book, then you’ve got the gist already.
How does God’s grace engage your sufferings? We may know the right answer. And yet we don’t know it. It is a hard answer. But we make it sound like a pat answer. God sets about a long slow answering. But we try to make it a quick fix. His answer insists on being lived out over time and into the particulars. We act as if just saying the right words makes it so. God’s answer insists on changing you into a different kind of person.
But we act as if some truth, principle, strategy, or perspective might simply be incorporated into who we already are. God personalizes his answer on hearts with an uncanny flexibility. But we turn it into a formula: “If you just believe (blank). If you just do (blank). If you just remember (blank).” No important truth ever contains the word “just” in the punch line.
How does God’s grace meet you in your sufferings? We can make the right answer sound old hat, but I guarantee this: God will surprise you. He will make you stop. You will struggle. He will bring you up short. You will hurt. He will take his time. You will grow in faith and in love. He will deeply delight you. You will find the process harder than you ever imagined — and better. Goodness and mercy will follow you all the days of your life (Psalm 23:6). No matter how many times you’ve heard it, no matter how long you’ve known it, no matter how well you can say it, God’s answer will come to mean something better than you could ever imagine.
Think of this chapter as a workshop. You have to put yourself into it in order to get something out of it. Insert your own story into what is said. Walk it out — on the margins of these pages, when you put the book down, when you pray, when you talk with your best friend tomorrow. The title of the chapter might have tipped you off: I’m not going to discuss the general topic of God and suffering. Instead, we will consider how God’s grace enters your sufferings.
What is the most significant experience of suffering that you have gone through? That you are now going through?
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What has happened? How did it affect you? How did your life change? Don’t rush on. Pull out a pen or pencil. Take five or ten minutes. Ponder. Remember. Write. You are responsible for half of this chapter! If you do your part well, it will be the better half.
Let me prime the pump a bit more. Perhaps one catastrophic event leapt to mind. But as you thought further, maybe something else pressed forward into consciousness. Perhaps the searing moment was not as significant as a difficult and disappointing relationship that lasted a long, long time. There are many kinds of significant suffering. It’s no accident that James mentions “various trials” (1:2) within which God works. He invites you to consider the variety of life-altering afflictions, and then to make it personal. Nobody suffers in general. Each person suffers in some particular way. Put your particulars on the table.
What marked you? What most changed you? More specifically, what marked you for good? Profound good in our lives often emerges in a crucible of significant suffering. Jesus himself “learned obedience through what he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8). Often faith and love shine most clearly, simply, and courageously in a dark place. And what marked you for bad? Often our typical sins emerge in reaction to betrayal, loss, or pain. Hammered by some evil, we discover the evils in our own hearts (Romans 12:17). And perhaps most often, in the hands of our kind and purposeful Father, the bad and the good both come out. A trial brings out what is most wrong in you, and God brings about what is most right as he meets you and works with you (Psalm 119:67). The endurance of faith is one of the Spirit’s finest fruits — and you only learn to endure when you must live through something hard.
“How Firm a Foundation . . .”
Hold that significant suffering in one hand. In the other hand, hold a wise old hymn. Listen to God’s grace speaking in the words of “How Firm a Foundation”:
How firm a foundation, you saints of the Lord, is laid for your faith in his excellent Word! What more can he say than to you he has said, to you who for refuge to Jesus have fled? “Fear not, I am with you, O be not dismayed; for I am your God, and will still give you aid; I’ll strengthen you, help you, and cause you to stand, upheld by my righteous, omnipotent hand. “When through the deep waters I call you to go, the rivers of sorrow shall not overflow; for I will be with you, your troubles to bless, and sanctify to you your deepest distress. “When through fiery trials your pathway shall lie, my grace, all-sufficient, shall be your supply; the flame shall not hurt you; I only design your dross to consume and your gold to refine. “E’en down to old age all my people shall prove my sovereign, eternal, unchangeable love; and when hoary hairs shall their temples adorn, like lambs they shall still in my bosom be borne. “The soul that on Jesus has leaned for repose, I will not, I will not desert to his foes; that soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake, I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.”
I’ll make several introductory comments before we explore each stanza. First, one of the subtle charms of this hymn is that it is anonymous. Only God and the author know who wrote it. In a world obsessed with taking credit and receiving payment for achievements, this hymn is only an unknown person’s honest offering to God. What significant sufferings had that person faced? We don’t know. But every stanza breathes firsthand experience with God’s hand in life’s hardships. Was the author male or female? Young or old? Married or single? Black, brown, or white? Rich, poor, or middling? Baptist, Presbyterian, or Anglican? We have no idea. Whoever the person, whatever the affliction, we hear timely words from the God of intervening grace. What is written will speak into your significant suffering. The anonymity adds appropriateness to the invitation to make this hymn your very own as a means of grace.
Our typical sins often emerge in response to suffering.
Second, though we might not notice this, every hymn adopts a point of view, a “voice” identifying a listener and a speaker. Most often we sing to God, making requests or expressing praise: “Be Thou my vision, O Lord of my heart.” Often we sing about God and what he has done, bearing witness to others and reminding ourselves: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.” Sometimes we sing to each other, exhorting and encouraging: “O come, all ye faithful.” Occasionally, just like Psalm 103, we sing to ourselves: “Be still, my soul, the Lord is on thy side.” Each of these voices expresses our faith in a different way.
Most of “How Firm a Foundation” operates in an unusual voice. Only in the first stanza do we express our faith by exhorting each other to listen to what God has said. Notice what’s different about the last five stanzas. Each begins with a quotation mark. Why is this? God is doing the talking. Though we sing the words, we are placed in the role of listeners. God is talking to you. You sing this hymn by listening. What does he talk about? Interestingly, he speaks directly into significant suffering. He tells you who he is and what he is like — pointedly with respect to what you are going through. He tells you his purposes. He promises the very things you most need. Most hymns express our faith to God, to each other, and to ourselves. This hymn is more elemental. God’s voice invites faith. He’s calling to you.
This is particularly appropriate when it comes to suffering. The hymn writer demonstrates a profound feel for the struggles and needs of sufferers. A sufferer’s primal need is to hear God talking and to experience him purposefully at work. That changes everything. Left to ourselves, we blindly react. Our troubles obsess us and distract us. We grasp at straws. God seems invisible, silent, far away. Pain and loss cry out loud and long. Faith seems inarticulate. Sorrow and confusion broadcast on all the channels. It’s hard to remember anything else, hard to put into words what is actually happening, hard to feel any force from who Jesus Christ is.
