Years ago a friend and I used to meet regularly to pray about a particular request. I prayed fervently for a certain outcome, and I was convinced that God would grant my request.
I was so confident that I remember telling my friend once, “You know, we have prayed so much about this, and I know that what we’re praying for is the will of God. If it doesn’t happen, my faith is going to be wounded.”
In the end, things didn’t work out the way I wanted, and I felt pretty wounded. The Lord reminded me, “Maybe you’d better think this through again. Maybe you’d better listen to the answer I gave to Job.”
Remember that you don’t know the whole story.
Job rightly maintained his innocence when his friends encouraged him to confess sin. He knew he hadn’t sinned, and yet he still suffered. Job asked God to explain Himself, and in chapter 38, God finally answered:
Where were you when I laid the foundation of the
Tell Me, if you have understanding,
Who set its measurements? Since you know.
Or who stretched the line on it?
On what were its bases sunk?
Or who laid its cornerstone,
When the morning stars sang together
And all the sons of God shouted for joy? (Job 38:4-7)
It’s a lengthy passage. Job had a vision of God, and he responded in submission to the God who so forcefully reminded him that he didn’t know the whole story.
We see such a small part of the great masterpiece that God is painting. You and I are able to read just a few paragraphs of the long story that God is writing, and yet we arrogantly demand that God give an account of Himself.
Remember that the covenant God always keeps His word.
Psalm 44 deals with this tendency. The first several verses of this Psalm are almost a hymn of victory and triumph:
O God, we have heard with our ears,
Our fathers have told us
The work that You did in their days,
In the days of old.
You with Your own hand drove out the nations;
Then You planted them;
You afflicted the peoples,
Then You spread them abroad. (Psalm 44:1-2)
Notice—we’ve heard the story, they’ve told us of what you did in their days—in the days of old, from the perspective of the Psalmist. The Psalmist appeals to the covenant God’s past actions.
The Psalmist now comes to his own present moment. He is apparently a king of Israel, or perhaps a military leader:
You are my King, O God;
Command victories for Jacob.
Through You we will push back our adversaries;
Through Your name we will trample down those who
rise up against us. (Psalm 44:4-5)
The plot changes abruptly in verse 9:
Yet You have rejected us and brought us to dishonor,
And do not go out with our armies.
The Psalmist goes on to detail the ways in which God has allegedly failed him—Israel has been scattered and humiliated by her enemies.
Why did these terrible things happen to Israel? Sometimes people suffer as a consequence of their own bad actions. If a student gets hauled before a disciplinary committee for cheating on a test, for example, he brought that on himself. If a man is humiliated in the office or in his church because he was unfaithful to his wife, well, some of our sufferings we bring on ourselves.
That’s not what the Psalmist has in mind here. He describes suffering that has no explanation—and yet look at his response:
All this has come upon us, but we have not forgotten You,
And we have not dealt falsely with Your covenant. (Psalm 44:17)
We don’t know the historical setting for this particular Psalm. Whatever the circumstance, the Israelites who suffered humiliation and enslavement in Psalm 44 had not worshiped the pagan gods. They didn’t understand why these things were happening to them:
If we had forgotten the name of our God
Or extended our hands to a strange god,
Would not God find out?
For He knows the secrets of the heart. (Psalm 44:20-21)
Hard times are inevitable, and we can be tempted to turn away. Read more about how to deal with trouble and suffering in my blog “Why Trouble Should Increase Your Trust in God.”
Remember that God is at work even in your suffering.
And then comes the most puzzling and challenging phrase in the whole Psalm:
But for your sake we are killed all day long;
We are considered as sheep to be slaughtered. (Psalm 44:22)
This could mean something basic like, ‘they persecute us because we’ve followed You, Lord,’ but I think there’s more to it than that. The Psalmist seems to be saying something more like, ‘For Your sake, Lord, because of some mysterious reason that You have, we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’ That’s more consistent with the way Paul uses the idea in Romans 5 and in Romans 8:
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed in us. (Romans 8:18)
Paul believes that somehow, in the mysterious plan of God, both the messiah and the people of God will suffer. We are to be a people who may well suffer because of our devotion to the Lord. We are to be a people who, in this fallen world, where there are things like war, poverty, violence, and distress, will bear witness to the God who revealed Himself through the suffering messiah.
That seems to be what Paul has in mind in Romans 5:1-3:
Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God. And not only this, but we also rejoice in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance… (Romans 5:1-3)
Tribulation means affliction and suffering. Why would you rejoice in that? We rejoice, not because we enjoy pain, but because we believe that God is at work even in the hour of suffering. We rejoice in our tribulations, knowing. The word “knowing” here refers to the knowing of relationship.
This is what we have learned about the God with whom we have to do: in the hands of God, tribulation brings about perseverance.
Of course, suffering doesn’t always bring about perseverance for everyone. We’ve all known people who, because of enormous suffering, have turned away from God. Paul’s point is that the people of God double up on their trust in the hour of suffering. They may be angry at first, they may lose heart for a time, but somehow tribulation brings about perseverance.
We rejoice in our tribulations, knowing. We—followers of Christ—know that in Christ tribulation brings about perseverance, perseverance a tested character, and a tested character, hope. God is at work in the process and we are witnesses to His way of doing things through the crucified Messiah.
Remember that God knows what He’s doing—and He only works for good.
At the end of Psalm 44, the Psalmist doesn’t abandon the Lord as His God. He knows that the only salvation he has, the only hope he has, is from God. Notice the honesty here:
Why do You hide Your face
And forget our affliction and our oppression?
For our soul is sunk down into the dust;
Our body cleaves to the earth.
Rise up, be our help,
And redeem us for the sake of Your lovingkindness. (Psalm 44:24-26)
It’s the only answer I know. In the end, God is good. God is faithful. He sent His own Son to die for us. When our faith is thin, in the hours of agony, when terrible things have happened and hard times prevail, remember that God sometimes does strange things—but He does them for His glory. Trust Him. He knows what He’s doing.
The preceding was adapted by Rachel Motte from a sermon Dr. Sloan delivered at Kingsland Baptist Church on May 19, 2013.