by Bruce Lackey
Why do the godly suffer? Or anyone, for that matter. This question has plagued the human race all through history. The Christian is especially troubled about it, because of the prevailing idea that if one obeys the Lord he will have a good life with relatively little trouble. Everyone expects minor illnesses, but the major ones are disturbing. To compound the problem, religious racketeers have made merchandise of people by insisting that God never wants anyone to be sick; they assert that all sickness is of the devil. The attitude of Job's three friends is still with us; if there is major trouble, God must be punishing the suffering one, either for overt sin, or for skeletons in the closet.
This author has gotten much help from Psalm 119:71, especially during times of illness. It will be the basis for this chapter:
"It is good for me that I have been afflicted; that I might learn thy statutes."
The study of three great words in this verse yields much help on the subject. They are "afflicted," "learn," and "statutes."
If the author was King David, then he suffered just about every kind of affliction known to man. He was afflicted physically; he had known danger, hunger, and privation, when he was hunted like an animal by Saul and his army. He had also known sickness, if Psa. 38:5-11 and 77:2 are to be taken literally.
He also knew domestic affliction, being ridiculed by his brother and rejected by his wife. When David was sent by his father to take supplies to his brothers who were in Saul's army, his brother greeted him with the mocking question, "With whom hast thou left those few sheep in the wilderness?" (1 Sam. 17:28). And that was done publicly, so that David must have suffered some embarrassment. Much later, when he was king, David decided to bring the ark of God to Jerusalem. It was such a joyous occasion, that David danced before the Lord. When his wife, Michal, saw him doing so, as she looked out of the window, "she despised him in her heart" (2 Sam. 6:16). David knew something about domestic affliction, that is, trouble from his own family.
He also suffered emotionally, as few people have. Think of the broken heart he must have felt when he learned that his son, Amnon, had raped his daughter, Tamar. Then that was compounded by another son's murder of that one, when Absalom killed Amnon. He knew the disappointment of children who commit gross sin, and the heartache of bereavement when Amnon and Absalom were killed. He must have also been disturbed when another son, Adonijah, tried to take his throne away from him as he lay on his death bed. He knew emotional affliction.
In the light of all this suffering, we must stand up and take note that he said, "It is good for me that I have been afflicted!" Before we see why it was good, let us remind ourselves that he had suffered just about every way a person can. All of us should find some comparison between our troubles and David's.
The affliction was good for him, he said, "that I might learn thy statutes." But did he know God's word? Quite obviously, he did; many verses in other Psalms indicate that he knew the Bible well. Even in this particular Psalm he shows that by saying,
"Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against thee" (v. 11).
"With my lips have I declared all the judgments of thy mouth" (v. 13).
"I have rejoiced in the way of thy testimonies, as much as in all riches" (v. 14).
David certainly knew the Scripture, intellectually. The learning which he received because of affliction was experiential. When we see references to knowledge and learning in Scripture, we should remember that knowledge may be either intellectual, or experiential, or both, and it is imperative for us to determine which kind is meant if we would understand the particular verse.
For instance, we know about the coming of the Lord intellectually because we have read it in the Bible, but we will not know it experientially until He comes again and takes us up to be with Him in the air. Knowledge, therefore, may be intellectual or experiential.
He obviously meant the experiential kind in verse 73, when he asked, "...give me understanding, that I may learn thy commandments."
Learning the Bible intellectually is almost always necessary before we would know it by experience; therefore, we should pay heed to all the teaching and preaching of God's Word that we possibly can. We must store it up in our minds, if we would have it to use in daily experience. The trouble is that many of us Christians put so very little into practice, that most of our knowledge is intellectual, while almost none is experiential.
Another way to consider the same distinction is by using two words: interpretation and application. A given verse will have only one correct interpretation, while it may have several applications. Many of God's people learn the proper interpretation of Scripture, but do not apply it to every day living. To help us understand the distinction between interpretation and application, we will consider 1 Cor. 9:9 which is a quotation of Deut. 25:4.
"For it is written in the law of Moses, Thou shalt not muzzle the mouth of the ox that treadeth out the corn."
The interpretation is that the Israelites were not to put a muzzle on the ox that they used in their farming; in other words, if the animal worked, he should be allowed to eat. The application is that all who work should be able to be supported from their work. The verse is used in 1 Corinthians 9 in the midst of a discussion where Paul was asserting that he and Barnabas had the authority to be supported by their converts, because the Scripture gave such, in this place.
The Old Testament Scriptures would "come alive" to us today, if we would study them in this way: looking for the applications to our experiences.
Of course, we are not required to offer the animal sacrifices, or obey various other laws which were given only to Israel and only for that dispensation, but we may learn great principles from God's instructions to them and make applications to our everyday living.
The secret of victorious living is learning to apply the Scripture. All of us have known people who were quite well-versed in Scripture, but who lived in sin. What was their trouble? Was it that their learning of the Bible did them no good? Is it a waste of time to study Scripture? Certainly not! Their trouble is that they have not applied experientially what they have learned intellectually.
Application of Scripture to everyday living is what James 1:22 means when it says, "But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves."
Affliction comes to our lives so that we will learn to apply Scripture, or so that we will learn to experience what we already know intellectually. Often, one does not learn a new verse that he had never seen before; what he does learn is the actual experience of that particular truth.
When we have affliction, most of us want to know why it came; we want to know the cause of our troubles. However, that is not the main thing that we need. In many cases, we never learn exactly why it came; God has something much better. He wants us to learn to experience something from His Word, during the affliction.
The classic example of suffering is Job. When we read the first two chapters, we learn that it was God who initiated Job's trouble! God challenged Satan to consider Job, then Satan suggested the affliction. The rest of the book is the outgrowth of that. When we come to the last chapter, we note that, as far as the Biblical record goes, Job never learned of that conversation between God and Satan. So, he never learned the cause of his affliction. But something more important than the cause is the cure. Job did not know the cause, but he learned the cure, and that was exactly what God wanted in the first place.
Job 42:7-8 records God's direction to Eliphaz, that he and his two friends should bring a sacrifice to Job so that he could offer it to the Lord and pray for them. In other words, Job was to be their priest. Verse 9 tells of their obedience, then v. 10 states the great experience that Job had:
"And the LORD turned the captivity of Job, when he prayed for his friends."
Surely, before this, Job knew that he should pray for others. That is, he certainly knew it intellectually. The great lesson he learned by experience was to pray for his friends even when they were his worst critics. How difficult that is! How few of God's people ever actually experience it! Learning this great experience was worth much more to Job than learning about the conversation between God and Satan. He could have known about that conversation and not been any better for it; consider the fact that many Christians have read Job 1 & 2, but have not become more spiritual as a result. But learning to pray for his critics was certainly a great leap forward in spiritual progress.
This shows us that God wants us to learn to experience some great Bible truth, when we are afflicted. The particular truth may or may not be related to our affliction, but it will surely make us better servants of the Lord.
To show that this works in our day, the rest of this chapter will be in the first person.
Several years ago it was necessary for me to interrupt a Bible conference in which I was preaching to have emergency surgery for a ruptured appendix. This caused me to cancel several weeks of meetings while I recuperated. Why did that happen? Does God want us to quit serving Him and lie around a hospital? Can that really be the will of God? During that experience, I learned several of God's statutes, which I will briefly mention.
The first is found in v. 75 of this same Psalm, "I know, O LORD, that thy judgments are right, and that thou in faithfulness hast afflicted me." It is good to learn that affliction comes from God! Have you ever wondered whether something came from God or the devil? We really need to get that settled, for more reasons than one. For instance, if your perception of life is that of a struggle between God and the devil, you might think that their power is equal and might wonder who is going to win. In order to have victory, we need to see from Scripture that God is in control of things, at all times. Nothing can happen without His authority. Eph. 1:11 says that he "worketh all things after the counsel of his own will." Remember, Satan could not afflict Job without the Lord's permission. So, it really does not matter whether we say that God sent the affliction, or that He permitted it; the end result is the same, and the authority remains with Him. It is good to know that! If God sent the affliction, then it is for His glory and for our good.
I also learned, by experience, something about faith. I had often preached on great verses of faith, such as Mark 11:22 ("Have faith in God") and 11:24 ("Therefore I say unto you, What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them."). However, I had never been forced to believe God for everyday financial needs without doing something myself. In other times, when money was needed, I had always found a second job and earned the extra funds, a practice which is spiritual (see Eph. 4:28, for example). If a person can work, he should.
There is nothing spiritual about laziness, or about "mooching" off others.
Of course, when this happened, I was unable to work at any kind of job, not even at the one to which God had called me. As I lay on the hospital bed and realized that there would be no offerings coming in (since several weeks of meetings were canceled), I wondered where we would get the money for the house payment, food, tuition, and other everyday expenses. The Lord reminded me of Mark 11:22, "Have faith in God!" I knew that I needed it, but had to admit that I did not have it. I had never been forced to depend on God, and God alone, for daily needs. Now that it was necessary to do so, I had to be honest and confess that I did not have such faith.
Then the Lord reminded me of another verse which I had often preached and taught, Rom. 10:17, "Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God." I had often told people that they could get faith from the Bible, and, of course, had experienced that, myself, when I believed on the Lord Jesus for salvation from sin. I realized that now I must go back to the Bible to get that faith which I needed immediately. I was led by the Lord, I believe, to the Psalms, a precious portion of God's Word which I had often read, and from which I had preached many times. As a matter of fact, I had preached through all 150 Psalms on Wednesday nights, when I was pastor of the Lakewood Baptist Church, Harrison, Tennessee. Naturally, I thought I knew much about the Psalms, but this time, as I read them, I learned something new, because I was looking for something different. I experienced the creation of faith in my heart, just as Rom. 10:17 promises! As I began to trust the Lord for the necessary money, it started coming in. One friend in the ministry brought a cash gift when he visited me in the hospital. Others sent checks in the mail. Some came from people that I did not even know; no solicitation had been made from me to them.
The only explanation for such is: God!
God kept His promise to answer the prayers which come from a believing heart (Mark 11:24). Every single need was met during that time of recuperation. We paid every obligation on time, some ahead of time! All of this is said to the glory of God; no attempt is made to boast about my personal faith. If the same were to happen today, I would have to go back to the Bible and get more faith, for my heart is fearful today of insecurity. I am not naturally strong in faith, but I can testify that God's Word will do what He promised!
The greatest blessing was not all the money that was given, but the experience of receiving faith from the Bible, then exercising that faith in the living God and seeing Him prove His promises!
It was good for me to be afflicted and learn that! Without the affliction, I probably would never have experienced Mark 11:24 in financial matters.
Another great experience out of it all was the winning of one of my roommates in the hospital to Christ. A man came to my room on the day I came out of surgery. We briefly met, but not much conversation took place because I was not feeling very well.
Later, the Lord moved my heart to witness to him about the Saviour. Even though I did not really want to, because I felt sorry for myself, I obeyed the Lord and learned that the man had never been born again. He told about the offices in church which he had held, but admitted that he did not know what it meant to be born again. I took my New Testament and showed him the way of salvation, with the result that he received Christ as his personal Saviour and was born again that day.
Later, when both of us were released from the hospital, I sent him some helps for a new convert. It was a great joy to get a letter from him some time later, telling me of his continued faith and desire to go on for Christ.
The interesting thing about this man was that his surgery was rather minor, the kind that could have been performed in a doctor's office. Why did he come to the hospital for it? I have no doubt whatever that the Lord sent his affliction and guided him to my very room, so that I could tell him of the Saviour and he could be born again. Would God do that? Would He actually make a person sick? There is no problem with that, when we consider how much more important it is to be saved, than merely to be healthy!
Also, I am confident that one of the reasons God ruptured my appendix was so that man could be saved. Would God do that? Would He put me to all that pain and expense, just for that? We should remember that He put His only-begotten Son to infinitely more pain, so that the world could be saved. God is interested in saving sinners!
It was good for me to be afflicted; I rejoiced in the great verses from Scripture which I experienced, and would not go back to change any of it.
How tragic it is that many of God's people go through some kind of suffering without learning anything. Probably, the reason is that we are so occupied with self-pity that we do not seek what God has for us. May He give us the grace to repent, and seek the great truths of His Word which He has for us to experience when affliction comes!