You might mumble right answers to yourself, but it’s like reading the phone book. You pray, but your words sound rote, vaguely unreal, like pious generalities. You’d never talk to a real person that way. Meanwhile, the struggle churning within you is anything but rote and unreal. Pain and threat are completely engrossing. You’re caught in a swirl of apprehension, anguish, regret, confusion, bitterness, emptiness, uncertainty.
This struggle is not surprising. Exodus 6:9, for example, describes how “despondency and cruel bondage” (NASB) deafened the people. Moses’ words made no impression because they were so crushed and disheartened. But God worked patiently. He continued to say what he does and to do what he says. The people’s sufferings, deafness, and blindness did not vanish in the twinkling of an eye. But by Exodus 15:118, the people were seeing and hearing, and they sang with hearty, well founded joy. How much more in our times. The Holy Spirit works powerfully and intimately in this age of new creation to write God’s words on our hearts. Sufferers awaken to hear their Father’s voice and to see their Savior’s hand in the midst of significant suffering.
You need to hear what God says, and to experience that he does what he says. You need to feel the weight and significance of what he is about. He never lies. He never disappoints (though he wisely sets about to disappoint our false hopes). Though you walk through the valley of the shadow of death, you need fear no evil, for he is with you. Goodness and mercy will follow you. This is what he is doing. God’s voice speaks deeper than what hurts, brighter than what is dark, more enduring than what is lost, truer than what happened.
You awaken. You take it to heart, and you take heart. You experience that this is so. The world changes. You change. His voice changes the meaning of every hardship. What he does — has done, is doing, will do — alters the impact and outcome of everything happening to you. Your faith grows up into honest, intelligent humanness, no longer murky and inarticulate. You grow more like Jesus: the man of sorrows acquainted with grief, the man after God’s own heart, who having loved his own loved them to the end.
How firm a foundation, you saints of the Lord, is laid for your faith in his excellent Word! What more can he say than to you he has said, to you who for refuge to Jesus have fled?
In 2 Timothy 2:19 (NASB), Paul wrote: “The firm foundation of God stands, having this seal, ‘The Lord knows those who are His.’” This excellent Word never changes. This hymn is going to speak standing on that firm foundation. Consider three things about the exhortation of this opening stanza.
First, “What more can he say than to you he has said?” Let that rattle around a minute. I don’t know how you read Scripture. But there is a way to read Scripture that leaves you wishing God had said a whole lot more. How did Satan become evil? Why does Chronicles add zeros to the numbers in Samuel and Kings? How did Jonah avoid asphyxiation? Who wrote the book of Hebrews? And those aren’t even the questions that most often divide and perplex the church.
Wouldn’t it have been great if the Lord had slipped in one killer verse that pinned down the eschatological timetable; that resolved once and for all every question about baptism; that specifically told us how to organize church leadership and government; that told us exactly what sort of music to use in worship; that explained how God’s absolute sovereignty neatly dovetails with full human responsibility? Only one more verse! And think what he could have told us with an extra paragraph or chapter!
If only the Lord had shortened the genealogies, omitted mention of a few villages in the land distribution, and condensed the spec sheet for the temple’s dimensions, dishware, décor, and duties. Our Bible would be exactly the same length — even shorter — but a hundred of our questions could have been anticipated and definitively answered. Somehow, God in his providence didn’t choose to do that.
It comes down to what you are looking for as you read and listen. When you get to what most matters, to life-and-death issues, what more can he say than to you he has said? Betrayal by someone you trusted? Aggressive, incurable cancer? Your most persistent sin? A disfiguring disability? The meaning and purpose of your life? Good and evil? Love and hate? Truth and lie? Hope in the face of death? Mercy in the face of sin? Justice in the face of unfairness? The character of God? The dynamics of the human heart? What more can he say than to you he has said? Listen well. There is nothing more that he needed to say.
Second, this opening stanza describes you, the listener, in profound ways. You are among the “saints” of the Lord. In a nutshell, it means, “God says, ‘You are mine. You belong to me.’” In popular usage, the word “saint” has been debased to describe extraordinary, individual spiritual achievements. But in the Bible — the way God views sainthood — the word describes ordinary people who belong to a most extraordinary Savior and Lord. Our Redeemer achieves all the extraordinary things. At our best (and too often we are at our worst, or bumping along in the middle!), “we have done only that which we ought to have done” (Luke 17:10, NASB).
God calls you “saint” to point out who owns you, not to honor you for going above and beyond the call of duty. It’s not the Medal of Honor; it’s your enlistment papers and dog tag. When God has written his name on you, suffering qualitatively changes. Pain, loss, and weakness are no longer the end of the world and the death of your hopes. If you are not a saint, then sufferings are omens of the end of your world. All that you live for will die when you die (Proverbs 10:28). But when you are in Christ, sufferings become the context to awaken your truest hopes and bring them to fulfillment.
There’s more. You have taken refuge in the Lord. You are a “refugee.” You fled for your life and found every sort of aid and protection in Jesus. In September 2005, hundreds of thousands of people were displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Many escaped with nothing and lost everything. They were vulnerable. They needed food, housing, medical care, clothes, money, police protection, a new start. But a public official caused an uproar when he referred to the evacuees as “refugees.” The term was seen as demeaning. It called to mind the degraded conditions in refugee camps for those fleeing genocide in Sudan or Rwanda.
Refugee might connote degradation; but in Christ it becomes an affirmation of glory and hope. We are refugees. The Bible turns many typical associations upside down. Words for degradation and powerlessness — “slave, crucifixion, child, weakness” — invert into symbols of joy. A refugee absolutely depends on outside mercies. And you have found all you need and more than you could ever imagine in the Lord, the only true refuge. The opposite of a refugee? It is the current cultural ideal: self-confidence, self-sufficiency, independence, right of ownership, freedom to boldly assert your opinions, freedom to do what you want as long as it doesn’t hurt someone else.
To be “dependent” on God often implies something warm and comfortable. That is a partial truth. A child on his mother’s lap simply rests in trust (Psalm 131). But often dependency doesn’t feel very good. You need help. You’re helpless in yourself. When the psalmist cries to God, “Help. If you won’t listen to me, I will die” (Psalm 28:1, AT), that’s not a comfortable feeling. You feel threatened, battered, vulnerable. You are powerless, with nowhere else to turn. Jesus’ first beatitude says that the “poor in spirit” are the blessed. He turns another bad word upside down. “Poor” means poverty-stricken, destitute, people with nothing, street people. “Poor in spirit” means conscious awareness of dire and pressing need for help that God most freely and generously gives.
Insoluble suffering (like insoluble sin) brings you to this foundation of all blessing. God does not turn away from the afflictions of the afflicted. Do not be afraid, little flock, he is giving you the kingdom (Luke 12:32). Our discipleship materials often don’t teach us much about this. We learn how to have a quiet time. We discover our spiritual gifts. We study good doctrine. We learn how to study the Bible and memorize Scripture. We don’t necessarily learn how to need help. “How Firm a Foundation” teaches you to need help. God uses significant suffering to teach us to need him.
