Pain with Purpose

“I never knew the meaning of God’s word, until I came into affliction.  I have found it one of my best schoolmasters.” — Martin Luther

Introduction:  As a child we learned a simple prayer to be prayed at the table:  “God is great.  God is good, and we thank Him for our food.”  In all of my years of theological studies, whether in the Pastor’s study or in the seminary library, I have not discovered new truth that improves upon that simple but profound prayer.  God is great in His power and glory revealed through His work of creation.  God is good in His love and mercy revealed through His work of redemption.  Our only natural and right response to His goodness and greatness is humble thankfulness and obedience. 

The psalmist has discovered this good and great God in the words of the law.  His eyes have been opened to see the wonderful things God has hidden there for his joy and God’s glory.  That is why we have taken up this study.  We want to see why the psalmist goes to the Word of God with delight while many of us go there out of duty.  In this study, we find that the psalmist can even find joy in the afflictions that God sends upon him.  Here is the stanza called Teth:

Do good to your servant
according to your word, O LORD. 
66 Teach me knowledge and good judgment,
for I believe in your commands. 
67 Before I was afflicted I went astray,
but now I obey your word. 
68 You are good, and what you do is good;
teach me your decrees. 
69 Though the arrogant have smeared me with lies,
I keep your precepts with all my heart. 
70 Their hearts are callous and unfeeling,
but I delight in your law. 
71 It was good for me to be afflicted
so that I might learn your decrees. 
72 The law from your mouth is more precious to me
than thousands of pieces of silver and gold. 
Psalm 119:65-72

MEDITATION:  Theodicy is the attempt to reconcile the presence of evil in the world with the existence of a good and just God.  It is a combination of two words:  (theos- “god” and dike- “justice”).  One of the great challenges to Christianity has been the argument that states that if God is good He should want His children happy, but everywhere we look we see the righteous suffering.  So, it is argued, if God exists, He is either not all-powerful, in that He cannot prevent evil; or that He is not good, in that He can prevent evil but He doesn’t.  One who has been raised in the Book immediately sees the superficiality of the argument.  It assumes that the ultimate happiness is only found in the absence of pain.  In other words, unbelieving mankind cannot or will not conceive of a joy or a happiness that is possible in the midst of the most painful of circumstances.  Man’s reasoning cannot conceive of any purpose beyond personal comfort and happiness. 

However, we do not get our information from man’s reasoning.  We get our truth from God’s revelation.  The Bible teaches and illustrates a joy that transcends human comfort and experience.  In the cross of Jesus Christ, we see the crucial and glorious truth that in the midst of the greatest evil and injustice, God is in control.  Behind the scenes He is working all things for the good of His people and the glory of His name (Romans 8:28).
That is what Joseph meant when he responded to his brothers’ betrayal with these words:  “You meant it for evil but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20). 

In other words, God used the betrayal of Joseph by his own brothers to bring about His plan to save Israel.  And God used the death of His own Son to bring about the salvation of His Church.  What is true for the Church of God is also true of its individual members.  God uses pain and affliction to bring about good in our lives.  In Teth, we see that two key words shape the content of the stanza:  “good” (verses 65, 66, 68, and 71) and “afflicted” (verses 67, 71).  Let us see how the psalmist expresses his belief that God brings “Pain with Purpose.” 

Verse 65:  The psalmist begins by praying for God’s blessing.  The psalmist has no doubt about God’s goodness for he has God’s Word.  It is not surprising that the unbeliever doubts the goodness of God.  The unbeliever gets his information from the reasoning of a mind that is darkened and self-centered.  It has no ability to see or savor the things of God.  It cannot look behind the painful experiences of life to see a good and great God.  But, the believer has the Holy Spirit living within, teaching and reminding him of the reality of God and His promises.  The Spirit does a special work of grace in our hearts not only to help us to understand what God has written there, but also to give us the assurance that what we hear there is true.  So, when the psalmist prays for God’s blessing, he does it with the absolute confidence that it is God’s intention to do what He has said He would do.  Here Paul’s logic would fit perfectly: 

“What, then, shall we say in response to this?  If God is for us, who can be against us?  He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all — how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” [Romans 8:31-32]

Verse 66:  Remember in earlier lessons we pointed out how God’s Word and prayer are the two tracks that lead us into the joy of God’s promises?  Here we see it again.  Although Psalm 119 is all about delighting in God’s decrees (119:16), he also senses the need of God’s help to understand them and apply them.  So, Psalm 119 is filled with prayers.  Because we struggle with a sinful nature, because we live in a fallen world, and because we have a great enemy who is committed to blind our eyes, we ask God to teach us.  We believe God’s promises are true, but need to be taught by the Teacher Himself how to understand and apply them to the daily temptations and tests that come our way. 

