Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) is often regarded as America’s most prominent theologian. While preparing to enter into the presidency of the College of New Jersey (Princeton, today), he received a smallpox vaccination. However, the treatment went awry. His throat swelled up, his fever increased, and he passed away. His wife Sarah was absent from him when he passed away. Upon hearing the news, Sarah decided to write a letter to their daughter Esther following his passing. Her letter reads:
What shall I say: A holy and good God has covered us with a dark cloud. O that we may kiss the rod, and lay our hands on our mouths! The Lord has done it. He has made me adore his goodness that we had him so long. But my God lives; and he has my heart. O what a legacy my husband, and your father, has left to us! We are all given to God: and there I am and love to be. Your ever affectionate mother, Sarah Edwards.
I can’t help but marvel at this woman’s faith amid such a horrible event. Perhaps you too, have been afflicted in your life. Recently, I was reading Psalm 77. Psalm 77 is a psalm of lament. Asaph is under deep distress and the reader gains insight into his heart and mind as he is walking through a perilous time.
According to Asaph, he fervently and earnestly sought the Lord (v.1). He cried out to God, but his soul refused to be comforted (v.2). He attempted to meditate upon God, yet with all of this contemplation, he moaned, and his spirit grew faint. Have you ever been in a moment like this? He is reflecting upon the goodness of God, but nothing seems to comfort him. He knows the truth of God’s attributes and character, but it’s no help for him in these moments. It’s as if his life lies at the bottom of the pit and there’s no light at the end of the tunnel.
For Asaph, he knew the covenant promises and blessings (v.6-9), but they seemed no match for his present circumstances. Have you ever felt this way? Have you ever felt that the weight of your afflictions were too strong for the Lord to carry? Have you ever felt as if there was no light at the end of the tunnel? Asaph did.
In W.S. Plumer’s commentary on Psalm 77, he lists three questions to consider when one is undergoing affliction. First, we must ask, “Why does God afflict us?” Second, “What is our duty?” Third, “When and how may we hope for deliverance?” Let us briefly consider the answers to these questions.
Why Does God allow affliction in our lives?
First, God’s purpose in His children’s lives is that they will grow in conformity to the image of His Son (Rom. 8:29). According to Thomas Watson, “Afflictions work for good, as they conform us to Christ. God’s rod is a pencil to draw Christ’s image more lively upon us (All Things for Good, 28). Watson asks the question, “Was His [Christ] head crowned with thorns, and do we think to be crowned with roses (28)?”
Second, affliction teaches what sin is. Again, Watson speaks well in this area. He says,
“In the word preached, we hear what a dreadful thing sin is, that it is both defiling and damning, but we fear it no more than a painted lion; therefore, God lets loose affliction, and then we feel sin bitter in the fruit of it. A sick-bed often teaches more than a sermon (p.27).”
He adds, “God makes us know affliction, that we may better know ourselves (ibid.).”
Third, afflictions work for our good in the sense that they often strip us from our reliance on things of the world. In prosperity, our hearts are likely to be divided. We rely partly on God and partly to the world. Prosperity tempts us to live with the “pride of life (1 John 2:16).” As Andrew M. Davis states, “It’s very easy to feel satisfied and at peace with the universe when the five senses are sated and there are no storm clouds on the horizon (The Power of Christian Contentment, 161).” Afflictions assist us in setting our hearts right before the Lord.
What is our duty?
How are we to respond in moments of affliction? I believe that Asaph was correct in his response. He said, “I cry aloud to God, aloud to God, and he will hear me. In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord (Ps. 77:1-2).” Asaph prayed fervently and earnestly in the moments of tribulation. Oh, that we would imitate this in our response to affliction! As Charles Spurgeon once said, “Days of trouble must be days of prayer (The Treasury of David, Psalm 77).” Spurgeon adds, “Diseases and tribulations are easily enough endured when God is found of us, but without Him, they crush us to the earth (Ibid).”
I love Asaph’s honesty in His lament before God. He says, “Will the Lord spurn forever, and never again be favorable? Has his steadfast love forever ceased? Are his promises at an end for all time? Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he in anger shut up his compassion (Ps. 77:7-9)?” When I first read this, I was shocked and fearful at his honesty. Was he not afraid to be open and honest before God? Asaph wasn’t hesitant to be honest before God because he knew that God doesn’t punish such boldness, because He invites the seriousness of our hearts.
When we find ourselves faced with afflictions and tribulations, may we boldly go before the throne room of God. As the writer of Hebrews states, “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace in help in time of need (Heb. 4:16).” How is it that we can enter with confidence? The writer gives the answer in verse 15, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin (4:15).” Let us draw near with confidence.
When and how may we hope for deliverance?
Toward the end of Psalm 77, Asaph has a breakthrough. He said, “I will appeal to this, to the years of the right hand of the Most High. I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your wonders of old (Ps. 77:10-11).” Asaph doesn’t allow his present circumstances to overshadow the faithfulness of God. He knows that he can appeal to the character of God because God never changes. Paul states, “if we are faithless, he remains faithful— for he cannot deny himself (2 Tim. 2:13).”
God’s character is immutable (unchanging). He is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb. 3:18). For Asaph, he looked upon the past faithfulness of God in the deliverance of His covenant people. He recounts how God redeemed His people in the Exodus (Ps. 77:15). He adds, “You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron (v.20).”
When life seems grim, when all hope seems lost, we must recount the character of the God that we serve. He is a good Father and He ordains all to come upon us for our good and for the praise of His glory.
When we are in the middle of the storm, let us be a people that cling tightly to the precious gift of salvation. We remember that we have been born of God. We remember that we have been saved by grace. We remember that we were dead at the bottom of the ocean, but through Christ we have been made alive. The blood of Christ has cleansed us of our sin and as Thomas Watson said, “The blood of Christ can make a prison become a palace (The Lord’s Supper, 37).”
There are three types of people in the world: Those that are in the middle of a storm, those that just came out of a storm, and those that are about to enter into one. When we find ourselves in the middle of darkness, let us remember the goodness of our God. Let us be able to echo the words of Sarah Edwards, “We are all given to God: and there I am and love to be.”
Soli Deo Gloria
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