2. I Am with You
“Fear not, I am with you, O be not dismayed; for I am your God, and will still give you aid; I’ll strengthen you, help you, and cause you to stand, upheld by my righteous, omnipotent hand.”
How do you react to serious suffering? “Fear and dismay” cover the ground pretty well! If you are honest, you feel rocked, overwhelmed, preoccupied, confused, upset, endangered. You “struggle” — always. If you do not feel the weight or knife-edge of what is happening, you are a stone, not a human being. Image-bearers of God are not impervious. But here’s the problem: distress and apprehension often become Godless. The anguish of faith vanishes into godless dismay. As troubles settle in, they claim your thought life, conversations, emotions, future, faith. They occupy wakeful hours at night. If you fall asleep, they wake up with you first thing in the morning. “Dismay” well covers a whole range of temptations: from troubled to unglued, from disappointed to hopeless, from worried to panicky, from frustrated to enraged.
“Insoluble suffering (like insoluble sin) brings you to this foundation of all blessing.”
There are also many dishonest reactions that aim to avoid experiencing dismay in the face of life’s troubles. You meet many people who have become cynical, hard-boiled, brutal, invulnerable. (Most are not readers of books with “suffering” in the title!) They callous themselves against any fresh experience of suffering (thereby also hardening themselves from compassion on the sufferings of others). They fear and loathe any “weakness” in themselves or others. In the pages of Scripture, perhaps Pilate expresses this worldly-wise, cynical self-interest. Hard people justify themselves as “realists.”
In fact, they are dehumanized. Jesus is far more realistic, and he chose to enter into weakness and affliction in order to love needy people. You also meet people who recoil from life (perhaps this is your tendency?). It’s the opposite of cynical, but it is also dishonest. They become so blinded by pain, so fearful of further rejection and loss, so vulnerable, that they withdraw into a shell of excruciating self-protection. And still others (your tendency perhaps?) escape into the “feel-goods,” the false refuges that numb or stimulate or distract. Entertainment, recreation, and addiction seem like good hiding places.
Honesty is able to feel the weight of things that arouse fear and dismay. The problem is not that we feel troubled by trouble and pained by pain. Something hurtful should hurt. The problem is that God slides away into irrelevance when we obsess over suffering or compulsively avoid it. God inhabits a vague afterthought — weightless and distant in comparison to something immediately pressing. Or, if God-words fill our minds and pour forth from our lips, it’s easy to make the “god” we cry out to someone who will magically make everything better if we can only catch his ear.
The real God is up to better things. He says and does weighty and immediate things that engage what you are facing. He pursues purposes that are better than you imagine. He refuses to become your lucky charm who makes all the bad things disappear from your world.
Suffering tends to trigger a cascade of bad reactions. God gives a cascade of better reasons that invite the finest responses of which a human being is capable. These very reasons patterned Jesus’ consciousness, motives, emotions, words, and actions as he faced his own significant suffering. In this second stanza, God makes seven promises. Our hymn writer didn’t just make it up. The stanza closely paraphrases Isaiah 41:10. God said exactly these words, and our hymn accurately quotes the source:
I am with you. I am your God.
I will still give you aid. I will strengthen you.
I will help you.
I will cause you to stand.
I will uphold you by my all-good, all-powerful hand.
Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith, heard this voice, and took it to heart. He now says these same things to you.
What makes it hard for us to hear? There are times we have a hard time slowing down to listen. There are times we simply don’t want to listen. There are times we are busy listening to ten thousand other voices, including our own. There are times we feel so weary and disheartened that we don’t feel up for listening. But whatever the particulars, our essential problem is deafness to God’s voice. We become absorbed in the world of our own experiences, thoughts, feelings, and opinions. The early church used a wonderful phrase to capture the essential inwardturning nature of sinfulness: curvitas in se. We curve in on ourselves. Sin’s curvitas in se pointedly turns away from God. When you or others suffer, you experience or witness the strength of this incurving tendency. It’s hard not to be self-preoccupied.
God willingly keeps talking. Listen to how near he sounds in this hymn. The Lifegiver willingly gives ears to hear. The incurving can be reversed. Psalms cry out rather than turning in. Jesus is a most excellent teacher. In the extremity of his agony, there was no curvitas in se. He heard God’s voice and remembered. He turned towards God in neediness, generosity, and trust: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing. Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” He turned towards people in practical love: “Today you will be with me in paradise. Behold your son. Behold your mother.” He gave voice to honest experience of his ordeal: “I am thirsty. It is finished” (Matthew 27:46; Luke 23:34, 43, 46; John 19:26-28, 30).
This is the Jesus to whom we have fled for refuge. This most careful and thoughtful of listeners walked ahead of us. He deals gently with our ignorance and waywardness. He now willingly walks with us, fully aware of our temptations to be forgetful, distracted, and inattentive. He addresses the biggest problem first. That’s why this hymn speaks in the first person. The words of new life first create ears that listen.
God is talking. His sheep hear his voice, even in the valley of the shadow of death. Are you listening?
The starting point of this stanza is well chosen. “I am with you” is a central promise when speaking pastorally with sufferers. It’s no accident that Psalm 23 says, “I fear no evil, for you are with me” (verse 4 NASB). It’s no accident that this is the central promise of the entire Bible, the one hope of sinners and sufferers. It is the only thing Moses really wanted — without it the so-called Promised Land was only mediocre real estate. It is the essential reason that David’s life flourished. It came to a point in Emmanuel, in whom all God’s promises become Yes and Amen (2 Corinthians 1:20).
I will unpack one pastoral implication of this omni-relevant promise: suffering often brings a doubled pain. In the first place there is “the problem” itself — sickness, poverty, betrayal, bereavement. That is hard enough (and this promise speaks comfort). But it is often compounded by a second problem. Other people, even well-meaning, often don’t respond very well to sufferers. Sufferers are often misunderstood, or meddled with, or ignored. These reactions add relational and psychological isolation to “the problem.”
For example, Job suffered the deaths of his children, financial disaster, and unrelenting physical pain. But then he had to deal with the attitudes of his wife and friends. They exacerbated his suffering. He became utterly isolated because they misunderstood and mistreated him. When Job’s life was hardest, he was also most alone. Similarly, Jesus faced betrayal, mockery, and torture at the hands of his enemies. But his truest friends? First they argued about who was most important. Then they lapsed into sleepy incomprehension. Then they disintegrated into confusion, panic, flight, and denial. When Jesus’ life was most painful, he also had to go it alone. God speaks into this: “I am with you.”
