“Before I Was Afflicted I Went Astray”: Why Your Troubles are a Gift from God
Psalm 119:67, 71, 75
January 20, 2002
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These three verses all use the verb “afflicted,” which comes from the noun “affliction,” an old word that means any difficult or painful circumstance. Afflictions come in all shapes and sizes. An affliction can be as small as an aggravating head cold or as large as a major illness, the loss of a job, public persecution, or rumors spread by your enemies. Or an affliction could be the sort of cosmic suffering Job experienced. One writer I consulted said that we don’t need to seek affliction because sooner or later, it will seek us. I’m sure that’s true. Sometimes our troubles come because we are just plain stupid. And we may have big trouble when we are repeatedly stupid. Other times we suffer because we live in a fallen world where disease spreads, babies get sick, and volcanoes erupt in the Congo. Sometimes we suffer not because we do wrong but because we do right and someone else doesn’t like it. So being good isn’t a guarantee that you won’t have problems.
Here’s a verse to consider as we begin this study: “Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord delivers him out of them all” (Psalm 34:19). Most of us probably like that second part about deliverance, but my sermon is mostly about the first part, the many afflictions the righteous suffer. If you want a big idea before we begin, here it is: It’s not what happens to us that matters, it how we respond that makes the difference. The writer of Psalm 119 had a lot to say about trouble. Evidently he had suffered so much that he had become a sort of expert in the field. The three verses of our text remind us forcefully that God is intimately involved in our troubles. Nothing happens—no matter how bad it may seem—by accident.
Your Troubles Are Not About You
Last night my friend Bruce Thorn called me from Alabama. I’ve known Bruce for almost 40 years and have come to appreciate him as a friend who seems to know when to call because he always has a timely word from the Lord. Just before we finished talking, he commented that many Christians mistakenly think that “church is about us.” But it’s not about us, it’s about God. Worship isn’t about whether or not we like the music; worship is about God! As I thought about it, it hit me that Bruce had given me a crucial insight for this sermon. Your troubles are not about you. Your troubles are about God. They are sent to teach you things about God you couldn’t learn any other way. Our three verses give us a panoramic view of how God uses affliction to teach us his Word and to build our faith so that we end up closer to him than we were before our troubles began.
I. Before My Troubles: Straying
“Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word” (Psalm 119:67).
At first glance this verse may seem to apply only to those who go astray into some sort of obvious moral sin. But the word “astray” simply means to go our own way, like the proverbial sheep of Isaiah 53:6. The psalmist means that before his troubles came, he was on top of the world, tooling down the highway of life with the top down and the music blaring. He was “the most from coast to coast,” his life was on cruise control, things were good, his wife was happy, his kids were doing great, his career was on the upswing, and little by little he was reaching his goals. Life wasn’t perfect but it sure was good. He prayed, but not much. He read his Bible, but not with much conviction. He went through the motions, but in his heart he felt pretty good about how things were going. His prosperity had caused him to push God to the edge of life.
But now that has all changed. God had other plans for him. I wonder how often we consider how thin the line is between joy and sorrow. Just one phone call and your life could be shattered forever. That’s all it takes. Just one phone call and things will never be the same. Of course we live as if that call will never come. But it could come at any moment. And when it does, our house of cards comes tumbling down. When people ask me, “Do you think God can speak to us today?” I always tell them, “He’s got your number and he can ring your phone any time he wants.” God can speak to us through our troubles and he can stop us in our tracks.
“Do whatever it takes, Lord.”
This week I spent five days lecturing on the book of Galatians to 600 students at Word of Life Bible Institute in Pottersville, New York. After one of my sessions, a student came up to talk to me. She said she had a friend who claimed to be a Christian but persisted in choosing the path of sexual sin. When she talks to her friend and shares God’s Word, her friend is always glad to hear the truth and promises to change her ways. But then she goes back to her sinful habits. What should she do? I advised her that besides remaining friends with her, she had one major way to help. She should pray that God would do whatever it takes to bring her friend to repentance. If that means hitting rock bottom, then so be it. After all, if you never face the consequences, why stop sinning? Many times I have urged Christians to pray like this for their loved ones who are far from God: “Lord, do whatever it takes. Hold nothing back. If it must be through pain, then let it be through pain that my loved ones may come to their senses and run to the cross of Christ for forgiveness.” It is not easy to pray this way but I am convinced it is entirely biblical. All you are saying is “Do whatever it takes to get their attention.” That’s a prayer God can answer in many different ways.
