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Finding Ourselves in the Psalms: When We Suffer

August 18, 2013

Sermon:  Finding Ourselves in the Psalms:  When We Suffer

Text:  Psalm 116


“I am not coming to Prayer Meeting on Wednesday nights anymore,” he said.  “It is nothing but an organ recital.”  He was not talking about our organ here in the Sanctuary.  He was referring to our prayer guide, which lists those who have health issues with their hearts, lungs, or kidneys, as well as those who have other types of problems.  “I am not coming anymore.  I don’t want to hear about all of that suffering.”

I suppose that in some ways the man had a justified criticism, but prayer is our best response to the suffering of this life.  As a congregation we affirm the importance of intercessory prayers for people with special needs.  Each Wednesday night we gather here in this Sanctuary to offer prayers for others.

Our topic today in the series Finding Ourselves in the Psalms is “When We Suffer.”  Our text is found in Psalm 116.

Suffering is a part of life, everyone’s life.  No one is exempt.  Honestly though, sometimes our pains, aches, and suffering pale in comparison to the suffering in this world.  The images coming out of Egypt this week, added to those coming from Syria for the past year, are almost beyond imagination.  The pictures we have seen of refugee camps and people who are starving in countries stricken by famine reveal to us suffering that is almost beyond our comprehension.

As I have been preparing these messages on the psalms, I have discovered Robert Alter’s book simply called The Book of Psalms.  Alter, now a retired teacher, has been a Biblical scholar for a long, long time. He has taught the Old Testament, as well as theological studies.  When I came to Psalm 116, I found his work to be especially helpful.  He has a unique way of looking at the psalms.

I would say to you that we could turn to a number of psalms on today’s topic of suffering.  Many include lamentations with figurative ways of describing this affliction.  Psalm 42:10 says that our bones are being crushed, and Psalm 22:14 presents a picture of our heart melting like wax within us.  The psalm that I chose for this topic, however, is a hymn of praise written by someone responding to an answered prayer.  Often during our Wednesday night meetings, people share praise reports of prayers that have been answered. 

Psalm 116 is one such praise report.  Verses 1-2 begin with admiration and adoration for God, who has answered the prayer of one who was suffering terribly. 

I love the Lord, for he heard my voice;
    he heard my cry for mercy.
Because he turned his ear to me,
    I will call on him as long as I live.

After an experience of answered prayer, we put more confidence in the life of prayer.  We want to pray more often.  The problem is that many people offer a prayer to God; but when it is not answered in the way they wish, they quit praying altogether. 

The psalmist has faced real suffering.  He seems to be describing a physical illness, maybe wounds an enemy inflicted on him as an act of war.  We learn that the narrator, who has come close to death, as mentioned in Verse 3, turned to God to relieve his anguish, distress, and sorrow.   God has answered those prayers, and the psalmist celebrates, calling God “gracious and righteous.”

The cords of death entangled me,
    the anguish of the grave came over me;
    I was overcome by distress and sorrow.
Then I called on the name of the Lord:
    Lord, save me!”

The Lord is gracious and righteous;
    our God is full of compassion.
The Lord protects the unwary;
    when I was brought low, he saved me.

Verses 7-10 reveal that the psalmist has regained not only his physical strength, but that he has also experienced a restoration of his soul, as is the case in Psalm 23.  The truth is that sometimes the Lord makes us lie down so that our soul can be restored.  This psalmist seems to have had that experience. 

Return to your rest, my soul,
    for the Lord has been good to you.

For you, Lord, have delivered me from death,
    my eyes from tears,
    my feet from stumbling,
that I may walk before the Lord
    in the land of the living.

10 I trusted in the Lord when I said,
    “I am greatly afflicted”;
11 in my alarm I said,
    “Everyone is a liar.”

Verse 11 ends with “Everyone is a liar.”  What?  That line seems out-of-place, but sick people are in a vulnerable position.  Trust is a valuable commodity.  Caregivers – physicians, nurses, pastors, even family members – are suspect.  For some, even God is suspect. 

God has responded favorably to this person who has been ill.  Therefore the writer appropriately responds with an offering of thanksgiving. 

12 What shall I return to the Lord
    for all his goodness to me?

13 I will lift up the cup of salvation
    and call on the name of the Lord.
14 I will fulfill my vows to the Lord
    in the presence of all his people.

The psalmist has gained a new perspective on life and death, which is common among those who have what is called a near-death experience.  The sufferer has now been given clarity that was previously beyond his recognition.  His words of praise beginning in Verse 15 are quite remarkable.

15 Precious in the sight of the Lord
    is the death of his faithful servants (or the death of his saints).
16 Truly I am your servant, Lord;
    I serve you just as my mother did;
    you have freed me from my chains.