This doubled hardship is a common experience. A young woman is bereaved of her father whom she dearly loves. Her friends are initially very supportive. But they get tired of her grief long before her grief is over. They give up on her as a friend. Or, parents of a severely disabled child face lifelong hardships of many sorts. They also face how they are treated by others. Friends and family distance themselves, or feel awkward and don’t know what to say, or offer laughably (weepably?) inappropriate help, or don’t want to be bothered, or offer a thousand suggestions and fixes that reveal utter incomprehension of the realities. Disability is compounded by isolation. But “I am with you.”
Here’s another way this happens. People who love you often focus exclusively on “the problem.” They ask about “the problem.” They pray that God would solve “the problem.” They offer advice for solving “the problem.” They care for you! These are well-meaning attempts to be helpful. But the effect can become unkind. For example, many significant sufferings have no remedy until the day when all tears are wiped away. Your disease or disability is incurable. The injustice will not be remedied in your lifetime. Your loved one is dead. The marriage is over. The money is gone. There may be partial helps along the way. There may be partial redemptions. There will be no fix.
Often the biggest problem for any sufferer is not “the problem.” It is the spiritual challenge the problem presents: “How are you doing in the midst of what you are going through? What are you learning? Where are you failing? Where do you need encouragement? Will you learn to live well and wisely within pain, limitation, weakness, and loss? Will suffering define you? Will faith and love grow, or will you shrivel up?” These are life-anddeath issues — more important than “the problem” in the final analysis. They take asking, thinking, listening, responding. They take time. Other people are often clumsy and uncomprehending about the most important things, while pouring energy and love into solving what is often insoluble. “I am with you.”
This double suffering commonly occurs when a health problem eludes diagnosis and cure. Jesus met a woman who “had a hemorrhage for twelve years, and had endured much at the hands of many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and was not helped at all, but rather had grown worse” (Mark 5:25-26, NASB). Her story has a decidedly contemporary ring! Bleeding was a real medical problem. But attempts to help multiplied her misery. The subsequent two thousand years have not eliminated the phenomenon: faulty diagnoses, misguided treatments, negative side effects, contradictory advice, huge waste of time and money, false hopes repeatedly dashed, false fears pointlessly rehearsed, no plausible explanation forthcoming, blaming the victim, and declining sympathy as compassion fatigue sets in for would-be helpers! The woman was sick; other people made it worse. “I am with you.”
“God uses significant suffering to teach us to need him.”
J.I. Packer once noted that “a half-truth masquerading as the whole truth becomes a complete untruth” (Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life [Crossway Books, 1994], 126). We can extend his logic. A half-kindness masquerading as the whole of kindness becomes a complete unkindness. The desire to explain and solve “the problem” is surely a kindness. But it can miss the person who must in any case come to grips with what is happening. The first line of this stanza displays a remarkable pastoral intuition. God speaks first to the fear, dismay, and isolation that attend hardships.
This is a workshop chapter. Take your most significant of sufferings. Try out these sentences. I am not afraid of (blank). I am not dismayed by (blank). Can you say this and mean it? What gets in the way? What gives you reasons to say it, mean it, and live it out all your days?
3. “I’m with You for a Purpose”
“When through the deep waters I call you to go, the rivers of sorrow shall not overflow; for I will be with you, your troubles to bless, and sanctify to you your deepest distress.”
Words from Isaiah 43:2 weave through this stanza. Your troubles are envisioned as “deep waters” and “rivers.” Isaiah alludes to when God’s people faced the Red Sea with enemies at their back, and to when they faced the Jordan River at flood stage. No human being could carve a path through such difficulties. God restates his core promise with an eye to the future: “I will be with you.” That itself is significant, because the effects of most significant sufferings extend into an indeterminate future. We need much more than help in the present moment. What exactly does it mean that God will be “with” you amid destructive forces?
In promising this, God explicitly does not mean that he will give you mere comfort, warm feelings because a friend is standing at your side through tough times. God plays a much more active and powerful role. This stanza fills in the meaning with four vast truths:
- God himself calls you into the deep waters in your life.
- God sets a limit on the sorrows.
- God is with you actively bringing good from your troubles.
- In the context of distressing events, God changes you to become like him.
This is heady stuff. High and purposeful sovereignty. A big God — who comes close to speak tenderly, work personally, make you different, finish what he begins.
In other words, your significant sufferings don’t happen by accident. No random chance. No purposeless misery. No bad luck. Not even (and understand this the right way) a tragedy. Tragedy means ruin, destruction, downfall, an unhappy ending with no redemption. Your life story may contain a great deal of misery and heartache along the way.
But in the end, in Christ, your life story will prove to be a “comedy” in the good old sense of the word, a story with a happy ending. You play a part in the Divine Comedy, as Dante called it, with the happiest ending of any story ever written. Death, mourning, tears, and pain will be no more (Reverse 21:4). Life, joy, and love get last say. High sovereignty is going somewhere. People miss that when they make “the sovereignty of God” sound as if it implied fatalism, like Islamic kismet, like que sera sera, like being realistic and resigned to life’s hardships God’s sovereign purposes don’t include the goal of getting you to just accept your troubles. He’s not interested in offering you some perspective to just help get you through a rough patch.
This stanza expresses the kind purposes of the most high God. But it does not make light of your hardships There is no chilly objectivity in God’s words. He carefully refers to the pain of deep sufferings in every line. He speaks poignantly, not matter-of-factly: “deep waters, rivers of sorrow, troubles, deepest distress.” In fact, the original hymn (with “thee and thou”) put the second line even more graphically: “The rivers of woe shall not thee overflow.” Woe is the keenest edge of anguish, the extremity of distress, sorrow raised to the highest degree of pain.
Those rivers of woe sweep many good things away. Your deepest distress is deeply distressing. But the God who loves you is master of your significant sorrow. He calls you to go through even this hard thing. Though it feels impossible and devastates earthly hopes, he sets a boundary (not where we would set it). He convinces you that this hard thing will come out good beyond all you can ask, imagine, see, hear, or conceive in your heart (Ephesians 3:20; 1 Corinthians 2:9). You will pass through the valley of the shadow of death filled with evils, but you will say that goodness and mercy followed you all the days of your life.
Again, take in hand the significant suffering that contributes to your half of this chapter. Insert it into this stanza. “When I call you to go through (fill in the blank), you will not drown in the rivers of woe. I will be with you to bring blessing out of (blank). I will take (blank), and sanctify it to you. I will transform (blank) into the crucible in which you become like Jesus, whose self-giving love enters the real troubles of the human condition.”