C. S. Lewis remarked that God whispers in our pleasure but he shouts in our pain. Pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a sleeping world. That’s what the psalmist meant in verse 67. His afflictions have led him back to the Lord. Where once he lived for himself, now he obeys God’s Word.
II. During My Troubles: Learning
“It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees” (Psalm 119:71).
Most of us would have a hard time saying, “It was good for me to be afflicted.” By definition, affliction is painful to endure. How could we ever call it good? Yet that is exactly what the psalmist said about his own suffering. I suppose that most modern Christians would rather identify with Peter on the Mount of Transfiguration when, after seeing Jesus standing alongside Moses and Elijah, he declared, “It is good for us to be here.” Then he volunteered to build three tabernacles so they could stay there for a while and have a personal Bible conference. Sure, why not? Sounds like a fine idea to me. There is nothing wrong with being on the mountaintop. We all need those experiences occasionally and no doubt we would like to stay on the mountaintop if we could. I smile when I consider Luke’s parenthetical observation on Peter’s comment: “He did not know what he was saying” (Luke 9:33). Sooner or later we all have to go back down into the valley. The mountaintop is a good break from the routine of life but it doesn’t last forever. You have to go back into the world of pain and suffering where bad things happen to good people and where life isn’t neat or easy or always fun. If your God is only a “God of the good times” or a “God of the mountaintops,” then your God is not the God of the Bible. The true God is often best seen in the darkness and his presence most powerfully felt in times of deepest sorrow.
One of the purposes of affliction is to teach us things we would not otherwise know. Until hard times come, our knowledge of God and his Word tends to be rather theoretical, like the man who reads three books on car repair and then opens an auto repair shop. When my car breaks down, I want a man with some grease under his fingernails. If he’s too clean, I worry that maybe he doesn’t have enough experience. Give me a man who knows by experience the difference between a fuel pump and a water pump.
Our Best Schoolmaster
The psalmist declares that passing through the valley of sorrow was good for him because through it all he learned the Word of God. Martin Luther commented that he never learned the Word until he was afflicted. His sufferings then became his best schoolmasters. This is a hard reality for many Christians to face because we don’t like our circumstances. We would prefer that our marriage be different or our career to move in a different direction or our finances to improve or our health to change for the better. No doubt most of us would change certain things about our own situation if we were in charge of the universe. But can we be certain that our choices would be better than God’s? Just because you don’t like your situation doesn’t mean you don’t need to be there. Your personal satisfaction with life is not necessarily a good gauge of where you need to be right now.
When we factor God into the equation, things look very different. It’s not that the affliction itself is less painful or that something sad has been made happy or that evil has somehow become good. And it doesn’t mean that you would not change things if you could. When we bring God into the equation, we look back and see how it was good for us to go through hard times because we learned things about God and about ourselves that we would never have known otherwise. About God, we learn that his ways are far beyond our ways, that he is holy and righteous and full of mercy and always faithful to his children. About ourselves, we learn that we aren’t as strong or as wise or as powerful or as clever as we thought we were. In the end, we are exposed as helpless children desperately in need of our Heavenly Father.
“You can’t rush God.”
As I look back over more than 30 years as a Christian, I can testify that the greatest times of personal growth came during the times of greatest sorrow and disappointment. In November of 1974 my father died just three months after Marlene and I were married. The world I had known disappeared the day he died and another world took its place. Things have never gone back to what they used to be. Fourteen years later I lost my job and for a while had no way to support my family. For months I felt suspended in mid-air, with no clear direction for the future and not much money to pay the bills. I remember vividly that my friend Rick Suddith told me that things weren’t likely to change any time soon and I should get a rocking chair, go sit on my front porch, and think about life and let God speak to me. I learned the hard way the truth of four simple words: “You can’t rush God.” He won’t be pushed and he doesn’t take kindly to those who try to rush him. As I look back on those experiences, I am aware that God worked in my life to produce needed change and to prod me to personal growth. I can truly testify that it was good for me to be afflicted in order that God might do his work in my life.
So many times our prayers in times of difficulty boil down to three words: “Change my circumstances.” While praying like that isn’t wrong, it can lead us in a wrong direction. If we take Psalm 119 seriously, we ought instead to pray, “Lord, teach me your Word.” We say, “Lord, change my marriage or get me out of it.” “Change my boss so she will appreciate me.” “Change my health so I will feel better.” “Change my financial condition so I can pay my bills.” Who among us hasn’t prayed along those lines? But consider this. Perhaps God has not changed your circumstances because he first wants to change you.
