‘In Faithfulness You Have Afflicted Me’
The Bible’s most well-known and beloved declaration of God’s faithfulness might be Lamentations 3:22–23:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
We hear it echoed in many of our hymns and songs, like the refrain from the much-loved hymn “Great Is Thy Faithfulness”:
“Great is thy faithfulness!” “Great is thy faithfulness!”
Morning by morning new mercies I see;
All I have needed thy hand hath provided —
“Great is thy faithfulness,” Lord, unto me.
We love this text, and the songs it inspires, because we find God’s faithfulness to be one of his most comforting attributes. But one fact we might overlook when we quote or sing these verses is that this great declaration of God’s great faithfulness was made in the context of severe affliction.
The book of Lamentations is one long, tearful lament over profound suffering. At the time, the Jewish people were suffering at the hands of the ferocious Babylonian army. The author of Lamentations recognized that this affliction came directly from the hand of the Lord, who in afflicting his people was being faithful to his word (Lamentations 2:17).
“Can we derive hope from what God will faithfully accomplish for us through our afflictions?”
Now, when we endure suffering, we take comfort in God’s faithfulness to keep his promise to ultimately deliver us from our suffering (2 Corinthians 1:10). And that’s right — we should. So did the author of Lamentations (Lamentations 3:21). But can we derive hope, as the author of Lamentations did, not merely from God’s promise to faithfully deliver us from our afflictions, but from what God will faithfully accomplish for us through our afflictions?
The biblical answer to that question is a resounding yes. And for the sake of our encouragement, let’s examine some of God’s redemptive purposes when, in faithfulness, he afflicts us.
Delivered from Wandering
Psalm 119, that long, beautiful, ancient acrostic poem, is precious to many Christians — and for good reason. Because it is, in part, an extended celebration of and appeal to God’s faithfulness to do just what he promises us.
Like the author of Lamentations, what provokes the psalmist to write is a “severe affliction” (Psalm 119:107), a significant aspect of which is unjust persecution at the hands of ungodly, powerful people (verse 161). Yet, as one who believes in God’s sovereignty over all things (verses 89–90) and in God’s goodness in all things (verse 68), the psalmist recognizes his affliction has also come from the hand of his good God:
I know, O Lord, that your rules are righteous,
and that in faithfulness you have afflicted me. (Psalm 119:75)
The psalmist isn’t hesitant to express to God his sorrow over this affliction (verse 28) and the toll it is taking on his whole being (verse 83). But he also expresses to God the good he discerns the affliction is working in him:
Before I was afflicted I went astray,
but now I keep your word. (Psalm 119:67)
It is good for me that I was afflicted,
that I might learn your statutes. (Psalm 119:71)
The psalmist is someone who hungers and thirsts for righteousness, the kind of person whose longings, Jesus later said, would be satisfied (Matthew 5:6). And though he may not have expected, at the outset, that one of God’s chosen means to satisfy his longings would be affliction, it is a discovery he makes during his season of anguished wrestling.
As a result, he grows to love God’s word “exceedingly” (Psalm 119:167). It becomes “the sum of [all] truth” to him, “a light to [his] path” (verse 105) and his refuge when he feels threatened (verse 114). So, he meditates on it throughout the day (verse 97) and finds it “sweeter than honey” (verse 103) and more valuable than gold (verse 72).
In his suffering, the psalmist discerns God’s loving correction to his proneness to wander, and therefore he finds comfort in both his affliction and God’s promise to deliver him from it, which enables him to say,
This is my comfort in my affliction,
that your promise gives me life. (Psalm 119:50)
Delivered from Faithless Fear
Genesis 32 contains the strange story of Jacob literally wrestling all night with God. Physically wrestling with the Almighty is strange enough. But even stranger is that when the enigmatic figure “saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint” (Genesis 32:25). Why does God afflict Jacob with a dislocated hip?
We can deduce one reason from the story’s context. At the Lord’s command (Genesis 31:3), Jacob is returning to Canaan after twenty years of working for his uncle Laban. He had originally fled Canaan after learning his twin brother, Esau, planned to kill him for stealing Esau’s rightful paternal blessing. Hoping that Esau’s desire for revenge had cooled with time, Jacob sends a messenger to inform Esau he is coming home. The messenger returns with news that Esau is coming to meet him — with four hundred men (Genesis 32:6). This terrifies Jacob, so he pleads with the Lord:
Please deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him, that he may come and attack me, the mothers with the children. But you said, “I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude.” (Genesis 32:11–12)
In other words, he pleads with the Lord to be faithful to his word. The Lord answers by showing up in bodily form at night and wrestling Jacob. During the struggle, he somehow reveals to Jacob who he is, and at sunrise he injures Jacob’s hip. But Jacob refuses to let God go without a blessing — this time not a stolen blessing, but one bestowed because he is willing to persevere in faith for it.
But why the hip? In part, because God purposes to help Jacob fear his word more than the threats of an angry brother. And so, the night before Jacob’s encounter with Esau, God faithfully afflicts him so he can’t flee again out of fear of man, but instead is forced to trust God’s faithfulness to his promise.
Delivered from Dangerous Pride
In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul describes how the Lord had graciously granted him surpassingly great “visions and revelations” that were so wonderful and rare in human experience that he, through his indwelling sin, was tempted with conceit (2 Corinthians 12:1–7). And so, he explains, the Lord had graciously granted him “a thorn . . . in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass [him], to keep [him] from becoming conceited” (2 Corinthians 12:7).
At first, he pleads with God to deliver him from this demonic affliction. But the Lord replies, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). This is another wonderful revelation for Paul, which moves him to say with gratitude,
Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9–10)
Through this affliction, God was faithfully delivering him from a greater danger than a demonic tormenter: Paul’s own sinful pride.
God of All Comfort
These stories illustrate three ways God mercifully manifested his faithfulness to his beloved children through ordaining their afflictions. He delivered them from a proneness to wander from him, a faithless fear, and the deadly danger of sinful pride.
And these are only three of God’s redemptive purposes in our suffering. Scripture reveals more, if we have ears to hear. But these examples demonstrate God’s counterintuitive ways of being faithful to the “unchangeable character of his [ultimate] purpose” (Hebrews 6:17):
I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me. I will rejoice in doing them good . . . with all my heart and all my soul. (Jeremiah 32:40–41)
“When it comes to his children, God’s purposes in our afflictions are always redemptive.”
Can we derive hope, not merely from God’s promise to faithfully deliver us from our afflictions, but from what God will faithfully accomplish for us through our afflictions? The biblical answer is a resounding yes. Because when it comes to his children, God’s purposes in our afflictions are always redemptive, since “we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).
The more we see God’s faithfulness in our afflictions, the more meaningful we will find Paul’s exclamation, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction” (2 Corinthians 1:3–4). And the more meaningful we will find the passage that inspired the great hymn “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” because we will realize that included in the “all” of “the God of all comfort” is the comfort that God, in his steadfast love, has in faithfulness afflicted us.