God is God. He exerts a high and purposeful sovereignty. But we often misapply God’s sovereignty when it comes to actually helping sufferers — both ourselves and others. Here is a common misapplication: “God is in control, therefore what’s happening is his will. You need to just trust the Lord and accept it. Ignore your feelings. Remember the truth, gird your loins, and get with the program.” Somehow stoic conclusions are fashioned from a most unstoic truth about a most unstoic God!
Here’s the classic text whose pastoral application too often misfires in this way: “Let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good” (1 Peter 4:19). Even as you read those words, does it sound like the Bible puts the damper on heartache? Does God teach a sanctified version of calm detachment and dutiful self-discipline? Is Peter saying, “It doesn’t matter that you’re suffering. God’s in control, so just keep up your quiet time and fulfill your responsibilities”? Does God make the deep waters only waist deep? Does he canalize the rivers of woe, so they flow gently between banks of riprap? Does he sanctify distress by making it unstressful? Does he call you to ignore what’s going on around you in order to get on with being a Christian? Look carefully at how to entrust your soul to a faithful Creator. You’ll never read 1 Peter 4:19 in the same way.
Consider David’s Psalm 28. “To you, LORD, I call. My Rock, do not be deaf to me. If you don’t answer me, I will die. Hear the voice of my supplications, my cry for help to you” (verses 1-2, AT). This is an example of what it means to “entrust your soul” to the sovereign God. It’s not sedate. David does not mentally rehearse the fact that God is in control in order to quietly press on with unflinching composure. Instead, trust pleads candidly and believingly with God: “This is big trouble. You must help me. I need you. You are my only hope.” Prayer means “ask for something you need and want.”
Supplication means “really ask.” Frank supplication is the furthest thing from keeping everything in perspective so you can move on with life as normal. The sovereign God does not intend that you maintain the status quo while suffering. Pain disrupts normal. It’s supposed to disrupt normal. It’s supposed to make you feel a need for help. Psalm 28 is not an orderly “quiet time.” It’s noisy and needy. When you let life’s troubles get to you, it gets you to the only one who can help. As Psalm 28 unfolds, David specifically names the trouble he’s in, what he’s afraid of, what he wants (verses 3-5). His trust in God’s sovereignty moves to glad confidence (verses 6-7). Finally, his faith works out into love as he starts interceding on behalf of others (verses 8-9).
Consider how Psalm 10 trusts a faithful God. Your life is being threatened by predatory people who give you good reason for apprehension. You begin to entrust your soul by crying out, “Why do you stand far away from me, O Lord? Where are you? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?”(verse 1, AT). Faith in God’s sovereign rule, promises, and purposes talks out the implications. Instead of ignoring the situation and the feelings of threat, instead of finding a quiet (but unreal) solace, instead of getting on with business as usual, the psalmist even takes time to think carefully about the thought processes of wicked men (verses 2-11, 13). His scope of concern reaches beyond his own plight: the afflicted, the unfortunate, the innocent, the orphan, the oppressed. He thinks through how God’s hand rests differently on evildoers and on sufferers (verses 12, 14-18).
We might say that the things of earth definitely do not grow strangely dim. Instead, they grow much clearer in the light of his glory and grace! This psalm comes out in a place of resolution and confidence. But trust never anesthetizes the threat. So entrusting to a faithful Creator ends with a plea: “Do justice for the fatherless and the oppressed, so that man who is of the earth will no longer cause terror” (verse 18, AT). That’s not calm, cool, and collected. It’s faith working through love.
Finally, Psalms 22:1 and 31:5 were out loud on Jesus’ lips, because these psalms were in his heart as he entrusted his soul to God. Hebrews 5:7 (NASB) refers to this time as characterized by “loud crying and tears to the One able to save him from death.” Jesus hardly ignored his feelings or viewed them as the inconvenient by-product of cognitive processes! These are psalms of intense affliction. You see what was on Jesus’ mind when he poured out his heart. He cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” because he believed that the sovereign God does not treat lightly “the affliction of the afflicted”; God won’t shrink back in dismay from our troubles; God doesn’t turn away and ignore naked need (Psalm 22:24). He does not forsake us. He hears and acts. Other people often do distance themselves from suffering. They minimize it, recoil in distaste, look the other way, or blame the victim. But this God will hear our cry.
In Jesus’ final act of trust he expressed himself in words from Psalm 31:5: “Into your hands I commit my spirit.” Taken out of context, these words might sound calm, cool, and collected. But taken in context, it is anything but calm. This is a plea of need from a man fully engaged with both his troubles and his God. The emotions of Psalm 31 expressing faith in the act of trust run the gamut from fear to courage, from sorrow to joy, from hate to love, from neediness to gratitude. “Commit” (Luke 23:46) and “entrust” (1 Peter 4:19) are the same Greek word. Peter intentionally calls forth our experience into the pattern of Jesus’ experience on the cross.
God’s high sovereignty? Of course, it takes all the panic out of life. Any reason for despair washes away. But, grasp it rightly, and you’ll never be matter-of-fact and coolly detached. God’s purposes are to “sanctify” you. And his kind of sanctification aims for vibrant engagement with the real and immediate conditions of life, both the good and the bad. “All that is within me, joyously bless his name” and “Hear my anguished cry for help” are both what sanctification produces. Christ fiercely opposes matter-of-fact detachment. It is the opposite of what he is like. God will teach you to experience life the way the psalms express it.
4. “My Loving Purpose Is Your Transformation”
“When through fiery trials your pathway shall lie, my grace, all-sufficient, shall be your supply; the flame shall not hurt you; I only design your dross to consume and your gold to refine.”
This stanza makes God’s purpose even more explicit. He designs your significant suffering for three reasons: to reveal his abiding generosity, to remove all that is ungenerous in you, to make you abidingly generous. He is “with us” to work out this purpose. The metaphor of “fiery trials” that cannot finally harm you comes from Isaiah 43:2. But this stanza’s core promise arises from 1 Peter 1:6-9. Peter uses the metaphor of a smelting furnace. You are a mixed — mixed-up! — creature, and experiences of suffering purify you. His love works to take away all that is wrong (“dross”). The outcome is a torrent of love and joy towards God in Christ, and a sincere, fervent love for others (“gold”). Peter says that this is the fruit of faith, because you have never actually seen Jesus. But he becomes more and more real in the context of fiery trials. We will look first at the dross, and then at the gold.
Most of the time we are right to separate sufferings from sins. What you do is different from what happens to you. Your sins are bad things about you as a moral agent. Your sufferings are bad things that happen to you. Agent and victim are opposite in principle. So far so good. Most of this book (like this chapter) has rightly focused on the things that happen to us. Christians, as new creation in Christ, live in an essentially different relationship to their sufferings.
