Thoughts on Suffering

As I continue reading through the Memoirs and Remains of Robert Murry M’Cheyne, I keep finding treasures of wisdom that I want to pass along.  The following is from a letter M’Cheyne wrote to his congregation when he was separated from them because of his poor health.  There were several in his congregation who were sick as well, and they had written to him about the meaning of suffering.  Here is his reply:

You have here, then, in Job 23:8-9, a child of light walking in darkness, an afflicted soul seeking, and seeking in vain, to know why God is contending with him. Dear friends, this is not an uncommon case; even to some of you God’s providences often appear inexplicable. He has tried you in different ways: some of you by the loss of your property, as He tried Job; some of you by the loss of dear friends; some by loss of health, some by the loss of the esteem of friends. Perhaps more than one trouble has come on you at a time, wave upon wave, thorn upon thorn. Before one wound was healed, another came, before the rain was well away, clouds returned. You cannot explain God’s dealings with you, you cannot get God to explain them; you have drawn the Savior’s blood and righteousness over your souls, and you know that the Father himself loves you; you would like to meet Him to ask, “Why do you contend with me?”

My dear afflicted brethren, this is no strange thing that has happened to you. Almost every believer is at one time or another brought to feel this difficulty: “God makes my heart soft, and the Almighty troubles me.” Is it in anger, or is it in pure love, that He afflicts me? Am I fleeing from the presence of the Lord, as Jonah fled? What change would He have wrought in me? If any of you are thinking thus in your heart, pray over this word in Job. Remember the word in Psalm 46, “Be still, and know that I am God.” God does many things to teach us that He is God, and to make us wait upon Him. And, still further, see in verse 10 what light breaks in upon our darkness: “But He knows the way that I take: when He hath tried me, I shall come forth as gold.”

Observe, first, “He knows the way that I take.” What sweet comfort there is in these words: He that redeemed me, He that pities me as a father, He who is the only wise God, He whose name is love, “He knows the way that I take!”He that is greater than all the world is looking with the intensest interest upon all your steps.

You do not know your own way. God has called you to suffer, and you go, like Abraham, not knowing whither you go. Like Israel going down into the Red Sea, every step is strange to you. Still, be of good cheer, sufferer with Christ! God marks your every step.

He that loves you with an infinite, unchanging love, is leading you by his Spirit and providence. He knows every stone, every thorn in your path. Jesus knows your way. Jesus is afflicted in all your afflictions. “Fear not, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by my name, you art mine. When you pass through the water, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow you. When you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned, neither shall the flame kindle upon you.”

Second, “When He hath tried me, I shall come forth as gold.” This also is precious comfort. There will be an end of your affliction. Christians must have “great tribulation;” but they come out of it. We must carry the cross; but only for a moment, then comes the crown.

There is a set time for putting into the furnace, and a set time for taking out of the furnace. There is a time for pruning the branches of the vine, and there is a time when the husbandman lays aside the pruning-hook. Let us wait his time; “he that believeth shall not make haste.” God’s time is the best time.

But shall we come out the same as we went in? Ah! no; “we shall come out like gold.” It is this that sweetens the bitterest cup; this brings a rainbow of promise over the darkest cloud. Affliction will certainly purify a believer. How boldly he says it: “I shall come out like gold!” Ah, how much dross there is in every one of you, dear believers, and in your pastor!

Oh that all the dross may be left behind in the furnace! What imperfection, what sin, mingles with all we have ever done! But are we really fruit-bearing branches of the true vine! Then it is certain that when we are pruned, we shall bear more fruit. We shall come out like gold. We shall shine more purely as “a diadem in the hand of our God.” We shall become purer vessels to hold the sweet-smelling incense of praise and prayer. We shall become holy golden vessels for the Master’s use in time and in eternity.

May the promise that God knows and shares our suffering, and that God is using it to refine His people, strengthen you and give you hope as you face trials and afflictions.