In the last few months I’ve been repeatedly impressed with certain themes that recur in the Old and New Testaments. I am struck by how often God says “Wait” in the Old Testament. Psalm 27:14 is just one example: “Wait for the LORD; be strong and take heart and wait for the LORD.” And in the New Testament I am struck by how often Paul prays that his readers might have grace to endure and to persevere. This comes out clearly in Colossians 1:ll where Paul prays that his readers might be “strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience.” Often when we want things to change, God’s word to us is “wait,” “endure,” “be patient,” and “persevere.” Which is why long-suffering is a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22 KJV). When it comes to this virtue, we would prefer that God give us “short-suffering,” but of course, that’s not on the heavenly menu. It is precisely as we wait and endure and persevere that we learn God’s Word, grow in grace, and learn many things that we never knew before. Only then can we look back and say, “As hard as it was, and although I didn’t expect it or want it and even now I might wish things had worked out some other way, I stand and declare that my God is faithful in all things. I see now that it was good for me to pass through the fire of affliction and I praise God for his wise plan for my life.”
III. After My Troubles: Knowing
” I know, O LORD, that your laws are righteous, and in faithfulness you have afflicted me” (Psalm 119:75).
The phrase “I know” speaks of settled knowledge, the kind that comes only by looking back over the years and seeing again and again how God has helped you in times of heartache and trouble. Most of us know that little poem called “Footprints” about the two sets of footprints in the sand, one for you and one for the Lord who walked with you. But in the darkest moments, there was only one set of prints. Why? “My child, when you couldn’t walk, I carried you in my arms,” says the Lord. The poem is so popular because it speaks to a near-universal experience. As we look back, we can see times that were so difficult that we know deep in our souls that if God had not carried us, we would not have made it through. That’s the sort of tested knowledge he’s talking about in verse 75.
The psalmist declares that he now knows three things as a result of his afflictions:
a) Everything God says is right.
b) God is faithful even in our troubles.
c) He is involved in everything that happens to us.
When times are tough, it’s easy to conclude, “Lord, this must be a mistake.” But consider how the psalmist puts it: “In faithfulness you have afflicted me.” Somehow he sees beyond his current misery, past the pain of difficult circumstances, and through the fog of many unanswered questions to apprehend the hand of a loving and faithful God who is working in, with and through his troubles to accomplish his divine purposes. What a high view of sovereignty this is. Even the attacks of his enemies cannot happen apart from God’s gracious permission. Not even Satan himself can touch him unless God wills it so. No weapon formed against him can prosper, and any evil weapon that touches him must be allowed to do so, not in spite of God’s faithfulness but because of it.
A “Sovereign Bullet”
It must be said that this is the very highest level of faith. To think like this means that you come to the conclusion that God is so sovereign that nothing can happen to you that he has not planned for his glory and your ultimate benefit. I am reminded of Jim Bowers’ comment after the death of his wife Roni and their infant daughter Charity when their missionary airplane was blown out of the sky by a Peruvian jet in April 2001. Humanly speaking it was a tragedy that should never have happened. Of the many bullets that sprayed the tiny plane, one single bullet took the life of his wife and his daughter. Looking back, Jim Bowers called it a “sovereign bullet.” Only a man who knows God can say a thing like that. But that is precisely the sort of thing the psalmist is saying in verse 75. As he looks back over his life, the good times and the bad, the happy days and the sad nights, he knows that all that has happened to him is not by chance or fate or some sort of cosmic roulette. It has come to him as proof of God’s faithfulness to his children. So far from shattering his faith, in the end his troubles have strengthened his faith.
Oh, for a faith like that!
It should be added that this sort of faith has enormous evangelistic power. The world stands in awe of a suffering saint who clings to his faith in the midst of horrific circumstances. The world can partially counterfeit our joy but it has no answer for the faith that shines the brightest in the darkest hours of the night. When the world sees our faith rising above and beyond our circumstances, it asks, “From whence does this come?” And then the door is open to talk about how Jesus Christ has changed everything for us.
Three Stages of Faith
As we come to the end, let’s consider the stages of faith during affliction:
First, there is faith that obeys. “Now I keep your Word.”
Second, there is faith that affirms: “It is good for me to be afflicted.”
Third, there is faith that glorifies: “In faithfulness you afflicted me.”
When we reach this level, we are really saying, “I would not change it if I could.” Not all of us will come to that point and perhaps we don’t have to. Faith must find its own level in each heart. But it is a wonderful thing to look back and declare that God has been proved correct in all that he has done, that things had to happen the way they did, and that in the end, God has glorified himself even in our sorest trials.
