Christ's Grace and Your Sufferings

Desiring God 2005 National Conference | Minneapolis

It is my honor to be here with you this afternoon. I’d like to welcome you to a session together that I’ve entitled God’s Grace and Your Sufferings. I’ve obviously thought about this over many months now, this opportunity to speak with you. In a sense, what we’re going to talk about, you already know.

All of us already know the right answer, you might say, and yet we don’t know it. It’s a hard answer and we try to make it an easy answer. It’s a slow answer. It gets worked into us slowly, but we often try to make it a quick answer but it’s a lived-out answer, not just a spoken answer. It’s a surprising, delightful, enthralling answer that we often make old hat and familiar.

So no matter how many times we’ve heard it and no matter how many times we’ve known it or how well we can say it, there is always something about what this answer means that is new, and that’s what I want us to look at today as we think about regarding how the grace of God connects to your sufferings.

Our Most Significant Suffering

Now, here’s what I want us to do first. I want us to think about our afternoon session together as a workshop. A workshop means that I want to put you to work. I want you to ask this question and I want you to, if you’ve got a pen or pencil, write down your answer. And if not, at least hold in your mind the answer.

I want to ask you the question, in your life, not somebody else’s life, what is the single most significant experience of suffering that you have gone through? There are a lot of ways that you might come at that. Why don’t you put your first response down? What is the most significant experience of suffering that you have gone through?

I’ll prime the pump a little bit more. It could be the most intense, painful experience on the sheer Richter scale of agony. It could be that. It’s not always that. Sometimes the most agonizing experiences are short and we get through them. It could be that the most enduring suffering, the one that lasted the longest, the one that never went away, is the most significant. Or it could be the most pervasive sorrow in your life, the thing that touched the most parts of your life, the thing that put its fingerprints on everything. It could be the most distressing experience that you had, that which was subjectively the most difficult. It cut you and was searing.

It could be the thing that was the most devastating, the thing that took the most away, the thing you can never now live life and not think about it. You always have to be aware in some way of what that is. It never goes away. It was wide in its impact.

What was the most significant suffering? What was it that marked you, changed you? What marked you for good, or marked you for bad? What is that? I want you to hold that in one hand as we look at the grace of God and your suffering, and in your other hand, I’d like you to hold the hymn that was handed out to you as you came in. This hymn, How Firm a Foundation, is going to be the structure of what I will say to you this afternoon as we think about how the rivet gets in between God’s grace and your life.

How Firm a Foundation

This hymn is an interesting one. I’ll say a couple words about it, then I’ll talk about it, and then after I speak we’re going to sing it together. The first thing that’s interesting in this hymn is that it is anonymous, and I like that. We live in a culture where everybody wants the credit. I think it is wonderful that there are a whole bunch of really fine hymns that nobody but God knows who wrote them. We don’t know who wrote this — male, female, young, old, black, white, green, rich, poor. We have no idea who wrote this particular hymn.

The second thing about this hymn that’s fascinating is that it’s very unusual the way that this hymn is structured. You might say the direction that this hymn points toward us. Most of our hymns point at God. Most hymns talk about God, they proclaim him, they look at him, they marvel at him, and they say things about him, or else they speak to him — the direct expression of faith. They say, “I love you, you are mine.” Hymns tend to be focusing on what we say to God and about God, but this hymn is not like that at all. This hymn actually runs the other way.

In the first stanza we’re talking to each other. It’s a proclamation. You put into your mouth the words and point of view of the person who wrote it. It’s an exhortation at first. It’s reminding you and the person next to you that your faith has a foundation that is absolutely unbreakably deep and solid in what God has said.

Then in the next five stanzas, the direction that the hymn runs is that the hymn is talking to you. God is talking to you. The hymn points toward your heart and toward your experience. If in the typical hymn we are saying things to God — that’s the response that’s being evoked in us — in this hymn the response being evoked is, “Listen. Hear that voice. Hear what it is that he is saying to you.”

The Basis of Our Faith

Let’s jump into How Firm a Foundation. In the first stanza, your faith has a basis.

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?

Your faith has a solid basis. Your faith has a deep basis. That basis is that Scripture has said. What the Scripture has said, God says, and in fact, what it will then go on for the stanzas that follow is put into God’s own mouth: “I say to you.” It’s God’s excellent word.