But it is worth noting that Christians, as new creations in Christ, also live in an essentially different relationship to their own sinfulness. Your sin now afflicts you. The “dross” no longer defines or delights you. Indwelling sin becomes a form of significant suffering. What you once instinctively loved now torments you. The essential change in your relationship with God radically changes your relationship to remaining sinfulness. In Christ, in order to sin, you must lapse into temporary insanity, into forgetfulness. It is your worst cancer, your most crippling disability, your most treacherous enemy, your deepest distress. It is the single most destructive force impacting your life. Like nothing else in all creation, this threatens your life and well-being.
This is not to justify or excuse our sins. Your sin is your sin. When you get your back up in an argument, when you vegetate in front of the TV, when you spin a fantasy world of romance or eroticism, when you grumble about the weather, when you obsess about your performance in the eyes of significant others, when you worry, nag, or gossip, you do these things. No evil twin, no hormone, no satanic agency, and no aspect of your upbringing can take credit or blame for the works of your flesh.
You do it. You wanted to do it . . . but you don’t really want to, when you come to your senses. And you do come to your senses. The conflicted dual consciousness of the Christian always lands on its feet. You commit sin, but you are more committed to the Lord, because he is absolutely committed to you. Many psalms capture this tension that always resolves the right way. They confess the dark vitality of indwelling sin while confessing love for the triumphant mercies and goodness of the Lord.
In moments of sane self-knowledge, you view your dark tendencies as an affliction: “I am what I do not want to be. I do what I do not what to do. I think what I do not want to think. I want what I do not want to want.” You feel the inner contradiction: “I want to love God joyously, but meander in self-preoccupation. I want to love others freely, but lapse into lovelessness. I want to forgive, but brood in bitterness. I want to give to others, but find that I take from them or ignore them. I want to listen and learn, but find I am opinionated and narrow-minded. My biggest problem looks at me from the mirror.”
But indwelling sin does not define you. It opposes you. It is an aberration, not an identity. Selfwill is a living contradiction within you. So you look far beyond the mirror: “The love of Christ for me will get last say. He is merciful to me for his name’s sake, for the sake of his own goodness, for the sake of his steadfast love and compassion (Psalm 25). When he thinks about me, he remembers what he is like, and that is my exceeding joy. My indestructible hope is that he has turned his face towards me, and he will never turn away.”
All the promises of our hymn apply to the significant suffering of indwelling evil, as well as to the evils that come at you from outside. You probably did not initially identify a pattern of indwelling sin as your most significant suffering. But put the two together. How does God use the very trouble you identified as a context that reveals what he is working on? How do you know that he will deliver you from the sins that afflict you?
In our suffering, we are tempted to make God a vague afterthought.
Second, what does the “gold” look like? Earlier we portrayed how faith thinks and speaks according to the intelligent passion of the psalms. And that faith leads somewhere very, very good. We will examine two key aspects of the love that faith produces. The most remarkable good things that the planet has ever seen or will ever see can only come out in the context of suffering. We will look first at fearless endurance and then at wise love.
Grace means courage. When God says, “Fear not,” his aim is not that you would just calm down and experience a relative absence of fear. He does not say, “Don’t be afraid. Everything will turn out okay. So you can relax.” Instead he says, “Don’t be afraid. I am with you. So be strong and courageous.” Do you hear the difference? The deep waters have not gone away. The opposite of fear is fearlessness. Fearlessness is active and enduring. It carries on constructively in the midst of stressful things that don’t feel good at all. Courage means more than freedom from anxious feelings. Endurance is a purposeful “abiding under” what is hard and painful, considering others even when you don’t feel good.
There are countless ways to simply lessen anxiety feelings: vigorous exercise, getting all the facts, Prozac, cognitive behavioral therapy, finding the best possible doctor, yoga, a vacation in Bermuda, a glass of wine, getting some distance from the problem, finding support from fellow sufferers, throwing yourself into work. Some of these are fine in their place. But none of them will make you fearless in the face of trouble. None of them creates that fruit of the Spirit called “endurance,” which is mentioned repeatedly when the New Testament talks about God’s purposes in suffering. None of the strategies for personal peace gives you the disposition and power to love another person considerately in the small choices of daily life. None of them gives you high joy in knowing that your entire life is a holy experiment as God’s hands shape you into the image of his Son. None of them changes the way you suffer by embedding it in deeper meaning. None gives you a reason to persevere in fruitfulness through all your days, even if the scope of your obedience is constricted to your interactions with nurses at your bedside. Grace also teaches wise love.
In fact, fearless endurance is for the purpose of wise love. God is making you like Jesus in the hardships of real life. Jesus combines two qualities that rarely go together: true compassion and life-rearranging counsel. He intends to combine them in you. Some helpers care intensely, but don’t know what to say. They feel helpless compassion. They offer platitudes. They reinforce the self-pity and entitlement of the victimized. Other helpers have advice to offer, but don’t enter the plight of sufferers. They offer cold counsel. They become impatient when a sufferer is slow to change. They dismiss the significance of the affliction of the afflicted. Neither is able to really comfort; neither is able to really guide.
But when you’ve passed through your own fiery trials, and found God to be true to what he says, you have real help to offer. You have firsthand experience of both his sustaining grace and his purposeful design. He has kept you through pain; he reshaped you more into his image. You’ve found that what this entire hymn says is true. What you are experiencing from God, you can give away in increasing measure to others. You are learning both the tenderness and the clarity necessary to help sanctify another person’s deepest distress.
Second Corinthians 1:4 says it best: “[God] comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” That word “comfort” (or “encourage” in other translations) does not simply mean solace or inspiration. It means God’s transformative compassion, the perfect union of kindness and candor. He speaks the truth in love so that we grow up to do the same. Notice how wise love is a “generalizable skill.” What you learn from God in your particular affliction becomes helpful to others in any affliction. This is why a hymn written 250 years ago can help us in any affliction, though we don’t know exactly what particulars the author experienced.
God’s personal tenderness, unchangeable truth, and high purposes are united so that he simultaneously accomplishes seemingly contradictory things. He profoundly comforts us as sufferers, strengthening us for endurance. He mercifully challenges us as sinners, humbling us with our ongoing need for the blood of the Lamb. He powerfully changes us as his sons and daughters, making us fearless, making us wise to help other sufferers, other sinners, other sons and daughters. There is inevitably an aloneness in suffering because no one can fully enter another’s experience. Each person “knows the affliction of his own heart” (1 Kings 8:38; Proverbs 14:10). God ensures that human aid will never substitute for the Lord who alone comes fully near. But we can bear each other’s burdens with love, and we can counsel each other with truth. The give and take of wise love is one of life’s most significant joys.