So to paraphrase my friend Bruce Thorn, your troubles are not about you, they’re about God! Your trials are meant to lift your face from earth to heaven that you might discover the riches of divine grace in the hardest moments of life. This means that your pain is never wasted, even though it often seems that way right now. Everything has a purpose in life, and that purpose is to glorify God and to bring us into a closer walk with him.
Five Simple Suggestions
In light of all of this, how should we respond to the trials, troubles and afflictions of life? Here are five simple suggestions:
a) Thank God for your troubles.
“In everything give thanks.” This we learn in I Thessalonians 5:18. It is God’s will that we should give thanks in every situation. While this does not mean that we must give thanks for everything, it does mean that there are always reasons for gratitude no matter how grim our circumstances might seem. To paraphrase a familiar hymn:
When upon life’s billows, you are tempest-tossed.
When you are discouraged thinking all is lost.
Count your many troubles, name them one by one,
And it will surprise you what the Lord has done.
Someone more or less gasped when I said the verse that way on Sunday. But I meant it that way. It’s good and necessary that we “count our blessings.” But there is something faith-building when you “count your troubles” one by one. As you do the counting, you will be surprised to see (if you look carefully) how God has been at work bringing blessings through the troubles of life. Count your troubles and soon you will be counting your blessings, too.
b) Look for God’s fingerprints in your life.
If what I have said is true, then we ought to see evidence of God’s work in all the troubles of life. Think of how your troubles have drawn you closer to God. Look for evidence of answered prayer. See if you can’t find the work of holy angels on your behalf. God always leaves his fingerprints on everything he touches. Ask God to open your eyes to see how he has worked on your behalf.
c) Immerse yourself in God’s Word.
Everything in Psalm 119 leads to this conclusion. When you are tempted to run from the Word, run to it instead! Jump into the Bible. Read it more, not less. Let your troubles drive you deep into the Word. If you can’t read a whole book, read a chapter. If not a chapter, then just a few verses. Or just one verse. Read it. Pray over it. Cling to it. Recite God’s promises back to him. Let his Word be the foundation of your prayers. Determine to obey the Word no matter what happens to you or around you. If you do that, you will emerge from your troubles with a faith much stronger than before your troubles started.
d) Have faith in God.
This means, Don’t give up. Don’t give in. Tell the Lord that you will continue to believe him no matter what happens. “Though he slay me, yet will I trust him” (Job 13:15 KJV). Let your friends know that your faith in God has not wavered. Tell the world that you believe God has led you tothis place and that he will not desert you now.
e) When your learning becomes knowing, share what you’ve learned about God with someone else.
One reason God helps us in our time of trouble is so that when we have come through it, we will be equipped to help others in their times of trouble. God comforts us that we might comfort others. You might find it helpful to keep a journal that records the ups and downs of life. That sort of written record will remind you of all you went through and how God helped you in your struggles. And it will serve as a written record that you can use to help others in the future.
We’re All Wounded
So let me ask you a personal question: What is your trouble? Do you find yourself in a difficult place right now? Are there circumstances in your life that you desperately want to change? Are you struggling to keep your faith intact when life seems to tumble in around you? I wish I could tell you that your experience is unusual but it isn’t. The old adage is true: “Into each life some rain must fall.” And some people seem to get a continual thunderstorm that turns into a torrential downpour. And if life is good for you right now, enjoy it and give thanks to God. It won’t stay that way forever. There is trouble around the corner sooner or later. Probably sooner.
We’re all in the same boat, aren’t we? The new movie Black Hawk Down contains a scene that is quite instructive at this point. A vehicle filled with wounded American soldiers has come to a stop in the middle of a street where Somali bullets are flying in every direction. The officer in charge tells a soldier to get in and starting driving. “I can’t,” the soldier says, “I’m shot.” “We’re all shot,” the officer replies. “Get in and drive.” That little scene resonates because it’s so true. We’re all wounded in one way or another. And that brings us back to the central truth: It’s not what happens to us that matters. It’s how we respond that makes all the difference. Your troubles are no mistake. In a deep and profound sense, and in a way that we won’t fully understand until we get to heaven, our troubles are a gift from God. They humble us, kill our pride, force us to admit our weakness, and drive us to the Savior who alone can help us when all earthly aids have failed.
Sometimes we will face things for which there is no earthly explanation. In those moments we need to erect a sign that reads, “Quiet: God at Work.” Meanwhile, hold on, child of God. Keep believing. Don’t quit. Don’t give up. Let God do his work in you. The greatest tragedy is to miss what God wants to teach us through our troubles. May God bring us to the place where we can say what the psalmist said, “It was good for me to be afflicted that I might learn your decrees.” Amen.