It says, “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 when I read Scripture there are a lot of things that I wonder about, like how did Satan become evil? And I wonder where was Eden and how did that work? And how does demon possession work? And how can we put on the table these truths that seem paradoxical? Or who wrote the Book of Hebrews?

There’s a lot of questions we don’t know and we sometimes think, “Wouldn’t it have been nice if there was a decisive verse that solved the eschatological timetable, or that solved the question of baptism, or that solved the question of how you organize a church, church government?” We have centuries of fussing and fuming about issues of baptism, eschatology, church government, and wouldn’t it be nice if there was a killer verse that ended that?

Somehow God in his providence didn’t give us those things. He laid a lot of things out there you can see, if you’re humble and honest, about the logic of different points. But when you really scratch it, what more could he have said? When it comes down to what matters, when it comes down to life and death, good and evil, love and hate, salvation and destruction, the character of the living God, and the nature of the human heart, what more could he say? There is nothing more that needs to be said. He has said it all.

Among those, the one who has said it has not only spoken a word, but that Word became flesh and lived it among us. That Word walked, that Word felt, that Word talked, that Word was hungry and thirsty and angry and sorrowing and loving and bold and overwhelmed. That Word lived, and that Word was made flesh, lived among us, died among us and for us, and is alive. That Word is Jesus Christ.

This very opening line, this opening stanza, talks about you. It exhorts you. It says, “You who for refuge to Jesus have fled.” It’s this Word that has become a person. That word intends to be written on you, written on your heart, and lived by you. If we do our job well today, if we listen well to what is said, our sufferings cannot remain the same. Your sufferings must be different if you hear what God says to us.

Holy to the Lord

The second thing I want to say about this first stanza is that it talks about us in a couple of ways — about you, me, and the person sitting next to you. It’s interesting in the beginning. It talks about you in plural, “the saints of the Lord.” In a nutshell, maybe we could say the first thing that means is that God is saying to you: “You’re mine.” That’s what the “saints” means essentially. He has a claim on you. It’s his name written on you. You belong to him.

I was coming through the baggage claim yesterday and there was all this luggage going around. People grab stuff and some of it gets thrown on the ground. The baggage handlers were dumping off stuff from a previous flight and throwing it around, and I got to thinking, “I don’t really care what they’re doing with all those other people’s luggage, but if somebody starts to grab my luggage, or if they start to grab your luggage, it’s like, ‘Hey, that’s mine. You can’t take that. My name’s on that. That belongs to me.’” That’s what a saint is in a sense. That’s a pitiful little analogy, but it means, “That’s mine. You’re mine. You belong to me.” You belong to the living God. That changes your suffering. You have his name on you.

The second thing it says about us is, “You who for refuge to Jesus have fled.” You are, in some fundamental way, a refugee, or someone who has, by definition, fled with nothing for help. I was intrigued that in the wake of hurricane Katrina, where people fled who evacuated with nothing, who were in desperate need, who were utterly vulnerable, who had no ability to take care of themselves, who were utterly needy of food and medical care and assistance and money and a rebuilding of a life, there was an idea that it was demeaning to call them “refugees”.

I thought, “That’s interesting. It’s demeaning to call someone a refugee.” And yet, maybe you could say this is a bit like the way the Bible in the first century, the children of the Lord, willingly took on the identity of a slave. They took a word that wasn’t liked, and it was a demeaning word, and they said with joy, “I am a slave of the living God.”

Maybe we could say here that we take on a word that is seen as demeaning and yet it is at the essence of our identity. You are a refugee. You are someone that leaves with nothing and needs everything and flees for refuge. You are a dependent. We often think of being dependent on God as though dependency is nice and it feels good and it’s warm and fuzzy. The fact is that usually dependency doesn’t feel nice. Dependency is raw. Dependency is needy. He needs to help you. You must have help. You’re helpless in yourself.

It’s no accident that the first beatitude is, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3). That word for poor is “beggar”. It means having nothing — no resources, no IRA, no marketable skills, no resume, no education, nothing that you can do for yourself. You need somebody outside of yourself to provide for you and protect you and care for you and make it work. “Blessed are the poor in spirit” means that your fundamental sense, your spirit, your inner-self, who you really are, is aware of an utter poverty that you need another. You are a refugee with nothing. And yet, what you do have is this God who speaks to us, who speaks powerfully.

