This talk was given by Martin Ansdell-Smith on as part of our worship service at Main Street Community Church and on the Internet. The talk is long, including the reading of Psalm 39 by Dr Andrew Faraday.
Play in browser
MP3 (8.6 MB) (64kb/s constant rate)
[Dr Faraday:] Psalm 39. Psalm of David.
I said, ‘I will watch my ways
and keep my tongue from sin;
I will put a muzzle on my mouth
while in the presence of the wicked.’
So I remained utterly silent,
not even saying anything good.
But my anguish increased;
my heart grew hot within me.
While I meditated, the fire burned;
then I spoke with my tongue:
‘Show me, Lord, my life’s end
and the number of my days;
let me know how fleeting my life is.
You have made my days a mere handbreadth;
the span of my years is as nothing before you.
Everyone is but a breath,
even those who seem secure.
‘Surely everyone goes around like a mere phantom;
in vain they rush about, heaping up wealth
without knowing whose it will finally be.
‘But now, Lord, what do I look for?
My hope is in you.
Save me from all my transgressions;
do not make me the scorn of fools.
I was silent; I would not open my mouth,
for you are the one who has done this.
Remove your scourge from me;
I am overcome by the blow of your hand.
When you rebuke and discipline anyone for their sin,
you consume their wealth like a moth—
surely everyone is but a breath.
‘Hear my prayer, Lord,
listen to my cry for help;
do not be deaf to my weeping.
I dwell with you as a foreigner,
a stranger, as all my ancestors were.
Look away from me, that I may enjoy life again
before I depart and am no more.’ (NIVUK)
[Martin:] This life is fragile. Death comes to us all. Our hope is in God.
Psalm 39 meditates on the shortness of human life and the hope that God will be favourable through that short span. In the Book of Common Prayer, the Order for the Burial of the Dead begins in the Church with Psalm 39. It has much in common with the books of Job and Ecclesiastes, especially the shortness of life, wondering about the purpose of life, and affirming the wisdom of trusting and serving God.
Job in Chapter 7 says, “I loathe my life; I would not live forever. Leave me alone, for my days are a breath. What is man, that you make so much of him, and that you set your heart on him, visit him every morning and test him every moment? How long will you not look away from me,” (Job 7:16-19, NIVUK) The psalmist is going to say nothing to others about the suffering being endured. He doesn’t want to give them any excuse to turn away from or to abuse God. It’s difficult but necessary for us to control what we say.
James tells us that “if anyone thinks he’s religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.” (Jas 1:26, NIVUK) Eventually, the psalmist takes up with God directly not defiantly, but as someone dependent on God and seeking to learn. The psalmist says with Ecclesiastes, tells us, that relying on wealth and health, any of the things the world offers is in vain.
Ecclesiastes says, “I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be the master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity.” (Eccl 2:18-19, NIVUK) Indeed. Jesus tells us, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasure on Earth where moth and rust destroy, where thieves break in and steal. But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Mt 6:19-21, ESV) We’re only passing through this world. It’s not to be the focus of our efforts.
Peter tells us, “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh which wage war against your soul.” (1 Pet 2:11, NIVUK). The psalmist admits to, owns, failings and sees the felt suffering as God’s discipline. The song closes with a plea to turn this discipline aside. Now, we can’t fathom God’s ways. Solomon tells us that “God has made everything beautiful in his time. He’s also set eternity in the human heart yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” (Eccl 3:11, NIVUK). This life is short but has its eternal consequences. We need to do it God’s way, not ours.
Luke in Acts tells us that “when David had served God’s purpose in his own generation, he fell asleep. He was buried with his ancestors and his body decayed.” (Ac 13:36, NIVUK). The psalmist sees a link between the suffering being experienced and wrongful action. That’s a judgment we must hesitate to reach, especially on behalf of others. Suffering is not necessarily because of sin.
Jesus commented on this more than once. I’ll quote some of the things he said. “Now, there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no. Unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those 18 who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them, do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no. Unless you repent, you too will all perish.” (Lk 13:1-5, NIVUK).
‘As he passed by and he saw a man blind from birth and his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.”’ (Jn 9:1-3, ESV). Suffering can have many causes and we do not yet have the whole story, only God knows that.
We do know though that Christians experience more suffering because they’re committed to following Jesus. Jesus said to them all, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world and yet lose or forfeit their very self?” (Lk 9:21-25, NIVUK).
Peter wrote, “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you as if something strange were happening to you. But rejoice in as much as you participate in the sufferings of Christ so that you may be overjoyed when his glorious reveal. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed for the spirit of glory and of God rests on you.
