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Occasional Letters - Trials and Tribulations

D Newell, Glasgow

Having just visited some friends who have been and still are going through a multiplicity of serious difficulties, I am once again struck by the principle of God’s educational programme for His people. Afflictions are designed to make our relationship with the Lord more than merely theoretical. When such things strike – and they can strike at any time – all we can do is cast ourselves upon the living God to whom by grace we belong. One of the few things I think I have learned over the years is that, whatever happens, the Lord of the universe is in charge. Old Testament teaching is strikingly plain, in the Psalms and prophets especially. The sovereign God who organises every detail of our circumstances is in total control of everything that befalls His people, and He will infallibly do what is right (Ps 115.3).

Some years ago I tried to trace the occurrence of the word “affliction” and its derivatives in Psalm 119, and found seven instances. Forgive the rather obtrusive alliteration, but it helps me to hold my thoughts together. Says the psalmist, “this is my comfort in my affliction: for thy word hath quickened me” (v.50). That is to say, God’s special provision for His people in the midst of trials is His Word. It is, after all, a lamp to guide, food to sustain, and honey to sweeten a bitter palate. Only the undiluted Word can satisfy our souls. And it is precisely in the time of extremity that we discover its sufficiency. When all other comforts fail, the Scriptures remain our resource.

Next comes a clue as to the purpose of trials – they are calculated to keep us close to the Lord. “Before I was afflicted I went astray: but now have I kept thy word” (v.67). Note the important difference between “before” and “but now”. The writer is obviously looking back and assessing his pathway in the light of God’s dealings with him. When all is sunshine we have a tendency to drift, to wander, to waste our time, but come the storm and we instinctively hasten back home. The Word, we are reminded, is to be obeyed as well as enjoyed. Sometimes the disciplinary experiences of others can be a real lesson to us. Uzziah’s son Jotham learned from his father’s solemn chastisement that kingship and priesthood were not to be mixed: “he did that which was right in the sight of the Lord, according to all that his father Uzziah did: howbeit he entered not into the temple of the Lord” (2 Chr 27.2).

And here’s another point: “It is good for me that I have been afflicted; that I might learn thy statutes” (v.71). The psalmist’s spiritual perception has been enlightened so that he is prepared to bow to God’s will as “good for me”. That’s a really hard lesson to learn; may the Lord grant us the grace of acceptance to assent to His purposes, however inexplicable they may seem at the time. God’s will is “good, and acceptable, and perfect” (Rom 12.2).

But the writer continues with an even more amazing insight: “I know, O Lord, that thy judgments are right, and that thou in faithfulness hast afflicted me” (v.75). Mark this – not only does God use trials for our benefit, He is Himself the perpetrator of them. Too often we fall into the trap of assuming that the good comes from God and the bad from Satan – but our God is the ultimate cause of all (Job 1.21; 2.10; Is 45.7). It is a source of great reassurance to trace everything to His hand, for it is the hand of a loving Father, too good to be unkind and too wise to make any mistakes.

Yet affliction is no less intense for all that. The psalmist candidly confesses its real painfulness: “Unless thy law had been my delights, I should then have perished in mine affliction” (v.92). “Perish” hints at the unbearable misery of his situation. How eagerly we fly to the Word when in distress of soul, for only there do we find relief. For a start, it encourages a forward look to the great moment of the Saviour’s return to take us home (Jn 14.3):

When this sick body tends to dissolution,
When earthly comforts crumble and decay,
When of my trials there seems no resolution,
Then for Thy coming, Lord, I long and pray!

Oh yes, trial has the beneficial effect of stimulating our prayer life: “I am afflicted very much: quicken me, O Lord, according unto thy word” (v.107). No one understands our hardships like the God who laid them upon us, and the psalmist can therefore freely mention them in his supplications. Although we are getting near the end of the psalm, the affliction has apparently not diminished, nor has the psalmist’s dependence upon Scripture: “Consider mine affliction, and deliver me: for I do not forget thy law” (v.153). Affliction promotes a dogged persistence in spiritual exercises. All too frequently we come back from a meeting inspired by the teaching of the Word to plan for a spiritually disciplined life (starting tomorrow!) but soon drift into apathy – yet the sharp stab of pain rekindles the flame and maintains our spiritual edge.

I have attempted to put some of these thoughts into primitive verse. I confess that the words are easy to say, but are so hard to live by. Because there will be tough times ahead which may eat into our opportunities for on-the-spot Bible study we must endeavour to get the Word securely into our heart now so that we are ready then. Believers should be like Aesop’s ant, storing up for the future, not like the grasshopper who wasted his summer in trivialities. May the Lord help us in our daily life for Him.

To be continued.


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