5.“I Will Prove My Love to the End of Your Life”
“E’en down to old age all my people shall prove my sovereign, eternal, unchangeable love; and when hoary hairs shall their temples adorn, like lambs they shall still in my bosom be borne.”
All that we’ve looked at continues even down to old age. This is remarkable. It shows great sensitivity to the human condition to write a hymn about growing old. Readers already “adorned” with gray or white hair — big fans of Psalm 71! — will immediately appreciate why a hymn for sufferers must tackle aging. A friend of mine in his seventies puts it this way: “Growing old is not for the fainthearted.” Every single reader, should you live so long, will experience a landslide of losses and disabilities.
Live long enough, and you may outlive everyone you love: parents, friends, spouse, even children, perhaps grandchildren. You may outlive your money. You outlive your usefulness in the workplace and other productive arenas. You outlive your relevance. You are no longer part of what’s happening. You outlive your health as every bodily system breaks down. You might outlive your ability to walk, your toilet training, your ability to feed yourself. You may outlive your memory, and, in the extreme, might lose your ability to put thoughts together, to relate to others the way you wish you could, and even to remember who you are.
Should you live long enough, you will lose every earthly good. And then you will certainly lose your life. The last enemy still kills. Our hymn only mentions the outward indicators: the years, the white hairs. But those allusions tip you off to a story of weakness, hardship, and finally the loss of life itself. It is in this context that God gently and persistently promises to prove his “sovereign, eternal, unchangeable love . . . like lambs they shall still in my bosom be borne.” He tenderly carries the helpless.
A dear friend had experienced many losses in her life. She recently faced one more: a disfiguring cancer surgery. She put her grief plaintively, “I didn’t expect the scarring after the bandages came off. It’s upsetting to look in the mirror. It’s one more loss. And I feel so much uncertainty about whether the cancer will return. Then there’s the loss of people, the isolation, the loss of human society, the parts of life in which I can no longer participate.” She is a woman of articulate faith. She is honest about the pain of loss. But her God speaks the final, decisive word about her: “I will carry you and never let you go.” That is perhaps the deepest comfort communicated by this hymn’s way of communicating God’s voice. He gets first say, and he gets last say. So everything in the middle — about which he expects us to have lots to say! — is anchored in sovereign, eternal, unchangeable love.
How does faith learn what to trust? God teaches faith the words to trust and what to say. Think back to the very first promise in the second stanza, “Fear not, I am with you.” This fifth stanza (like the fourth, like the third, and like the sixth to come!) says essentially the same thing. Each gives us different details, unpacks further implications, uses metaphors that evoke a different nuance of God’s inexhaustible riches of wisdom. Psalm 23:4 has probably provided more comfort to more suffering and dying people than any other passage of Scripture: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” Notice that through this entire hymn, God has been telling that same truth from the opposite direction. “Fear not, I am with you” allows Psalm 23 to say, “I fear not, for you are with me.” Faith listens well, and lives it back to God.
I bring this up here because of the other details in Psalm 23:4 — “shadow of death” and “no evil” (i.e., any one of the many evils). Most likely, the particular “shadow” of oncoming death that threatened David was an enemy (most likely Saul) who was out to kill him. Like a sheep stalked by wolves, David lives, but under a “shadow” of looming death. David generalizes this experience to “any evil” that we might fear. The metaphor powerfully applies to hardships of aging. Death is coming nearer. Aging casts numerous specific shadows of approaching death: sickness, losses, weakness, helplessness, futility.
In fact, if you think about it, whether you are young or old, every form of significant suffering, every evil, leaves something of the bitter taste of death in your mouth. So “shadow of death” is not simply an evocative metaphor, and “no evil” does not intend a generality. Those shadows and evils are person-specific: your significant sufferings. You don’t theoretically need God’s grace to reach into your sufferings. In suffering, you immediately feel your need. A shadow reaches towards you. It covers you. Its inner logic whispers or shouts of death.
“Indwelling sin does not define you. It opposes you.”
Can you say, “I fear no evil”? Can you honestly say, “I do not fear _____”? It all depends on actually hearing the God who says the same truth from the opposite direction, so that you become able to say it back. If the God of life is in fact with you, carrying you as a newborn lamb, you will become fearless in any suffering. (I’m not mentioning the ups and downs, the painful struggle of a lifetime to come towards such a place. I’m describing the destination toward which to struggle.)
If God pledges his absolute fidelity to you, if indestructible love will see you through to a good end, then you are able to walk a very hard road. You will have to walk a very hard road. Death sends out many messengers, even to the very young. If you listen, you will become fearless. If you listen, you will endure. If you listen, you will fight the good fight in the most terrible of wars. If you listen, you will know that you need to be rescued. You will know that you need to be carried into the battle, and carried through the battle, and finally carried from the battlefield. If you listen, you will live.
6. “I Will Never Fail You”
“The soul that on Jesus has leaned for repose, I will not, I will not desert to his foes; that soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake, I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.”
A predator is after you. The velociraptors are out. The roaring lion prowls. Psalm 10, as we saw earlier, directly faced exactly this form of significant suffering. Ultimately, you face the same. At the beginning of this chapter, you selected some significant suffering in your life. We have held that in view as we worked through this hymn stanza by stanza. Perhaps you noticed that the fourth stanza pushed the envelope in a surprising direction: by grace, your sinfulness has also become a significant suffering.
The gracious Lord actually uses the outward sufferings as a catalyst to free you from the enemy within. The fifth stanza further pushed the envelope: aging will bring you into the shadow of death, and finally you will be swallowed into the darkness of the last enemy. The sixth stanza pushes one more time: you have foes from hell. The fact that you will die is not an impersonal fact. It registers the personal animosity of a killer. There is a lord of darkness, who is father to both sin and death. He personifies every aspect of the evils that come upon us and the evils that arise from within us.
When you think about hellish foes coming after you, our hymn writer (like the Bible) is talking about reality — not the “horror” genre in videos and books. He means ordinary, everyday life lived under the shadow of death. White hairs and birthday candles testify that a predator is coming soon. The Evil One is both the accuser and murderer of sinners. He holds the power of death (Hebrews 2:14). He willingly conceals his workaday identity behind veneers of horror and superstition. It makes people unsuspecting. They don’t notice that he’s in the mortality business however it happens.
When you think about the power of moral evil, our hymn writer (again like the Bible) is talking about all-pervasive reality — not lurid stories of Satan worship. He means garden-variety sin, unbelief, and selfwill, spun out into ten thousand forms. The fair and honest wage paid for ordinary sin is death (Romans 6:23). The Evil One is both the liar and tempter who works skillfully in and with the facts of life. It matters little to him whether or not people even believe he exists. He willingly conceals his real malignancy behind wild tales. It makes people unsuspecting. They don’t notice that he’s in the unbelief business whatever form it takes.
