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It has to rate among the most shocking statements found anywhere in the Bible, and it is certainly open to misunderstanding, but it is right there in the Psalms. In the very book that encapsulates and expresses the essence of worship in all its depth, the psalmist declares that his experience of adversity has turned out for his good: “It is good for me that I was afflicted” (Ps. 119:71).

Nothing could be more counterintuitive, not just for unbelievers but also for many Christians. Far from seeing any kind of good in suffering, people instead tend to ask why they suffer. More often, they see it as unfair. To be sure, there is deep mystery bound up with this question. It is the stuff of theodicy—how we reconcile the reality of evil with the existence of an all-powerful, all-wise, all-loving God. It is the angst of every human heart sooner or later in life’s journey: “Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upwards” (Job 5:7). How, then, can it be connected to God’s good purpose?

John Calvin links the psalmist’s testimony to what he had already said a few verses earlier: “Before I was afflicted, I went astray; but now I keep your word” (Ps. 119:67). As Calvin quaintly puts it, “As the flesh is from time to time obstreperous, even when it seems to be tamed, it is no wonder we find [God] subjecting us anew to the rod.” It is only after the fact that the psalmist is able to reflect on God’s dealings with him—whatever their shape or form—and see the divine purpose in his pain and recognize the good to which it led.

The same idea comes into even sharper focus in the book of Hebrews. This letter was written largely because its recipients, who had started well in the faith, were now “drifting from their moorings” through spiritual carelessness and neglect (Heb. 2:1). The author shows how serious this was by addressing it from multiple angles. But toward the end of the letter, focusing on unspecified painful experiences these backsliding believers were experiencing, he says: “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives” (12:5–6). Indeed, he goes as far as to say that, if we do not experience God’s fatherly discipline as Christians, it calls our relationship with Him as His children into question.

The good outcome of these afflictions is spelled out clearly when the writer says it is “for our good, that we may share [God’s] holiness” (v. 10). Our generation, seemingly more than any before us, recoils from the idea of discipline. But, if God is truly our Father, then we can recognize His hand in the painful experiences we face; but, more than this, we can acknowledge His good purpose and, like the psalmist, bless Him for it.

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From the June 2020 Issue
Jun 2020 Issue