I have been reading recently through the book of Job in the Old Testament. In many ways a very confronting story of an experience that is all too common in all of our lives at different times and in various ways, i.e. pain and suffering. This can be related to various things such as illness, opposition, economic hardship and even the suffering of loved ones or during bereavement.
One time that stands out in my mind was in Pakistan when I said to my wife one day that I felt really tired. This was followed by nausea and vomiting, lack of appetite and eventually my skin and eyes began to change colour – yellow! I had contracted Hepatitis A and the next month was very uncomfortable. Talk about “Job’s comforters”, one piece of advice I received at the time (from well-meaning friends) was to hang a white onion around my neck! The idea being that it would “absorb the yellow jaundice from my body”. The thought made me even more nauseous!
It’s at such times that the Psalms of Lament seem very relevant. Ones like Psalm 28.
I’m pleading with you, Lord, help me!
Don’t close your ears to my cry, for you’re my defender.
If you continue to remain aloof and refuse to answer me,
I might as well give up and die.
2 Can’t you see me turning toward your mercy seat
as I lift my hands in surrendered prayer?
Now, Lord, please listen to my cry.
3 Don’t allow me to be punished along with the wicked—
these hypocrites who speak sweetly to their neighbours’ faces
while holding evil against them in their hearts.
4 Go ahead and punish them as they deserve.
Let them be paid back for all their evil plans
in proportion to their wickedness.
5 Since they don’t care anything about you,
or about the great things you’ve done,
take them down like an old building being demolished,
never again to be rebuilt.
6 But may your name be blessed and built up!
For you have answered my passionate cry for mercy.
7 You are my strength and my shield from every danger.
When I fully trust in you, help is on the way.
I jump for joy and burst forth with ecstatic, passionate praise!
I will sing songs of what you mean to me!
8 You will be the inner strength of all your people,
the mighty protector of all,
the saving strength for all your anointed ones.
9 Keep protecting and cherishing your chosen ones;
in you they will never fall.
Like a shepherd going before us, keep leading us forward,
forever carrying us in your arms! (TPT)
The psalmist, like with most Lament Psalms, doesn’t explain the exact details of his suffering, only that he had some people in his life (“the wicked”) who were making things difficult for him (in fact, doing “evil works”), and because of this he needed God to intervene, to answer his prayer, to prevent him from falling into a “pit”.
I think, depending on our circumstances, all of us have felt like this at some time. I have noticed that prayer becomes much more meaningful, more desperate, when suffering in some way. Not a bad thing! As does the psalmist’s here, our prayers at such times enable us to shift our attention away from our issues to the One who is able to help us. To the One who is the strength of his people, a fortress of salvation. “Joy” in the midst of suffering is then possible as our faith in God grows.
During my reading of Job, I read some interesting quotes concerning suffering. Here are a few of them:
“The extreme greatness of Christianity lies in the fact that it does not seek a supernatural remedy for suffering but a supernatural use for it.” (Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace, Bison, 1997)
“There are seldom good reasons for suffering, but there can be good responses.” (David Watson, Fear no Evil, Hodder & Stoughton, 1984)
“I have noticed that when one who has not suffered draws near to one in pain there is rarely much power to help.” (Amy Carmichael, Rose from Brier, CLC, 1972)
It’s interesting, but not surprising that all these three authors, quoted above, suffered in their lives. From ‘poor health’, from cancer, and from injury related chronic pain, respectively.
I have often wondered why so many of the Psalms are similar to this one, i.e. a Lament Psalm, and one of my conclusions is that, so many of us suffer at some time in our lives and therefore need such a resource during these tough times. Not to necessarily provide us with a “supernatural remedy” or even “good reasons” for our suffering but hopefully to enable “good responses”. One such response is to provide “power to help” others around us also in pain.
Paul in 2 Corinthians 1:3,4 puts it like this:
All praises belong to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. For he is the Father of tender mercy and the God of endless comfort. 4 He always comes alongside us to comfort us in every suffering so that we can come alongside those who are in any painful trial. We can bring them this same comfort that God has poured out upon us. (TPT)
And one last quote:
“God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” (CS Lewis, The Problem of Pain, Fount, 1940)
6 Praise be to you Lord,
for you have heard my cry for mercy.
7 You, Lord are my strength and my shield;
my heart trusts in you, and you help me.
My heart leaps for joy,
and with my song I praise you. Amen