Grace and peace,

SDG

Quoted from: McCheyne, Robert Murray, and Andrew A. Bonar. Memoir and Remains of the Rev. Robert Murray McCheyne. Edinburgh; London: Oliphant Anderson & Ferrier, 1894. Logos Digital Edition.

Yakkity yak, don’t talk back…

“But who are you, O man, to answer back to God?”
Romans 9:20

I have written before describing how our relationship with our children are good reminders of our relationship with God.  Your child’s dependence on your provision as a parent is a tremendous sign of your own dependence upon God for everything.  Your child’s begging and pleading for the desires of their heart is how we ought to come to God in prayer.  Your child’s disobedience illustrates our own disobedience from our heavenly Father.  Your love for your child, even your disobedient child, is but a glimpse of the steadfast and unfailing love of God.

As I was reading through Romans 9 today, I was reminded of another correlative aspect of the parent/child and God/creation relationship: lipping off.  I don’t know if there is a more frustrating thing as a parent than to have a child talk back in disrespect. As a parent I’ve learned the meaning of pain by stepping barefoot on a lego on the bedroom floor.  I’ve learned humility through cleaning up sick in the middle of the night.  I have re-learned Algebra, History, Biology and the Arts to help guide and shape my children through their education.  And what thanks do I get, “Whatever, Dad!”

I am not a perfect father, far from it.  I have a lot to learn, and I will readily admit when I am wrong, and often have.  But when a child starts talking back, questioning not just my decision, but the very intention of my heart, that’s too much.  It is as if they think I’m making this up as I go (which, sometimes I am), but even worse, that I don’t want what’s best for them in the long run.  I doubt that I’m alone; this is one of the most frustrating things I have faced as a parent.

And yet, aren’t we like that with God?  This evening I’m attending a Presbytery Seminar on “The Future of the Five Points,” in which 5 of my colleagues in ministry will be discussing the 5 Points of the Doctrines of Grace and how they continue to be relevant today.  What I find fascinating is that whenever Calvin or Reformed Faith are even mentioned, the automatic question is, “What about my free will?”

Okay, what about it?

By insisting upon your freedom of will, what are you making of God’s will?  Shall the will of the sovereign of the universe bend to yours?  Are you questioning the wisdom of God?  Are you doubting his heart?

The apostle Paul has laid out the gospel throughout his letter to the Romans, that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God”, and that “God has done what the law, weakened by flesh, could not do by sending his own Son… in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us”.  This is God’s sovereign work of salvation in Jesus Christ for all who are called according to his purpose.

As Paul anticipates the rejoinder from his audience, arguing “Well, if God’s will is sovereign and you cannot resist Him, why does he still hold us accountable.”  And his answer, Because God is God.  “Who are you to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?'”  Ultimately, Paul’s solution to the question of free will is to compare the will of created man to the will of the eternal God; and there is no real comparison.

This is the answer that God gave Job when Job questioned the Almighty:

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding. (Job 38:4)

Will you even put me in the wrong?
Will you condemn me that you may be in the right? (Job 40:8)

Ultimately, who gets the glory? Who’s will is sovereign?  If it is mine, then we’re all done for, because I cannot even plan a trip to the grocery story without something going wrong. He holds my breath in his hands (Dan 5:23).  So who am I to think that I have the strength of will to determine the outcome of my existence in eternity?  God is sovereign, therefore His will must reign supreme and work all things for the purpose of His good pleasure.  Will I not honor Him?

Please don’t think that I am being flippant or dismissive of the real struggle that many have in regards to our responsibility and God’s sovereignty. But in the end we must acknowledge that He is God, and we are not.  Will you, will I, continue to question his love, his mercy, His sovereign will?  He has ordained all things according to His will, things for wrath and things for mercy, that He might be glorified in all things.  This great mystery ought to lead us, not to divisions among us, but to join in the wonder and praise that Paul shares in Romans 11:

Oh the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?
Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?
For from him and through him and to him are all things.
To him be glory forever. Amen.