When heart rending difficulties come crashing into our lives, one of the anguished questions we often ask is, “Why?”
When we look at the Bible, the written Word of God, we can find answers to that question. What we will find will not be enough to satisfy all our curiosity, or to explain everything about each situation. Rather, the answers that we find in the Word of God will be sufficient for us to know how to live. The answers that we will find will not be easy, pat answers, the kind of off the cuff fortune cookie retorts that believers often give to others in their difficulties. The answers that God gives will be realistic and workable answers.
The unknown writer of Psalm 119 peppered that Psalm, the longest Psalm and the longest chapter in the Bible, with the various answers that he found. His name remains unknown and unrecorded, but surely he was someone who loved God and his Word. Here is what he found: “It was good for me to be afflicted, so that I might learn your decrees” (Psalm 119:71).
Our afflictions and difficulties are not without purpose. Those who are believers in Jesus Christ as held in the hands of an all powerful, all wise, loving and just God. He has a purpose in each and every painful experience. He is not concerned as much with the causes and avoiding hardship and pain for us as much as he is that we find his meaning and his purposes in them.
One of the chief purposes of God in our afflictions is hat we might learn his Word. It isn’t the only purpose, but one of them. His goal is not that we should learn it in theory, not in the rote facts. Rather, his purpose is that we should learn to experience the reality of his Word in our lives, to trust in him and his promises and to follow his declared will for our lives. The trials that we experience are very often the test of whether we will put into practice what we know despite effort and pain, whether we love God more than our comfort and reputation and whether our trust in him is genuine despite the difficult outward circumstances around us.
The Psalmist clearly saw a gulf between his knowledge of the Word of God and his practice of the Word of God. He definitely found deep and abiding joy in spending time in the Word, and desired with all his heart to obey it more fully. He saw his afflictions as the rod of God which directed him to the way of obedience. The circumstances which he was experiencing provoked him to self examination before God by removing his complacency and satisfaction in where he was living.
Believers today, in the same way, experience many situations that tempt them to disobey God. Many times sin appears to be easier than obedience – though it is never more expedient. The application of the Word of God to our lives when it is hard develops deeper habits of trust and obedience than when it is easy to trust and obey. Even the Lord Jesus himself, during his earthly life, learned obedience this way: “Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8). Moreover, God trained the people of Israel this way: “Remember how the LORD your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years, to humble you and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands” (Deuteronomy 8:2). Even the secular novelist Henry Fielding recognized this principle: “Adversity is the trial of principle: without it a man hardly knows whether he is honest or not.”
Through our afflictions, then, God desires that we should learn his ways form his Word. This is where we can often see in our lives the reality of the God who reveals himself through his Word. Knowing him in the darkness deepens our knowledge of him more than when we live only in easy times.
The Psalmist had no quarrel with God, his Word or his methods: “ I know, O LORD, that your laws are righteous, and in faithfulness you have afflicted me” (Psalm 119:75). The pain of his circumstances did not cause him to interpret God by his circumstances. Rather, he looked at the righteousness and justice of God’s ways as revealed in his Word, and the eternally faithful character of God from his Word.
God’s clearest revelation of himself comes through his Word, not our opinions, impressions or circumstances. His Word is truth, and his Word is infallible, not our opinions, perceptions, ideas or living situations. It’s one of the lessons that a believer needs to learn over and over again, to never interpret God by one’s own circumstances, but rather to interpret the circumstances by the Word of God and the nature and character of the God who reveals himself through his Word. Through our adversity we may continue to trust that God is good and generous because his Word reveals himself to be good and generous. Thus as God shows himself in the Word to be unchangeably loving we may continue to believe that he is still even though our feelings say otherwise.
One of the habits that underlies consistent Christian character, then, it to look to God and his Word when adversity comes, and then to follow the purpose that we find there. This is not the natural response of human nature. Rather, adversity may be a temptation to turn away from the Bible. Many times the hardest times to read the Bible are in the times when life is hardest. Yet these times are also the times when it is most necessary to turn to the Word, since it is the way that God seeks to teach you and comfort you. Otherwise a life which has committed itself to Christ in word as a living sacrifice in deed becomes a sacrifice on the altar of expediency and becomes full of cynicism and religious show rather than Christlikeness.
Trials repeat themselves throughout our lives when we fail to learn our lessons from the Word of God. Even if we try through sheer determination to make sure that we will never go through that again, God is wise enough to know how to bypass our willpower and defenses and allow us to keep on undergoing the tests until we learn the lessons God is seeking for us to learn. One of the lessons is what the Scottish author James Burgh wrote: “If you would not have affliction visit you twice, listen at once to what it teaches.”
In hardships and adversity, then, make it your priority to get alone with God and his Word. Prayerfully seek to learn what God is teaching you through that difficulty, what lessons about himself and what lessons about his will for your life. His usual way is to guide you to and through what you have already learned in facts to put it into practice. I fear that too many of the present generation of believers have never learned to develop this habit, and too often become steeped in inward cynicism and outward ritual because of it.
All scripture references taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION, copyright 1973, 1978 by the International Bible Society and used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.