Fear Not, I Am With Thee

Now, what does he say? We’re going to look at the stanzas that unfold. Here’s the second stanza:

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.

I want you to take that greatest distress, that suffering in your life, take it in hand or put it in your mind, and I want you to put it next to what’s said here and let the two talk to each other: “Listen. Do not be afraid. I am with you.”

Now, I don’t know what you are dealing with, but I do know that when you hear that, it’s all different. He says, “Do not be afraid. I am with you. Do not be dismayed.” Dismayed is an interesting word. It’s an old word. Don’t be overwhelmed in a panic. Don’t be obsessed, crushed, struggling, frenzied, upset, etc. He’s saying, “Don’t be upset, I am your God.” He’s talking right to the very things that we deal with. The hymn is certainly like all hymns, stated as a generality because it’s written for all of us, and yet what makes the truth go to our heart, like the biblical truth is expressed in a great hymn or in a prayer, is that the truth becomes our very own.

It’s interesting. He is saying, “Don’t be dismayed. Don’t be in a panic. Don’t be so frustrated and frazzled.” There’s a cascade of things. He says, “I am your God. I will still give you aid. I will strengthen you. I will help you. I will cause you to stand, upheld by my righteous, omnipotent hand.” He is talking right into your life. What would it mean for that voice to get into every single crevice of the particular sorrow that has most broken your heart? What would it mean for it to get into the particular loss where you can’t ever do anything without thinking about it, or the particularly devastating thing that the pieces can never be picked up again? What would it mean for this to come into every crevice: “Do not be afraid, I am with you.” It’s hard for us to listen, right?

Our Slowness to Listen

We’re talking here, we’re wanting truth to come pointing right at us, that we would hear it in the context of what it is that we are actually facing in our life day by day, month by month, and year by year. We have a hard time hearing.

We have a hard time slowing it down and actually letting it touch us, letting him put his hands on us, and letting the voice go in there and change what things mean. We have a hard time letting him push the furniture around into a new configuration of the way that we look at life. There’s times we just simply don’t listen, right? There’s times when we listen to 10,000 other voices, including our own. When we suffer, lots of people talk. Lots of voices bid for our ears. There’s times we’re just simply distracted. Things are hard and you get befuddled.

There’s times you get plain-old tired and worn out and weary and indifferent. You don’t even want to hear anything. There’s times — maybe this is you, it’s certainly a lot of us — where you say, “I know I should trust the Lord and I know I should pray and I know I should believe that God loves me, but . . .” and off it goes.

We’re even able to point at what we know should be there and then we’re off to the races, off running into the maelstrom, into the whirlpool of our thoughts. At times, and perhaps this is the overall category for it all, it’s simply the deafness of our self-absorption in our own world, and we don’t listen. We don’t hear.

One of the old phrases from the Latin theology of the church in the early centuries regarding the essential nature of sin is called incurvatus in se, the in-curving nature of our sin. We tend to close out to the voice of God. We tend to close out to the glory of God. We tend to close out to the significance of the mercy of God in Christ Jesus, our king, and we shut down into a world that blocks that out. When you think about it, the effect of our sins does that — by definition, if I am choosing my sins, I am deafening myself to God, curving in on my own self-absorbed world — but it’s also interesting that that’s the typical effect of our sufferings.

When you suffer, when you hurt, it’s hard to get out of yourself. It’s hard to not just fold into your own world and your misery and the loss and the heartache and the confusion and the fear. We turn in on that. It’s one of the things that makes it so remarkable that this Jesus, in whom we have taken refuge, at his greatest extremity of agony was continually moving every single word, thought, emotion, and deed out of himself in his pain.

He was moving toward God, even when he said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:47) and also when he said, “Into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). He was moving toward God, and he was moving toward people. He says, “Today you’ll be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43), and, “Behold your mother, behold your son” (John 19:26–27).

It is a remarkable thing that Jesus’s faith and love in the context of his anguish are what you see and not that closing in. This is the Jesus to whom we have fled as refugees. This is the Jesus whom, though we tend to close in, is making us over to be image bearers of his own character, to make us like him in the realities of our sufferings, for starters.

Isolated in Affliction

I want to say a word about this particular promise, which says, “Do not be afraid, I am with you.” What God says to us in our sufferings speaks to elements of suffering we often don’t think about. It speaks to hard things that cut very deep. For example, it’s pretty clear to us that the pain itself needs to be talked to by God and when we suffer. It tends to isolate us. It tends to make us lose things. It hurts, whether literally or emotionally and figuratively.