When a person comes close to death, everything else in life falls into a completely different perspective.  Things that mattered so much before the occurrence do not matter nearly as much now.  That apparently is the case with this psalmist.  He simply wants to give thanks and praise to God.  We continue with Verses 17-19:

17 I will sacrifice a thank offering to you
    and call on the name of the Lord.
18 I will fulfill my vows to the Lord
    in the presence of all his people,
19 in the courts of the house of the Lord
    in your midst, Jerusalem.

    Praise the Lord.

Psalm 116 is an excellent passage for anyone who has been healed after a sickness.  It is also an excellent passage for those who are continuing to struggle with an illness or with suffering of any kind.

This week has been like many other weeks.  My prayers have been similar to those I have prayed in previous weeks.  I have prayed for members of the church who are in the hospital and for those who are suffering at home.  I have prayed for a young man battling a terrible addiction, for an older man struggling with depression, and for an elderly woman grieving deeply.  I have prayed for people who are dying and for people who wish they could die. 

It has been important for me to pray for two people in the hospital this week, two not associated with Morningside.  J.C. Stroble, a fixture in Spartanburg, has worked at the Beacon Drive-In for many years, standing at the end of the counter and shouting out the orders.  I understand that he is resting comfortably in the Intensive Care Unit.  Bessie Ball, whose husband was Dr. Billy Ball, the first pastor of Fernwood Baptist Church, has been an important part of the Spartanburg community.  She was in the hospital this past week, but she died and went to heaven yesterday.  Add to all of these people many that I do not know, the people of Egypt, Syria, and other places in this world.  The life of prayer allows us to pray for all of those who are suffering.  The ministry of intercession gives us this opportunity. 

I have had a rather long journey in trying to understand suffering.  When I was in seminary I read the writings of Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick, the pastor of the Riverside Church in New York City.  What an outstanding preacher!  I remember the important question he asked in one sermon in particular, “How Can We Believe in a Good God in a World Like This?”  That sermon helped me begin to understand the connection between God’s goodness and the suffering we must all endure. 

Most of us have heard of Rabbi Harold Kushner and his book that is often mis-titled Why Bad Things Happen to Good People.  The correct title is When Bad Things Happen to Good People.  Kushner never attempted to answer the question why, which cannot be answered.  He wrote this book following the death of his son Aaron, who died from the very rare disease known as premature aging. 

Frederick Buechner, a great writer and favorite of mine, wrote a theology called Wishful Thinking, which consists of little snippets of theology.  One piece that has been very helpful to me offered three truths about how to think about and deal with the problem of evil.  Buechner says the first of the great truths in this life is that God is omnipotent and omniscient, all-powerful and all-knowing; God is sovereign.  The second truth is that God is a God of love and compassion.  The third truth is that terrible things happen to people. 

Buechner says a religion can be created from the combination of any two of these truths.  The truth that God is all-powerful, added to the truth that terrible things happen to people, results in the belief that God must be a god of wrath, a god of vengeance.  The truth that God is all-loving and compassionate, combined with the truth that terrible things happen to people, results in a watered-down form of liberalism that basically says God cannot do anything about the bad events occurring in the world.  The truth that God is all-sovereign, omnipotent, and powerful, combined with the truth that terrible things – really figments of our imagination – happen to people, results in something akin to Christian Science.

How do you square all three great truths?  If you stick with me, you will understand by the end of this service.

Some of you have heard the story of how I fell and broke my neck in 1978 while doing something stupid, teaching my children how to skin the cat.  If you have never hung on a bar, flipped your legs through your arms, and come back through, do not try it.  The bar broke, causing me to fall to the ground and break my neck at the sixth cervical vertebra. During the time I was in traction from April to August, I thought I was going slam crazy.  I could not read, watch television, or do many other activities.  During this period I learned an important lesson.  I learned how to pray. 

Recently Dr. John Carson, a professor of theology, gave a lecture entitled “Going beyond Clichés:  Christian Reflection on Suffering and Evil.”  He differentiates between three kinds of evil in this world: natural evil that happens when disasters, such as tornadoes and hurricanes, hit; malicious evil, which includes crimes against others, such as murder or sexual assault; and accidental evil, which, say, occurs when a bridge collapses.  Carson explains that differentiating the types of evil is not a uniquely Christian challenge.  Anyone who tries to develop some type of world view that includes a concept of suffering and evil has the same predicament. 

Carson then turns to the Christian message, saying that from the very beginning of the Bible, since that first ancient revolt, suffering and pain have been woven into the fabric of human life with all its ambiguity.  Suffering has become a part of the wreckage left from the disaster in Eden.  Affliction and evil are universal, haunting us, stalking us, and plaguing us.  He adds that as we go from the beginning of the Bible story to the end of the Bible story, we can anticipate the ending.  We have an ultimate hope that the created order – going so far off track back in Genesis 3 – will be eventually restored by God, who is in the business of redemption.  Romans 8 tells us that the hope will be set right.  We must give up the idea that we will solve the problems of this world such as eliminating global warming, correcting the political scene, or establishing all kinds of new peace accords.  Wanting to find a solution to these problems is certainly worthy of our best efforts; however, the world will be set right ultimately through Christ Jesus and his reign on this earth.  Only in him can all things be made new.

We must look at the suffering of the innocent, Job, for example.  We talk about the patience of Job, but he was not a very tolerant man.  Job actually took God to task.  Wanting answers, he drilled God and drilled God. 

Finally God took him aside and spoke to him out of whirlwind, “Job, you do not know what you are talking about.  Where were you when I founded the earth?”  God went on to ask Job a series of questions that Job could not possibly answer.  Finally Job confessed and justice was done.  It is not just that justice was done, but justice was seen at the end.  The same is true of the story of the Bible.  “Though he slay me, yet I will trust him.”  (Job 13:15).  That is the key.  God does not necessarily want us to understand.  He does want us to trust, which is often very hard to do.

We must look at the incarnation and the cross of Jesus.  When Jesus died on the cross, God was not blindsided, not taken by surprise one bit.  God was involved; He is sovereign.  Christians can proclaim that Jesus reigned from the cross.  Are we to consider the cross a throne?  In Christian theology, this bleeding Nazarene, this “King of kings and Lord of lords,” reigns from the cross.

Finally Carson says that we all have our own experiences of faith.  We have all been through suffering of some sort, big or small.  We can all share our experiences about the way God has responded to us.  The Bible makes some remarkable comments about our suffering.  It tells us that we all have a cross to bear and that in some way our suffering completes the suffering of Christ.  In other words, our suffering is not without meaning; it has a theological purpose.

I have learned from my own faith experience that we constantly stand before a great mystery.  God is beyond our imagination, beyond our understanding.  For us to try to understand God is certainly a part of our task.  We cannot simply choke down our suffering though. We must ask the question Why?  I hear good, well-meaning people say, “Christians should never ask why.”  Do not believe it.  Do not allow your questions to become a barrier between you and God.  Ask God why.  I doubt that you will get many good answers, but ask anyway. 

Jesus asked God why, setting the example for us.  Jesus was probably quoting from Psalm 22:1 when he exclaimed from the cross, “My God, my God!  Why have you forsaken me?”  It is perfectly fine to ask why as Job did, to ask why as Jesus did.  Remember the words of God found in Isaiah 55:8: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.  Higher than your ways are my ways, higher than your thoughts are my thoughts.” God is above us and beyond us.  We will never understand some things this side of heaven.

Second, I have learned that I must be absolutely dependent on God.  I am an unfinished product, a project just as we all are.  That is why Paul said, “He who began a good work in you will complete it” (Philippians 1:6).  God will continue to work on us throughout our life.  My dad used to say that God has the same task as a blacksmith.  Just as a blacksmith puts a piece of iron in the fire, allowing it to temper, God puts us in difficult circumstances so that we can become hard and useful in the service of God.  Isaiah 48:10 says, “I have refined you, not as silver.  I have tested you in the furnace of affliction.”  Pain and suffering have a way of putting us in the fire and making us stronger.

After I broke my neck, the words of II Corinthians 12:7-10 became very important to me.  Paul writes there of his thorn in the flesh:  “I was given a thorn in my flesh…to torment me.  Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.  But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in your weakness.’  Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses so that Christ’s power may rest on me.  That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weakness…For when I am weak, then I am strong.” 

I read that passage over and over and over, so much so that it penetrated my being.  I realized that when we pray, sometimes God’s answer is no, as it was for Paul.  It was through that experience that I really learned to pray.  Suffering produces a kind of intimacy with God that we simply cannot have any other way.  Intimacy with God comes out of affliction, as it did for Job and for Paul.

Third, suffering equips us to comfort others.  If we want a heart of compassion we must learn to hurt.  God will take whatever our affliction, whatever our suffering, and find a way to help us have compassion for hurting people, enabling us to minister more effectively to them.  That certainly has been the case in my life.  People who suffer want to hear from others who have been through that same kind of experience.  Clare and I have had so many opportunities to minister to parents who have lost children. 

Fourth, in our suffering we identify with Christ.  You heard the Scripture read earlier:  “Count it all joy…whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.  Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2-4).  The experience of suffering helps us grow and lose a lot of our naivety.  We learn what it means to take up our cross.  We find meaning and purpose in the idea that somehow our pain completes the suffering of Christ.

Finally, it is only at the cross that the three great truths come together:  God is sovereign.  God is compassionate, and terrible things happen in this world.  When we look to the cross of Jesus Christ, we see that the Christian faith has the only example of God becoming a part of our humanity and suffering with us.  God understands.  If you are suffering, go to the cross.  You will find a Savior there who can see you through your suffering.  I cannot possibly know all of your suffering, but I have enough mileage on my odometer to know that each one here is going through something.

Have you gone to the cross?  Have you gone to Christ Jesus?  If you not, could I invite you to do that this morning?  Come to Jesus.  Let him minister to you.  Some have other decisions to make.  You respond as God leads.


Kirk H. Neely

© August 2013


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