Verse 67:  Our desire to follow God and please Him is confronted by two natural enemies:  ignorance and rebellion.  Ignorance brings about troubles in our lives because we don’t know what to do to please the Lord.  Rebellion is when we do know what to do but don’t.  I think here the psalmist is making reference to his ignorance, not his rebellion.  God allows us to get into difficulty as we choose to work out things according to man’s ways.  Everybody else is doing it and it seems to work for them.  But we are not “them.”  We have a different destiny and purpose. 

So, like the psalmist we end up going along with the crowd without consciously knowing we are in trouble.  That is probably what Psalm 19 refers to when the psalmist prays, “Who can discern his errors.  Forgive my hidden faults.”  But God is not only interested in forgiving those faults, He is committed to cleansing us from those faults.  So, He allows affliction.  There is nothing like affliction to motivate us to study God’s Word.  That is what he is talking about here.  Affliction was good in that God used it to drive him to the Word to find the wisdom of God. 

John Bunyan laid claim to the same kind of discovery while spending twelve years in prison for refusing to stop his public preaching.  Here is what he said about his time of affliction:  “I never knew all there was in the Bible until I spent those years in jail.  I was constantly finding new treasures.” 

Verse 68:  When we do find ourselves in the midst of pain, it often is necessary for us to remind ourselves of certain truths.  It is easy to let self-pitying thoughts come into our hearts when under pressure.  But we must be self-controlled and alert.  We often must take a hold of our thoughts and feelings and preach to ourselves, as the psalmist did in Psalm 42:  “Why are you downcast oh my soul?  Why so disturbed within me?  Put your hope in God.”  He is taking himself to task.  He is getting in his own face.

Here the psalmist is doing the same kind of thing.  He is confessing to God, right in the midst of a pressured life, his belief in an unchanging, good God.  Circumstances may change, but our God does not.  He is the same yesterday, when things were going good, today, when things are rough, and tomorrow, when things may get worse.  As someone has reminded us, “Don’t forget in the darkness what God promised in the light.”  In darkness or light, God is great and God is good.  He doesn’t change.  Living with thankfulness is still appropriate and right.

Verse 69:  That firm belief keeps him steady and strong when the whole world comes against him.  There is something deep within us that wants to be appreciated and accepted by the masses.  But, following God will mean being rejected by a world that is at war with Him.  If we proclaim Jesus Christ and His cross, we will be dismissed and even persecuted.  But, we can stand with the same kind of assurance and boldness that Jeremiah had when he was also told to preach to a hostile people: 

“Today I have made you a fortified city, an iron pillar and a bronze wall to stand against the whole land — against the kings of Judah, its officials, its priests and the people of the land.  They will fight against you but will not overcome you, for I am with you and will rescue you,” declares the LORD.” [Jeremiah 1:18-19]

Verse 70:  Our enemies may be callused and bitter, but we can respond with gentleness and grace because our joy is not determined by their approval or their opposition.  Our delight is found in the God who speaks to us in His decrees.  So, we are not overcome by evil but overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21). 

Abraham Lincoln, who had more than his share of enemies, responded with grace no matter how ugly the attack.  Perhaps the reason for his gentle responses is best explained by the following quote:  “I believe the Bible is the best gift that God ever gave to man.  All the good from the Savior of the world is communicated to us through that Book.  I have been driven many times to my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go.”

Verse 71:  So, with the psalmist, we recognize that there is something far more satisfying than a carefree, trouble free life.  It is a life that is built upon the Word of God.  It is a life that is shaped into the image of Christ.  It is a life that “runs with perseverance the race marked out for us.”  Like Jesus, who endured the cross, we run in the midst of pain and affliction, focusing upon the joy set before us.  We take the counsel of Hebrews 12:2 to heart:  “Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”  Even Jesus, although without sin, “learned obedience from that which he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8). 

So, the psalmist again welcomes affliction, not because he enjoys pain but because he wants God’s grace (2 Corinthians 12:9).  He would rather have a thorn in the flesh and grace than have no thorns and a long comfortable life.

Verse 72:  The psalmist closes this section by reaffirming his love for God’s Word.  To him, there is nothing more valuable than the words that come from the mouth of God.  Like Jesus, he does “not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”  Stack up all of the treasures of the world on one side of the scales and put the Bible on the other.  No contest.  When we really believe that, we will not need duty to motivate us to study and memorize and meditate upon His Word.  Delight will be our motivation. 

“The Bible is alive, it speaks to me.  It has feet, it runs after me.  It has hands, it lays hold of me.” — Martin Luthe