But often there’s another aspect of suffering that I bet you’ve experienced, and certainly you know people that have, is that suffering isolates you psychologically also. It isolates you relationally from people. Other people don’t understand.

Think about this. Job experienced the terrible pain of these bereavements and losses and the terrible pain of these boils that just tore his body apart. And then you might say, rubbing salt in the wounds, he had his wife and friends who didn’t connect to him. His wife was bone of his bones, flesh of his flesh, and she didn’t understand. His three friends also didn’t understand. He not only had to suffer what was there, but he had to suffer the additional insult of the loneliness and isolation that comes with suffering.

Jesus not only had the agonizing pain that he went through physically, spiritually, and emotionally, but he had the abandonment of his friends. He suffered their incomprehension, their inability to get it and to hang with him for even a few short hours in his misery.

A mother or a father who has a disabled child, they not only face the unremitting suffering that is lifelong until one of the parties dies (this is until death do us apart), but they also face distancing from people, awkwardness, and people that don’t know what to say. People don’t want to be bothered. They face the incomprehension of it. There’s a double suffering in suffering because you suffer and you’re also cut off by it.

Fixated on the Problem

One of the things that I think often happens in suffering, and perhaps you’ve experienced this, is that people tend to focus on the problem. They ask about the problem, they pray for the problem, and they want it solved. They pray that the situation will change. They offer advice for solving the problem, and sometimes this obsession with the problem actually leads people to be outright unkind.

People blame you as if it would all be better if you just went to the right doctor, or if you exercised more faith, or if you exercised, or if you had brought up your child right, or if you didn’t have some secret sin that God was trying to deal with. In a sense, what can happen is the same thing that happened with Job’s counselors. Like Job’s wife, people over-interpret the immediate moral responsibility for sufferings and they over-prescribe your ability to actually solve those problems.

J.I. Packer once made a profound statement: “A half-truth masquerading as the whole truth becomes a complete untruth.” I think we could vary that and say in the same way that people’s concern about the problem is a kindness. It is well-intended, no doubt about it, and oftentimes it can help up to a certain point. They mean well. But we perhaps could say that a half-kindness masquerading as whole love is a complete unkindness.

What it does when the focus is only on the problem, the particular situation of suffering, your disability or your bereavement or the pain that you’re going through of an illness, is that they forget that there is an “I” in the midst of the problem. There is a person who must somehow come to grips with what he or she is facing, and it can be a terribly lonely experience to be in because you’re the “I” in the middle of your difficulty, and people only want to talk about the difficulty and how they can fix it.

Interestingly, the very first word, which is just a remarkable intuition to where the human struggle lies, is this: “Do not be afraid, I am with you.” This entire reflection on the gospel, how God enters and speaks into our sufferings, never ever says that the problem is going to get fixed. But it says over and over again that this living God meets you in your need and does things.

Through the Deep Waters

The third stanza really drives that home:

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

He says, “When through deep waters, I call you to go.” Take that bit of suffering, your little living workshop case study, put it next to that statement. This is high sovereignty. This is a big God that is speaking. Then it says, “The rivers of sorrow shall not overflow.” There’s an older line that I like. I like modernized hymns. I think for our hymns, we ought to sing in the same language as we speak. I like the “you”, not “thee” and “thou” and “ye”.

But this is one place actually where the updating of the hymn I think lost something. The original, perhaps some of you are aware of, says, “The rivers of woe shall not thee overflow.” Woe captures that keen-edged anguish that is there. It’s the edge of distress, but it won’t overflow.

Talk about high sovereignty: God controls the extent to which suffering can go. And that suffering can go high. I mean, the extent of suffering can be to crucifixion, the extent can be to an agonizing death, the extent can be to having to face the onset of Alzheimer’s, the extent can be to watch someone that you deeply love destroy their life. And yet, “the rivers of woe will not thee overflow.” There’s a boundary.

And then it goes on and says, “I will be with you.” Again, it says, “I will be with you.” This most fundamental of promises is that the gospel is the coming of the living God himself to us. The gospel is the Lord himself, the Holy Spirit, the promise of all promises. It is the Lord himself dwelling within us, the Son of God coming to be with us. The gospel is the Father making us his children.

