I was reading Psalm 119 the other day and one of the verses that caught my eye reads, “It is good for me that I have been afflicted, that I may learn your statutes” (Psalm 119:71, all quotes from WEB translation). Most of us don’t think it’s good when we’re depressed, chastened, weakened, oppressed, and bowed down (those are all meanings of the Hebrew word anah, H6031, which this translation renders “afflicted”). In fact, we’re pretty sure those things sound terrible, especially now that we’re all experiencing some of them as a result of the current pandemic. And yet, this psalmist said affliction was “good” because what they endured helped them learn the Lord’s statues (choq, H2706, could also be translated ordinance, limit, or law).
There’s no getting around it. Christianity is tough. When you think about it, though, it’s not any tougher than life outside the faith and if you’re inside you have God’s help so that balances things out in Christianity’s favor. Jesus promised us His help, presence, and protection but He also assured us that we would face trials, persecution, and suffering. Better teachers than I have tried to explain why — The Problem of Pain by C.S. Lewis and Where Is God When It Hurts? by Philip Yancey, for example — but one thing we can’t get around is the fact that pain is a part of life. And that’s true whether you’re a Christian or not.
One of the ways Christianity helps make sense of suffering is by saying it is a product of a world that has gone wrong. God didn’t want things to be this way, but they are now and until He comes back to set things right He’s going to find ways to make good come out of afflictions.
Delight in the Law
Psalm 119 is an acrostic psalm divided into 22 stanzas, one for each letter in the Hebrew alphabet. There are several verses within this psalm that talk about affliction, and we find the first in the zayin stanza.
Remember your word to your servant, because you gave me hope. This is my comfort in my affliction, for your word has revived me. (Psalm 119:49-50)
A later verse in the lamed stanza puts this idea even more strongly:
Unless your law had been my delight, I would have perished in my affliction. I will never forget your precepts, for with them, you have revived me. (Psalm 119:92-93)
It is not just knowing or obeying God’s law, but finding joy in it that helps get us through tough times. All the knowledge of His words we can gather won’t do us much good unless we really care about what He tells us. But when we hold fast to Him — and by extension His word and the things that He cares about — it’s possible to find comfort, joy, and help even in afflictions. The psalmists did, and we can too.
A Comforting Law
Delight, comfort, and hope aren’t typically what modern Christianity thinks of when discussing God’s law. Words like “burden” or “obsolete” are more common. But that’s not what scripture teaches (even in the New Testament). Psalm 119 is just one example of a section of scripture that paints a very different perspective on the law. Every single one of the 176 verses has something positive to say about God’s law, word, statues, commands, etc.
How I love your law! It is my meditation all day. (Psalm 119:97)
I have longed for your salvation, Yahweh. Your law is my delight. Let my soul live, that I may praise you. Let your ordinances help me. (Psalm 119:174-175)
This psalmist knew God’s law is precious, and though our relationship with the law has changed since we are under the New Covenant, it is still precious. In some ways, God actually expects a greater level of respect and obedience now since the law works on a spiritual level (Matt. 5:17-48). But it’s also easier to keep the law since it’s written in our hearts, we have God’s spirit to guide us, and Jesus’ sacrifice to cover our transgressions (Heb. 8:7-12; Rom. 8:1-9). We can still benefit from learning the Lord’s statutes and following His word. With the proper perspective, there is great comfort in having reliable guidelines that take the guess-work out of trying to live rightly.
Affliction, Learning, Deliverance
Here’s something else that Psalm 119 says about affliction:
I am afflicted very much. Revive me, Yahweh, according to your word. (Psalm 119:107)
Consider my affliction, and deliver me, for I don’t forget your law. (Psalm 119:153)
We can’t have the perspective, “Bad things shouldn’t happen to me because God owes me for being righteous.” That’s not how being in a relationships with Him works. But God does make promises to bless, deliver, and help those who live by His word, and we are allowed to claim those promises. We can learn from our struggles and also ask the Lord to help us get through them, or even remove them entirely.
Before I was afflicted, I went astray; but now I observe your word. (Psalm 119:67)
It is good for me that I have been afflicted, that I may learn your statutes. (Psalm 119:71)
Struggles and afflictions help teach us of God’s law and learn lessons that we need. We draw nearer to Him the more we grow to understand His teachings, and He delivers us. He can use even things that seem pretty bad to us as opportunities for training, correction, and growth (Heb. 12:5-13). And we can learn to appreciate that because in the end it helps make us more like Him.
Yahweh, I know that your judgments are righteous, that in faithfulness you have afflicted me. (Psalm 119:75)
In his letter to Rome, Paul writes, “whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that through perseverance and through encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Rom. 15:4). He was absolutely sure the scriptures — and he’s talking about the whole Old Testament here, including Psalm 119 — could help us learn, inspire us to persevere to the end, and encourage us.
I personally find great comfort in knowing God has a plan, is in control, and has given us guidelines for how to live. Even when things don’t make sense or look bleak, we can know that following His words and ways will lead to the best outcome in the end.
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