One of the primary values of our age is that suffering is bad. Physical pain and suffering must be eliminated at all costs. If it cannot be eliminated then we should have the right to end our lives. Children born with diseases should not have been born at all. Boys and girls are not taught to “fight through pain” anymore. They are taught to look for a way out. Pain, affliction, and suffering are enemies to be vanquished. Emotional pain is approached the same way. We avoid close relationships because they will create deeper scars when they are ruptured. We rarely commit to anything of substance because we could be criticized for it or it could go bad and we would look foolish. We guard ourselves against emotional pain.
There is some truth in our gut reaction to pain and suffering. It is not the way it was supposed to be. Without sin there would not be pain, at least as we know it. But in this fallen world pain and suffering don’t just exist. They are good for us. In the world, as it is now, suffering plays a central role in the life of the Christian. We might say that God has redeemed suffering and pain. In a few short verses the Psalmists tells us three times the value of affliction.
Psalm 119:67, Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep Your word.
Psalm 119:71, It is good for me that I have been afflicted, that I might learn your statutes.
Psalm 119: 75, I know, O Lord , that Your judgments are right, and that in faithfulness You have afflicted.
The word translated “afflicted” in all three verses means to hurt, humiliate, cause to suffer, or cause pain. It is used in Psalm 105:18 where it says that Joseph’s feet were “hurt” when they were put in irons. It is used in Psalm 89:22 where it says that David will not be afflicted by the wicked. Perhaps most striking is Isaiah 53:4 where it says that Christ was “smitten by God and afflicted.” These three verses in Psalm 119 give us a rich theology of suffering.
First, suffering is meant to drive us away from sin. Affliction and hardship are ways God gets our attention. This does not mean every time we suffer we are going astray or sinning. But it is clear that suffering often comes because we have left God’s path or sin is tempting us. Suffering should make us examine our lives for sinful patterns, attitudes, or actions.
Second, affliction teaches us God’s ways. Psalm 119:71 is a little different from 119:67. In verse 67 the implication is that suffering was a deterrent to sin. In verse 71 the idea is that the suffering helps us to learn obedience to God’s word. We are slow to learn God’s ways. If we lived in comfort and peace without any hardship, affliction, and suffering would we learn patience, love, joy, peace, and kindness? The answer is certainly no. Suffering should have a sanctifying effect on us.
Third, affliction is meant to drive us to God’s Word. Too often we view suffering through a mystical light. We suffer hardship and instead of opening God’s Word, looking to His promises, praying through the Word, and resting on Jesus as he is in the Word we sit and wait for an emotional or spiritual experience. When suffering hits the first place we should run is God’s Word. Am I keeping God’s Word? Am I learning how to obey God’s Word? