Every individual faces afflictions, trials and hard times. The believer is no different. Much has been written on affliction by Christians. In some ways, Christians have more questions than others about how to respond to afflictions.
A true Christian wants to glorify God in everything, even in affliction. In the depths of our hearts, we know that the most important thing is not the amount of affliction we receive; rather, it is how we respond to affliction. We may desire that our entire life may serve God’s praise (Isa. 43:21), but somehow when we enter into the furnace of affliction, we find ourselves losing grip on our firm intention. To respond to affliction before it comes is hard; to look back on it gratefully after it is over can be even harder; but to live Christianly in and during it is hardest of all.
This morning, in my reading of psalm 37, the Lord reminds me of some aspects of the responses we as believers should pay attention to as we encounter affliction, and particularly when we see and notice that unbelievers seem to ‘prosper’ and they are not afflicted in like manner.
Psalm 37 is attributed to David. David has been known to fight against bears and lions to protect the sheep he shepherded. He was the one who defeated the giant warrior Goliath. But perhaps some of the greatest afflictions he encountered was when he had to flee for his life when king Saul hunted him in order to kill him and to secure the throne for himself. On several occasions, David almost was killed and he had to run again and again for his life. With this background, let us consider what David had to advise us as fellow believers. Remember that David was not speaking from a vacuum; he understood the agonies and pain in afflictions and the advice from him comes from a heart who understood the implications of what he wrote.
Notice the negatives:
‘Fret not yourself’..be not envious of wrongdoers’ (vv1-2); ‘..Fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way, over the man who carries out evil devices’! (v7); ‘Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath! Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil’ (v8); ‘Turn from evil and do good’; (v27.)
Affliction becomes harder to bear when we feel that we do not deserve it as we have not done anything to ‘earn’ it. It becomes harder when affliction comes upon us because we have done the right thing and sought to honour God in a certain situation. It brings much more agony when we see the wrongdoers and unbelievers getting away with it scot-free and when the thought arises in our minds that God ‘has abandoned us’ and it may even be better to have a lot with them. Of course we know that God is faithful and good but it becomes hard to focus on this truth when the emotions seem to point to the ‘reality’ that God seems to be far away and indifferent in the circumstance and those who are evil are doing much better.
David must have felt this many times; he asked Jonathan what wrong he had done to have KIng Saul’s hunting for his life. As far as he knew, he had not done anything to cause the king to seek his life and Jonathan also knew this. David, even in appreciating this truth and reality, advises us to fret not, to refrain from anger and wrath and to turn away from evil (this may include thoughts of vengeance and retaliation against those who wronged us), and not to envy them. Even when David had several opportunities to kill Saul, he refrained and looked to God to intervene on his behalf. Many a time, David must have had asked God ‘why’ he had to go through such afflictions but somehow, he always stopped short of blaming God. Instead, he turned to God in a positive manner and we now look at the positive aspects of his responses that made him known as ‘a man after God’s own heart’.
Consider the positives:
“Trust in the Lord and do good” (v3a); Delight yourself in the Lord (v4); Commit your way to the Lord; trust in Him (v5); Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for Him; Hope in the Lord (Wait for the Lord) and keep His way(v 34)”.
How is it possible to do all these in the midst of the pain, agony and affliction? Was David referring to the ‘impossibles’? Surely not!
The answers are hidden in the close and deep relationship and experience he had with the living God. Numerous psalms were written by him to express this reality in his life: A sample of these:-
“I sought the Lord and He answered me and delivered me from all my fears. Those who look to Him are radiant, and their faces shall never be ashamed” (psalm 34:4-5);
“Oh taste and see that the Lord is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in Him! Oh, fear the Lord, you His saints, for those who fear Him have no lack! “(Ps. 34:8-9);
“The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” (Ps. 27:1).
All these testimonies of David in the many psalms do not imply that there were no struggles, no moments of anxiety and fears as he faced the various ‘onslaughts’ in his life. It is clear however that David could testify that amidst the struggles, the anxiety, the agonies and pain, and long after the afflictions, he still found God to be faithful, reliable and true in His assurance and love for His beloved.
Consider the ‘ends’ of the righteous and the wicked:
For the righteous:
“He will bring forth your righteousness as the light, and your justice as the noonday.” (v6); “But the meek shall inherit the land and delight themselves in abundant peace” (v11)”..but the Lord upholds the righteous.” (v17b); “The Lord knows the days of the blameless, and their heritage will remain forever” (v18); “they are not put to shame in evil times; in the days of famine they have abundance.” (v19); “The steps of a man are established by the Lord, when He delights in his ways; though he fall, he shall not be cast headlong, for the Lord upholds his hand.”(v24);”For the Lord loves justice; he will not forsake His saints, They are preserved forever; (v28a); “Mark the blameless and behold the upright, for there is a future for the man of peace” (v37); “The salvation of the righteous is from the Lord; He is their stronghold in the time of trouble. The Lord helps them and delivers them; He delivers them from the wicked and saves them, because they take refuge in Him” (vv39,40).
Lest we feel that we cannot claim to be among the righteous, know that those who believe and are united with Christ, His righteousness becomes ours – no longer does the veil between the ‘holy’ and the ‘most holy’ remain – it has been torn down by the sacrifice of Christ and we who are His can approach the throne of grace with boldness.
For the wicked:
“for they will soon fade like the grass and wither like the green herb. (v2); “For the evildoers shall be cut off,”(v9a); “In just a little while, the wicked will be no more; though you look carefully at his place, he will not be there”. (v10); “but the Lord laughs at the wicked, for He sees that his day is coming”. (v13); “But the wicked will perish; the enemies of the Lord are like the glory of the pastures; they vanish – like smoke they vanish away”. (v20); “I have seen a wicked, ruthless man, spreading himself like a green laurel tree. But he passed away and behold, he was no more; though I sought him, he could not be found” (vv 35,36); But transgressors shall be altogether destroyed; the future of the wicked shall be cut off”. (v38)”
Note the certainty of the end of the wicked – God is a just judge and He would not allow unrighteousness and injustice to prevail.
We need to take heed of the exhortations of king David who knew what he was writing about: it was not merely poetry or song (although it emcompasses them) but it is a testimony that would always stand the tests of time. The assurances and promises come from One who is eternal, the Alpha and Omega – just as He had dealt with David, He would do the same for His children today. Know for sure that afflictions are allowed by God to prepare us for eternity with Him and they come from a hand of LOVE! He never fails!
Dealing with afflictions in a Christlike manner
In the previous sharing we have looked at psalm 37 and noted the attitude and responses of king David in the midst of afflictions.
King David is a type of Christ; Christ is not just a king – He is also the King of kings and He is the ‘greater David’. When the Son of God was incarnated, He took on flesh and became fully God and fully Man. As a man, He chose not to exercise His divine power and attributes in order to live within the limitations of being fully human. He was thirsty (John 4:7); He knew hunger (Matt. 4:2); He was tired (Luke 8:23); and He expressed emotional pain (John 11:35). Note that He encountered all that human beings encountered on earth, including going through difficulties and pain in meeting temptations, misunderstanding from others as well as physical trials – He did not use His divine power to overcome all these difficulties and afflictions as fully man. Jesus depended fully on the Holy Spirit as the ‘perfect man’ in all His afflictions and throughout all these difficulties, He did not sin and He was pronounced sinless. He was always obedient to the Father and the Father declared that He was well pleased in the Son.
With this introduction, we can conclude that it is perfectly in order to consider how Jesus dealt with afflictions in His life on earth as the God-man and we can also look to Him as our perfect example and paradigm as we encounter afflictions in our lives on earth as pilgrims and citizens of heaven.
“Therefore, holy brothers, you who share in a heavenly calling, consider Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession, who was faithful to Him who appointed Him..” (Hebrews 3:1)
The most effective means of living Christianly in affliction is to consider Christ. Christ is the fountainhead of all practical Christianity. To live Christianly in affliction necessitates Spirit-worked faith to look to Him, to depend on Him, to die with Him, and to live out of Him. Consider Christ – that is the crux of the whole matter of affliction – but how?
1. Consider the afflictions of Christ. If Jesus suffered so much on behalf of His people, should not I cheerfully endure in His strength the daily afflictions I must bear? What are my afflictions compared to His? Was He not the perfect Sufferer while totally innocent; I, sufferer, at best, in His footsteps, while totally guilty? Is there one affliction that I must endure which Christ has not already endured in principle? ” He was tempted in all points like we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). Jesus not only knows our affliction. He has identified Himself with it; He has borne it and He will sanctify it. He is the perfect high Priest who can empathise with us in our afflictions and pain, for these are not foreign to Him.
2. Consider the power of Christ. Being infinite God-man, Jesus received power on earth to bear infinite sufferings on our behalf. And through the merits of these sufferings, He now receives royal power in heaven from His Father to rule and strengthen us in our sufferings (Matt.28:18). If He desires to weigh us down with affliction – even heavy seemingly staggering affliction – be not alarmed, but look to Him for strength. Be yoked to Him, for HIs burden is light and He would carry us through with His power and strength. As the believer of old used to say, “Take your burden to the Lord and leave it there”.
Remember, the Lord does not measure out our afflictions according to our faults, but according to our strength, and looks not at what we have deserved, but at what we are able to bear. How great it is when we may look to the strength of Jesus Christ in all our weakness and apprehend our strength in Him (2 Cor. 12:0). Then we may rejoice that we are counted worthy to suffer for Christ’s Name and sake (cf 2 Cor. 6 and 12).
3. Consider the presence of Christ. He is always with us even when we cannot grasp Him (thanks to the ministry of the Spirit). In our darkest hours, He is close at hand. In all our afflictions, our High Priest retains us in HIs priestly eye, preserves us in His priestly heart, bears us on His high priestly shoulders, engraves us on HIs high priestly hands, and remembers us in His high priestly intercessions (Heb. 7:25). What marvellous and tender love! – we are never forgotten by Him even though we are negligent toward Him. He remains a friend that sticks “closer than a brother” (Prov. 18:24). The Jesus who never failed us in yesterday’s afflictions, still lives to give us today’s strength (Matt. 6:24). He will never let us down. He is the same yesterday, today and forever (Heb. 13:8).
4. Consider the perseverance of Christ. What makes affliction so severe for us is its duration. We often wonder if there will ever be an end; or if so, how can we ever hang on to the end. But it is Christ who provides us the strength to take one more step, live one more day, in the severest sufferings and pain. Jesus has earned the provision by enduring His sufferings to their end. Gethsemane, Gabbatha, Golgotha – everywhere. “Having loved His own…He loved them unto the end” (John 13:1).
Look more to Christ. Rest more in HIs perseverance, for our perseverance rests in His. Learn His patience under affliction. Our trials may alarm us, but shall not destroy us (2 Cor. 4:8-9). The rod of affliction is God’s pencil to draw the image of Christ more fully upon us. Affliction serves to keep us in Christ’s communion – to conform us to Him, making us partake of HIs suffering and image, His righteousness and holiness (Heb.12:10-11). Sanctified affliction serves to wean us from the world and to cause us to walk by faith.
5. Finally consider the end of Christ. Highly exalted, there is no name like His. At His name, every knee shall bow (Phil. 2:10). The end of all His affliction was and is eternal glory. Eternal glory – not only for Himself, but also for us. He returned to His Father with HIs blood-purchased bride, His church. If we would think more of our eternal end, we would be more submissive under affliction and learn to praise God in our trial instead of murmuring and grumbling at Him.
Affliction elevates our soul to heaven (Heb.11:10), it paves our way to glory (2 Cor. 4:17). Our afflictions are imposed by a fatherly hand of love, not by a punitive hand of judgement!