Extraordinary afflictions are not always the punishment of extraordinary sins, but sometimes the trial of extraordinary graces.” -Matthew Henry
You’re thinking you must have done something terrible. Or maybe that God’s been playing favorites, and you’re not one of them.
Have you ever noticed that when you’re going through adversity, you seem to be surrounded by people whose lives seem so easy? So effortless?
Have you ever noticed how easy it is to feel offended – actually offended – when you’re plowing through the tough stuff? As if God or life or the world owed you something and hasn’t paid up?
Let’s face it – nobody gets up in the morning yearning for a hard day. Nobody prays for more pain. And yet go to any source of earthly or heavenly wisdom, and you’ll see somebody talking about the pure value of adversity. Let’s just start at the top:
It is good for me that I was afflicted,
That I may learn Your statutes (Psalm 119:71).
Speak for yourself, holy man! This is twenty-first century America, where God owes us an easy life. We’re on his winning team and all that.
Some of the most profound wisdom you can ever attain will come at the other end of affliction, which is a general word for whatever crap you’re going through. If it hurts, it’s affliction. I know, yours is unique and your situation is different. I know – believe me, I know – that your pain is real and you’d do just about anything for some relief.
I also know that if you’re right in the middle of the affliction right now, you may probably want to save this for future reference. Sometimes it’s hard to see the abundant treasure when all you can do is feel the fire of the furnace. But I want to tell you that there truly is beauty, even in your moments of deep pain. Learning from the experience of the psalmist, you can find ways that what looks bad today can lead to extraordinary goodness tomorrow.
What’s so good about affliction?
1. Affliction helps us trace the goodness of God.
Before I was afflicted I went astray,
But now I keep Your word.
You are good and do good;
Teach me Your statutes (Psalm 119:67-68).
You never will fully comprehend the goodness of God until you bear the brunt of life in a broken world without Him. When you seek to define happiness in terms of feeling good, attaining material comforts, or being praised by others, you’re playing by the rules of the fallen. And you never exactly break those rules – they break you. Or maybe you just break yourself on them.
Sooner or later the pleasure stops being pleasurable, or the sources of pleasure fail to deliver. Sooner or later you reach the limits of what prosperity can achieve. Sooner or later your pride sets you up for a fall.
And yet beyond all that is God. Faithfully, carefully, lovingly offering you something more – namely Himself. As one song beautifully describes it… “At the end of broken dreams, He’s the open door.”
2. Affliction leads us to discernment and knowledge.
You have dealt well with Your servant,
O Lord, according to Your word.
Teach me good discernment and knowledge,
For I believe in Your commandments (Psalm 119:65-66).
If you do something stupid and it hurts because you did something stupid, you have a great opportunity to do something smart – namely don’t do the stupid thing again.
Ever hear the phrase, “I’ve got the scars to prove it”? True, not all of those scars are self-inflicted. But all of them carry lessons learned in the heat of the battle. That’s why when the bullets start flying, people look to the seasoned Sergeant, not the rookie Second Lieutenant.
Look. Nobody values wisdom when all you’re seeing is pain. So I’ll tread lightly here. But one day the discernment and understanding you are learning in the affliction is going to be worth the scars you gain in the process.
3. Affliction sharpens us in our faithfulness and obedience.
With all my heart I will observe Your precepts.
It is good for me that I was afflicted,
That I may learn Your statutes (Psalm 119:69b, 71).
Here’s how the writer of Hebrews expresses it:
Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it (Hebrews 12:11, NRSV).
I wish I could tell you something different, but if you look at the broad patterns of life in both the Old and New Testaments, you will find that prosperity tends to make people – even the people of God – careless and dull. It doesn’t have to, but it generally does. But for those whose hearts are turned toward Him, affliction has a way of bringing discipline to our lives. Simply put, it sharpens you. It makes your faithfulness more defined, your obedience quicker and more complete. Along with that…
4. Affliction “removes the fat” from our lives and obedience, and refines the purity of our hearts.
Their heart is covered with fat,
But I delight in Your law (Psalm 119:70).
I’ve lived long enough as a believer to know what a fat heart feels like. Sluggish. Careless. Lazy. Dull.
God has an interesting solution for a spiritually fat heart… the treadmill of affliction. Welcome to God’s edition of “The Biggest Loser.” He’s gonna work some of that blubber off your heart, and it isn’t going to be from watching TBN or singing in the choir.
He’s going to put you into situations where it’s painful to obey his word, but more painful not to. He’s going to expose you to the absolutely dire need to trust Him, when everything in you may be screaming, “Curse God and die!”
But something else is happening in the process. You’re getting leaner. Cleaner. More energetic, spiritually and otherwise. And you wouldn’t have gotten there any other way.
5. Affliction teaches us what is most valuable.
The law of Your mouth is better to me
Than thousands of gold and silver pieces (Psalm 119:72)
Affliction has a way of separating the “gold, silver and precious stones” from the “wood, hay and stubble” in our lives. When you can’t have it all, you start paying attention to the things you’re most desperate for. In other words, you find out what’s most valuable.
Sometimes we don’t acknowledge that God’s truth is more precious than gold or silver until we don’t have any gold or silver. Who knows? Maybe that was part of the affliction. Hard times teach us what is most valuable if we’re teachable and ready to learn.
If you’re pressing through or languishing through the hard stuff right now, it may not feel helpful to read this, but read it anyway: There really is beauty in your affliction – even though you may not be able to see it. However capricious or random it may feel, the struggle is all part of a larger design. And the end of the story hasn’t been told about you yet.
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