He is saying, “You’re mine, I will be with you. I will be with you.” Then there is this amazing description:

I will be with you, your troubles to bless, And sanctify to you your deepest distress

He says, “I will be with you to bless you within,” and then fill in the blank with your particular heartache. He says, “I will be with you to sanctify that thing in your life.” This is high and purposeful sovereignty.

Misapplying the Sovereignty of God

Here’s an observation though of how we often misapply God’s sovereignty when it comes to actually helping us in our sufferings, when it actually comes to helping another or dealing with our own things. A very common response is, “Okay, God is sovereign. God’s in control,” and then we may say something like this, “Well, I know God’s in control and therefore this is his will, so I just need to accept it and I need to buck up, gird my loins, grit my teeth, and get on with the program.” In a sense, you could say that we draw stoic conclusions from the assertion that God is in control, and those are false conclusions. The Bible, asserting the sovereignty of God, draws exactly opposite conclusions. The classic text is 1 Peter 4:19, which says:

Let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.

Now, I have heard teaching, I’ve seen people, I’ve heard people talk, and I’ve seen how people counsel each other, and oftentimes it boils down to this: what it means to embrace and obey 1 Peter 4:19 is to calm down, fulfill your responsibilities, do your duties, and keep a stiff upper lip. It is as if to “entrust your soul to a faithful creator” means to anesthetize yourself to what’s going on around you as though sovereignty means numbness to experience. This cannot be what either 1 Peter or the rest of Scripture means.

Now, in a sense, you could say there’s a good intention in the stoic conclusion. At least it’s saying, “Don’t get hysterical and don’t throw snits and conniptions and get all totally out of shape.” Okay, fine, but you don’t have to meet one error with another. How does one actually entrust one’s soul to a faithful creator? How does God sanctify to us our deepest distress? Is it so that the rivers of woe get neatly canalized, put between the rip-rap, and they just easily flow along and never explode on us? It cannot be. I’ll give you some examples.

Entrusting Our Souls to God in Suffering

Here’s how you entrust your soul to a faithful creator. Psalm 28:1 says:

To you, O Lord, I call;
     my rock, be not deaf to me,
lest, if you be silent to me,
     I become like those who go down to the pit (I will die).

That’s entrusting your soul to a faithful creator. It’s saying, “You must help me. I need you. If you don’t answer me, I perish.” That is not stoicism by the way. That is not being anesthetized to the experience. That is bringing the experience to the only one who can possibly help. What you see as you work through Psalm 28 is that he starts there, he works through his particular suffering, and he comes out to a very powerful sense of resolution and joy by the end.

Psalm 10 is another example. Here’s how you entrust your soul to a faithful creator. You’re getting absolutely trashed and you start out with this:

Why, O Lord, do you stand far away?
     Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? (Psalm 10:1)

And then he spends 10 verses thinking about how wicked people think. These are the people who are out to kill him, hurt him, and harm him. And then he too comes out with resolution. But that entrusting is a process that doesn’t anesthetize you to your experience. It actually lets your experience flourish in God’s direction.

Emotion Expressed Through the Knowledge of God

Consider Psalm 22. We’re all familiar with the opening lines that Jesus made his own from the cross, which are the furthest thing from stoicism:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Psalm 22:1).

But then as you look at the entire Psalm, which was clearly in the mind of our Lord, you see that where it comes to, for example in Psalm 22:24, is that it says:

He (the Lord) has not despised or abhorred
     the affliction of the afflicted,
and he has not hidden his face from him,
     but has heard, when he cried to him.

As a picture, there are those natural reactions where so often people distance themselves from our suffering. They pull up their skirts, they recoil at it, or they treat it lightly as though it’s not that hard. They think, “I mean, come on, get a life here.” God does not do that. Has not thought lightly, and he has not shrunk back. Psalm 31 says:

Into your hand I commit my spirit (Psalm 31:5).

That might be taken as though it’s calm, but go read the rest of the psalm. It’s not a calm psalm, it’s an intense psalm. It’s this picture of an entrusting in high sovereignty that is human, not stoic.

It’s not hysterical. Don’t get me wrong on this. In fact, you’ll often hear the Psalms used by people who see the dangerous stoicism. They use the Psalms to try and encourage us to get honest, but they veer off the other way and forget to see that the Psalms are not raw honesty. They are not. The Psalms are not raw emotion. The Psalms are not raw experience, as if to say, “Let me just get off my chest how terrible I feel.” The Psalms are actually experience and emotion that have been processed through having listened to who God is.