“If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or a thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as the meddler. However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed but praise God that you bear that name for it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household. If it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the Gospel of God? If it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner, so then those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful creator and continue to do good.” (1 Pet 4:12-19, NIVUK).
There’s a message for how we respond when we suffer. “Those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful creator and continue to do good.”
That’s not the whole story, Peter continues, “After you suffer for a little while, the God of all grace who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ will himself restore, support, strengthen and establish you unto Him be the power forever and ever. Amen.” (1 Pet 5:10-11, NRSV)
Jesus tells us, “Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden, I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for yourselves for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matt 1:28-30, ESV)
We need to see and experience, and portray the Christian life as empowered by God. In our lives, we will experience his power, that power that raised Christ from the dead and is perfect peace. We will also know suffering, sometimes because we choose to do God’s will, not our own. Not that we choose suffering.
Oswald Chambers once wrote, “To choose to suffer means that there is something wrong; to choose God’s will even if it means suffering is a very different thing. No healthy saint ever chooses suffering, he chooses God’s will, as Jesus did, whether it means suffering or not.” (Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest: Selections for the Year (Grand Rapids, MI: Oswald Chambers Publications; Marshall Pickering, 1986).
Following Jesus isn’t just for the tough times. Isn’t just relying on God and asking God for things when things are difficult, or when others expect us to. God wants us to trust him, rely on him, obey him all the time. It’s easier to follow in extreme times if we built holy habits when things were easier.
As God’s beloved children, we will also face discipline at God’s hands. This can be to correct us when we’ve done wrong, as the Psalmist says, but discipline can also be to build us up. The writer of Hebrews tells us that “during the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death. He was heard because of his reverence submission. Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered. Once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.” (Heb 5:7-9, NIVUK).
Older hymns speak about suffering, that it redirects us and focus our attention on God. I collected a few examples. I haven’t time to read more. I will read one. It’s a couple of verses from a hymn by William Cowper, who was known as the poet of Olney and wrote, “God works in a mysterious way; His wonders to perform.” If you remember old hymns like that one. This one, the tune is ’Welcoming the Cross’. The hymn goes:
’Tis my happiness below
Not to live without the cross,
But the Saviour’s power to know,
Sanctifying every loss:
Trials must and will befall;
But, with humble faith to see
Love inscribed upon them all—
This is happiness to me.
God in Israel sows the seeds
Of affliction, pain, and toil;
These spring up and choke the weeds
Which would else o’erspread the soil:
Trials make the promise sweet;
Trials give new life to prayer;
Trials bring me to His feet,
Lay me low and keep me there.
Psalms 73, if you read that, has a similar theme, expanded on in the letter to the Hebrews.
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer, and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him, he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
“Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. …
“Endure hardship as discipline, God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined–and everyone undergoes discipline–then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all. … God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.
“Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. Make level paths for your feet, so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed.
“Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness, no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.” (From Heb 12:1-14, NIVUK)
Some of these passages talk of the need for us to act, to make an effort. Not that we earn holiness, or sanctity, or salvation. It’s all the gracious gift of God. We do not and cannot earn anything from God, but we must make effort. We must progress in holiness. We should be able to look back and see how we’ve grown in holiness, in the fruit of the spirit, in faith, in good works.
We can ask God to show us areas for improvement and pray for grace to improve, for the will to change, we must make the effort, building up holy habits to replace bad ones, or ones that are not positively improving us and helping others.
Paul said to the church in Philippi, “I’m not saying this because I’m in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.
I know what it is to be in need and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and in every situation. Whether well-fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want, I can do all this through Him who gives me strength. Yet it was good of you to share in my troubles.” (Php 4:11-15, NIVUK).
Did you notice there how Paul had learned to be content?
It’s this combination of the gift of God – he can do it through God who gives him strength – but he has to learn to be content. It’s good too. It ends with, “Yet it was good of you to share in my troubles.” The church is always a community of comfort and consolation. We can look to it for that when we are in suffering, but, too, it puts on us the need to comfort and to console others within the church, even as we sometimes are suffering ourselves.
Finally, remember that God is always and completely good. We are to be like him. Paul is in prison when he writes this to the church in Philippi. “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice. Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable, if anything is excellent or praiseworthy, think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me, put it into practice, and the God of peace will be with you.” (Php 4:4-9, NIVUK).
References and sources
This talk is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License
Scripture quotations marked NRSV on this page and in the audio are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Scripture quotations marked ESV are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Scripture quotations marked NIVUK or NIV UK on this page and in the audio are from the Holy Bible, New International Version® Anglicized, NIV® Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.