If you were to ask most Christians how their faith has impacted their life, they’d probably say positive things. They’d tell you how blessed they are, how much better Jesus has made their lives.
Now contrast this with the way Scripture describes the Christian life. “[The Lord’s] arrows have sunk into me, [His] hand has come down on me. There is no health in my bones because of my sin. I am feeble and crushed; I groan because of the tumult of my heart,” (Psalm 38:2–3, 8).
If you aren’t a Christian, you would never talk that way. These words from Psalm 38 are a uniquely Christian prayer. Only Christians can pray these words because only Christians acknowledge the reality of sin. If you aren’t a Christian, you aren’t supposed to be sorry over sin. You are supposed to either 1) enjoy life and avoid anything that doesn’t feel good, or 2) do better so you can appease whatever false gods you believe in. Sorrow over sin does no good. The god of every other religion is a god who says “actions speak louder than words.” With Jesus, it’s exactly the opposite. His Word speaks louder than our actions. His Word bespeaks those who commit sin righteous. His absolving Word speaks louder than our sinful actions.
Consider also how our opening hymn described the Christian life. It isn’t some praise-filled, happy-happy, joy-joy purpose driven nonsense.
I walk in danger all the way.
The thought shall never leave me
That Satan, who has marked his prey,
Is plotting to deceive me.
This foe with hidden snares
May seize me unawares
If I should fail to watch and pray.
I walk in danger all the way.
The Christian is one who is aware that there’s more to life than meets the eye, that God and Satan, heaven and hell, angels and demons, and love & sin are actually real things. We don’t call this the “church militant” for nothing. We battle against Satan with the Word and Spirit, and battle is filled with danger. One of the main tools both God and Satan will use in the battle for your eternal destiny is suffering.
There are lots of false views of suffering out there today, and are all views perpetuated by Satan. Probably the most popular is to not think about your suffering at all, to simply accept it as an inevitable part of life. Or maybe you think all suffering comes from the devil. Satan is happy either way, because both keep you away from the truth, that suffering is a consequence of sin.
David acknowledged the close relationship between sin and suffering in Psalm 38. He spoke of God’s just anger over his sin: “O Lord, rebuke me not in Your anger, nor discipline me in Your wrath! For Your arrows have sunk into me, and Your hand has come down on me,” (v. 1–2). David pictures God here as a Divine Archer, and David is the target.
The first thing, then, that Christians should do when they suffer is to repent; to acknowledge that if there were no sin, there would be no suffering. Whatever suffering we face, whether it’s something we brought upon ourselves or not, it nevertheless justly deserved.
Luther said, “This psalm portrays most clearly the manner, words, acts, thoughts, and gestures of a truly penitent heart.” I suspect none of us feel exactly at home praying through Psalm 38, and that when we pray, our prayers probably resemble this one very little. That’s not a good thing. This is why it’s good to pray the psalms daily. Make their vocabulary and thought patterns your own. Learn how to think about God, yourself, and others from the psalms.
Remember also that anguish over sin, or even anger with God isn’t necessarily a sign of unbelief or a weak faith. When I was in Colorado I once had a conversation with a dying woman who said she had spent the better part of her life being angry with God for a variety of reasons. When she got cancer the anger only intensified. She had considered herself an atheist for all of those years, and then she finally realized you can’t be angry with God if you don’t believe in Him. It took a while, but like David, her suffering finally led her to repentance.
Luther says, “The words with which God rebukes and threatens in Scripture are arrows. . . . However, only he feels them into whose heart they are thrust and whose conscience is terrified. It is the sensitive into whose heart God shoots the arrows. From the smug, who have become hardened, the arrows glance off as from a hard stone” (AE 14:156–57).
Like we saw on Ash Wednesday, it’s not a bad thing to feel pain. It means you’re still alive. God afflicts everyone with His arrows, but not everyone feels them. Those who don’t are dead in sin. Not everybody feels guilt for sinning against their conscience. Unpleasant though it may be, sorrow over sin is a gift, just like faith. Again, Luther says, “Those, however, who lie in sin, who are either dead or too holy, do not sense these things. Therefore it is an amazing thing: He who has no sin feels and has it, and he who has sin does not feel it and has none,” (AE 14:157).
Augustine said basically the same thing using a different picture. He talked about the soul’s nose and said that when a man’s soul has a sound sense of smelling, he perceives how hideously his sins stink. And these sins will continue to stink unless it is washed away by the sweet fragrance of the Gospel.
Moving from nose to ears, David, in a surprising twist, speaks of a good sort of deafness. “I have become like a man who does not hear,” he says. No longer did David listen to the accusing voice of Satan or his enemies; he was entirely deaf to them. All he could hear was the soothing Word of God, which assured Him of the free pardon for all his sins for the sake of Christ, who suffered and died in his place.
So David expresses his hope in the Lord’s deliverance: “But for You, O Lord, do I wait; it is You, O Lord my God, who will answer.” Luther says David’s words here are those of “a true and strong faith, which in time of trouble lets everything else go and clings to the Word and grace of God, and does not doubt that God will help him.”
Like David, penitent Christians pray for God’s deliverance. But don’t confuse praying for deliverance with asking for relief. If you are penitent, you know your weakness, that you are always a step away from stumbling and falling. As the penitent, we accept our sufferings as God’s warning, given in love and intended for our good. In this way God leads us to repentance and faith, faith that saves you. Go in peace. (Luke 7:50).
Soli Deo Gloria
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