A God Merciful and Gracious

In fact you could say that, basically, in the Psalms there are only five psalms that don’t grow out of three earlier passages in Scripture. In 145 Psalms, there is some reflection and wrestling with three particular Old Testament passages that operate as the kind of internal combustion of the entirety of the Psalms. These three passages are places in the Old Testament where it’s as though the blinds are down and God lifts up the blinds, and blinding, pure, brilliant light blasts in through the window.

The passages of these. Exodus 34:6–7 is one of those passages, and it’s no accident that this is one of these lift-the-blinds passages. This is when the Lord himself appears to Moses. In Exodus 33:19, he says:

I will make all my goodness pass before you . . .

Then, in Exodus 34:6–7, he says:

The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty . . .

That crystallization of truths floods the Psalter. As you look at the way the whole Old Testament is structured, this passage is a place where you’ve seen lots of things come in stories. There have been little bits and snippets that are more lift-the-blinds revelations. But this passage is a place where the blinds get thrown up, and the Psalms are a reflection on experience, on guilt of sin, on suffering, on joy and blessing in the light of that God. And they pick up over and over again on those exact descriptions of who he is.

The Lord Bless You and Keep You

Numbers 6:24–26 is another one of these lift-the-blinds passages. It says:

The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.

That runs its way through 145 Psalms. Some Psalms simply pick up on one part of it. For example, Psalm 121 is simply reflecting on “the Lord keep you.”

The Rock of Israel

The last passage is an interesting one, and maybe an unexpected one. It’s Deuteronomy 32. Deuteronomy 32:4 is the place where God reveals himself as “The rock”. He is the rock of refuge, the high tower, the fortress, the Masada, the place where you are safe from all your enemies. He is the high, safe place. And yet together the theme of rock of refuge, fortress, the theme of how God blesses us, and the theme of these aspects of his character are in 145 Psalms. It’s never raw emotion, it’s never raw experience. It’s always run through that engagement with who this Lord is.

By the way, those other five Psalms are simply ones where all the earth, all creation, all human beings, all flesh, and all nations love, praise, adore, know, and worship the living God, and they don’t actually happen to reference those reasons why.

It’s not a raw honesty that this high, sovereign God creates, and it’s certainly not stoicism; it’s an honesty that comes with a person who’s doing exactly what I am seeking to have us do here today: you listen to who God is. You listen and you bring on the table what you face and who you are, and the two start interpenetrate each other. Out of that comes this, “I will be with you, your troubles to bless, and sanctify to you your deepest distress.”

Through Fiery Trials

Here’s the fourth stanza. The fiery trials bring into view that point of suffering again, and look at the way it talks about it here:

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

If you put a person like me or like you under the broiler, you put a mere flesh into suffering and disability and pain and rejection or bereavement or racism or devastation, what tends to come out? Well, what tends to come out is the dross. This is a conference on your sufferings, but our sufferings are the most consequential context for our sins, aren’t they? It’s our sufferings that do that. Take that case study of yourself that we’re dealing with. How is that the context for your most serious struggles with sin? Because I suspect that it is, that and other contexts.

It’s the context, for example, for our anger. We think, “That’s wrong,” which is what anger says. Irritation, vengeance, and bitterness comes up. It’s the context for anxiety. We think, “Life is out of control. I have to get a grip. I have to get a handle on these fears and worries and the whole merry-go-round we do with.” It’s in the context of our sufferings that those sins of worry arise.

It’s the context for our despair. We think, “My life is ruined. I can’t go on without this. I can’t take it. I’m broken. What has happened is hopeless.” There are regrets and discouragement. They arise in the context of our losses, our sufferings.

Or it’s the context in which sometimes we just go numb. You think, “I can’t take it anymore. I don’t even want to think about it.” And then where that can go is into your escapes, your addictions, your immoralities, your drinking, or your watching too much TV, or your thoughts that you need a break today. You think, “I just want to feel good. I need some comfort, some pleasure, because life’s so painful.” All those familiar coping mechanisms, all those particular sinful behaviors, they tend to arise in the context of our sufferings. And then listen. He says:

My grace, all-sufficient, shall be your supply.