You suffer in a world in which immediate sufferings point to deeper, darker, deadlier things: the enemy within, the final enemy, and The Enemy. These significantly afflict every one of us. They characterize the human condition. “The whole world lies in the evil one” (1 John 5:19, literal translation). It is a slave world. A dark world. A death world.
But you suffer in a world in which all dark, deadly things exist within an even deeper design and calling. The drama of evil occasions the revelation of good: the holy justice and the sacrificial love of God. He will bring all enemies to final justice. And he has shown wholly unmerited mercy. When we were helpless, when we were ungodly, when we were sinners, when we were enemies, Christ died for us. You are now free. You are light in the Lord. You live. “We are of God. . . . We are in him who is true, in his Son, Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life” (1 John 5:19).
If you “lean for repose” on Jesus, you will live. “Repose” here does not mean a restful state of peace and tranquility. It means actively placing the weight of your life on Jesus. Put your entire faith, confidence, and trust in him. Our Savior Christ Jesus abolished death, and brought life and immortality to light. . . . I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him until that day (2 Timothy 1:10, 12). That is the language of repose.
This final stanza aims to make you free and fearless, no matter what you now face or will face. I will never forsake you. God is willing to say it until you get it! The final line of the hymn sends us out with another of the Bible’s core promises. In fact, it completes a quartet, two promises and two commands that God frequently links: “I am with you. Don’t be afraid. Be strong and courageous. I will never forsake you” (See Deuteronomy 31:6, 8; Joshua 1:5; 1 Chronicles 28:20). We’ve discussed the other promise and the two commands in previous sections. Here one final promise gets last say. There is a particular appropriateness to closing with I will never forsake you. Sufferers feel apprehension about the future, for good reason. Some evils won’t go away. Shadows multiply and darken. The night is coming. This word of comfort looks to the future. It speaks right into our temptation to fear and dismay.
Notice how God’s words press into you. The hymn has unfolded in a double crescendo. Our awareness of suffering, pain, weakness, and danger has steadily intensified. Our awareness of God’s powerful love at work has steadily intensified. Sin, misery, and death abound. Grace, joy, and life abound all the more. Mercy will have final say. But we easily quail. We feel the force of things that undo us and would unglue us. They shake us up. They immediately hurt. Is God’s saving voice only words? Is it really so? The hymn writer knows our vulnerability to dismay. “I’ll never, no never, no never forsake. I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.” If you have ever sung this hymn with your brothers and sisters, these last lines come out fiercely triumphant.
In the pages of the Bible, God explicitly promises, “I will not forsake you” (e.g., Joshua 1:5). Once you know to look for it, you see that he says the same truth in a hundred other ways, too. “God is faithful” and “His steadfast love endures forever” and “The Lord is my refuge” are variations on a theme. What God says for himself, his spokesmen often proclaim about him, “He will not forsake you” (e.g., Deuteronomy 31:6, 8). So with good reason his children cry out to him in their troubles and distresses, Don’t forsake me! Again, hearing, we believe and speak.
Scripture gives many particular examples of this dynamic. Are you elderly, suffering the weakness, pain, disability, and losses of aging? Don’t abandon me! (Psalm 71:9, 18). Do you feel lonely and vulnerable as you face powerful interpersonal hostility, bereft of anyone who can protect you? Don’t desert me! (Psalm 27:9-10). Do you feel dismayed because of your sins, that God has every reason to give up on you? Don’t give up on me! (Psalm 119:8). Are you doubly dismayed, both because of your sins and because of the hostilities of others? Don’t let me go! (Psalm 38:17-21).
Our hymn takes God’s simple “I will not” and says it ten times in a row: “I will never, no, never, no, never, never, no, never, no, never forsake you.” Not a mere doubling, but a promise to the power of ten. This is pastoral wisdom, helping us to hear the fierceness and triumph of God’s lovingkindness. You will never be abandoned. You will never be alone. He will never give up on you.
Never forget this. Never forget. Never, never, never forget that he will not forsake you.
So often the initial reaction to painful suffering is Why me? Why this? Why now? Why? You’ve now heard God speaking with you. The real God says all these wonderful things, and does everything he says. He comes for you, in the flesh, in Christ, into suffering, on your behalf. He does not offer advice and perspective from afar; he steps into your significant suffering. He will see you through, and work with you the whole way. He will carry you even in extremis. This reality changes the questions that rise up from your heart. That inward-turning “why me?” quiets down, lifts its eyes, and begins to look around.
You turn outward and new, wonderful questions form. Why you? Why you? Why would you enter this world of evils? Why would you go through loss, weakness, hardship, sorrow, and death? Why would you do this for me, of all people? But you did. You did this for the joy set before you. You did this for love. You did this showing the glory of God in the face of Christ. As that deeper question sinks home, you become joyously sane. The universe is no longer supremely about you. Yet you are not irrelevant. God’s story makes you just the right size. Everything counts, but the scale changes to something that makes much more sense. You face hard things. But you have already received something better which can never be taken away. And that better something will continue to work out the whole journey long.
The question generates a heartfelt response: Bless the Lord, O my soul, and do not forget any of his benefits, who pardons all your iniquities and heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with lovingkindness and compassion, who satisfies your years with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle. Thank you, my Father. You are able to give true voice to a thank you amid all that is truly wrong, both the sins and the sufferings that now have come under lovingkindness.
Finally, you are prepared to pose — and to mean — almost unimaginable questions: Why not me? Why not this? Why not now? If in some way, my faith might serve as a three-watt night-light in a very dark world, why not me? If my suffering shows forth the Savior of the world, why not me? If I have the privilege of filling up the sufferings of Christ? If he sanctifies to me my deepest distress? If I fear no evil? If he bears me in his arms? If my weakness demonstrates the power of God to save us from all that is wrong? If my honest struggle shows other strugglers how to land on their feet? If my life becomes a source of hope for others? Why not me?
Of course, you don’t want to suffer, but you’ve become willing: “If it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not as I will, but as you will.” Like him, your loud cries and tears will in fact be heard by the one who saves from death. Like him, you will learn obedience through what you suffer. Like him, you will sympathize with the weaknesses of others. Like him, you will deal gently with the ignorant and wayward. Like him, you will display faith to a faithless world, hope to a hopeless world, love to a loveless world, life to a dying world. If all that God promises only comes true, then why not me?
More Messages from Desiring God 2005 National Conference
The Suffering of Christ and the Sovereignty of God (John Piper)
Sovereignty, Suffering, and the Work of Missions (Stephen F. Saint)
The Sovereignty of God and Ethnic-Based Suffering (Carl F. Ellis, Jr.)
Hope . . . the Best of Things (Joni Eareckson Tada)