God is saying, “My grace will meet you in your sufferings, your sins. I design that suffering is the context to consume the dross and to refine the gold.” And that is what happens. It’s not quick and it’s not necessarily fun, but it’s the place where if everything goes my way — I’ve got great health, a bunch of money, everybody loves me, everything I do turns to gold or turns to success — I never find out what I’m really like.

It’s when things are hard, or I lose things, or I hurt, or I’ve been misunderstood or slandered, or something I love doing I can’t do anymore, or someone I love is really doing bad things, it’s there I find out who I really am and it’s there that this living God who’s with me, who’s burning out the dross, who’s creating the gold. It’s there where he goes to work.

Terrible Suffering, Remarkable Good

You find these most wonderful ways that suffering becomes the context for the most remarkable good things that the planet has ever seen and will ever see.

For example, take a passage such as 2 Corinthians 1. It’s a passage on suffering. He uses two words: suffering and affliction. The word “affliction” is probably like our modern word “pressure”. You’re just pressed, and suffering means it hurts. He continually talks about the effect of suffering and pressure, and that effect is utter joy.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort . . . (2 Corinthians 1:3).

You see this burst of high exaltation. It’s so curious in the context of his suffering. And you see in the passage (2 Corinthians 1:9) one of the most remarkable sentences, to my mind, in the whole Bible. These things happened and Paul was talking very personally here about what he went through. He was almost killed. He thought he was going to die.

He says, “These things happened so that we would no longer trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead” (2 Corinthians 1:9). The very experience of terrible things became the breeding ground of his faith in a God who raises the dead. Goodness gracious, if you are unafraid of dying, you have no reason to fear. You are living in a world that belongs to who God really is, and that fundamental humility is utter freedom.

You also see in this passage (2 Corinthians 1:4) the birth of wise love. He is the God who comforts us in our afflictions so that we may be able to comfort others in any affliction. Now make that your own and that particular affliction with which we started out our afternoon today. Put that into 2 Corinthians 1:4. He comforts you in that. The particularity of what I have to face happens so that I become able to comfort others in any affliction.

It is a remarkable description of the way in which God is committed to make us like him. He’s a redemptive intervener into our lives, and we become redemptive interveners into others. We aren’t the full sun. We aren’t the one where you lift the blinds and you almost go blind with glory. But we have a role to play. There are things that we can do in the lives of suffering people and there are things suffering people can do that are right and good and true and wise. Yes, it’s true, God is the sun and we’re the three-watt night light. But if you’re in a pitch black house, a three-watt night light makes a big difference.

A Three-Watt Night Light

There’s even a sense we can respectfully say that in our own way, we are able to be for each other a three-watt version of what he says: “Don’t be afraid, I’m with you. Don’t be dismayed. I’m not your God, but I’ll help you. I’ll help you stand. I’ll even be part of this consuming the dross and helping to refine the gold. I’m with you in it. There is a big Designer, and I can help you a little bit and you can help me.” It’s one of those things that suffering people often experience that you know what others can do for you, though it never solves the problem.

It never is big enough. You might say that God runs this world so that nothing we could ever do actually fixes the problem. Take your deepest distress, I guarantee you it can’t be fixed. It’s huge and what can be done for you is small. But what can be done counts. It never completely fixes it but it’s always meaningful. There’s always something that counts.

If I were to put the most intensely painful experience in my life, moments of pain, I’d say it was the first 24 hours after heart surgery, and I will never forget the first night coming out of the anesthesia in absolute agony. What had been a 10 on my pain scale from one to 10 became a three. So that changed my life.

I’ll never forget, a nurse whose face I never saw because it was pitch dark in the middle of the night had to put an IV in, and I remember the way that she took my hand and the tenderness with which she sought not to cause pain and felt her way very gently. It took her about 10 minutes to find the right way to do it.

I was well-loved by that person who I never knew. I never saw her face, and I never will know who she is. It was a very small thing. It didn’t fix the whole problem. There were still some very hellish days after that, but that kindness mattered. The delicacy with which you treat another person matters. That’s one of the ways you learn from your own sufferings, if you process them rightly. It’s a wonderful thing, it makes you both very tender with people and very bold. Tenderness and boldness are hard to get on the table at the same time.

When we listen, when the rivet goes in between this God who speaks and the particularities of what we deal with, we become tender and we become bold and clear. They work together.

Even to Old Age

Now let’s move to the fifth stanza. It’s amazing that there’d be a hymn about growing old. This may or may not be on what you put down, but I suspect that some of you who are older, who have those hoary hairs, might have written something about aging. But I can say this, every single person in this room, should you live so long, will experience forms of suffering that attend old age. I have a good friend who himself is in his seventies. He says, “Growing old is not for the fainthearted.” That’s a good way to put it. Growing old is not for the fainthearted. When you think about it, should you live so long, you will lose just about everything.

Think about that. Should you live so long, you’ll outlive your friends, you’ll outlive everyone you love. You could outlive your money. You’ve long ago outlived your job, your ability to actually be productive and find identity through work. You outlive your health because every system and subsystem is breaking down. You may be in pain. Friends have died. You’ll outlive your relevance. You’re not going to be part of what’s happening. You’re not on stage. You’ll be a relic of some sort. You’ll be retired or shuffled off. And you’ll lose life itself, which is the last enemy, the last suffering.

It’s funny. Compare old age to infancy. Both an infant and a frail elderly person are helpless, and they both need to be taken care of. They’re taken to the bathroom, protected from scammers and abuse. They don’t know how to handle money. They may even lose their minds. Kids can’t talk and you may not be able to talk sometime either. And yet with a child, at least nine times out of 10, they come in helpless but it’s all upside. It’s all gain from there. They learn to talk. They learn competencies and skills. But then as you go down the other side, it’s all loss. And what you had, you no longer have. You will face that. I face that. We will all face that.

God speaks, this verse obviously is growing out of some of the Psalms and reflections on vast scriptural themes.

E’en down to old age all my people shall prove My sovereign, eternal, unchangeable love; And then, when gray hairs shall their temples adorn, Like lambs they shall still in my bosom be borne

The hymn just gives you the surface — the white hair and the old age — but when you climb in behind that it’s a story of devastating loss and hardship, and there is this most tender of images. I mean, imagine this. Imagine in the most extreme case where you lose your ability to actually remember who you are and to put thoughts together and to relate the way you would wish you would. It says, “Like lambs, they will still in my bosom be borne.” The love of God is so big that he will carry you in your helplessness to himself because those who he is named for himself, those who are his, he does not let go. He will finish the job.

The Spring-Training of Suffering

There’s a way where you could say that if the sufferings you put down on your little self-study are not those of extreme old age, you might say those are spring-training sufferings for ones that probably someday you will face. Certainly you will face them unless you die young. We will all face these. It is even in the most extreme sufferings of death and extreme loss that God carries us.

I have a very dear friend who has had many losses in her life. She just had to go through a disfiguring cancer surgery. She put it so plaintively. She said, “I didn’t expect the scarring. It’s so upsetting to look in the mirror. It’s one more loss. There’s so much uncertainty about whether the cancer’s going to be returning. There is also the loss of people. There is isolation and the loss of human society, all those spheres of life that I can’t be part of anymore.”

But she’s a woman of faith and she’s honest about the loss, and yet the conclusion of her paragraph is that her Lord will not let her go. And that, no big surprise, is where this very wise hymn ends.

The Soul That on Jesus Has Leaned for Repose

Stanza six says:

The soul that on Jesus hath 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!

Listen. Slow that down. Take that suffering of yours. Listen to the fierce resolve of God himself to never let you go. It’s pastoral genius, whoever this unknown person was, full of wisdom, full of faith, full of love to capture at the end of it. It’s God’s fierceness for you. He says, “I will never, no never, no never forsake you. You will never be alone.” So often the first response that we have in extreme suffering is, why me? Why me with this I have to face?

As you hear God speak with you, the real God, the God who came in flesh in Christ, the God who speaks, the God who touches real life, not just some religious-theory God, but God. You hear him, you see him, you know him. You see how he works in you. That question, “why me” gets turned into, “why you?”

You think, “Why would you enter this same world of loss and temptation and hardship and sorrow for me? And you did.” It ends with us saying, “Thank you. Thank you. You entered my need. Thank you. Why not me? If in some small way I can be three-watt night light, a little bit of light in a very dark world, why not me? Let me suffer well, teach me.”

So many times in suffering that first question is, where are you? Where are you? You listen, you watch, and you live it out honestly, and you find, “Oh, you are here.” And he says, “I will never, no never, no never forsake you.”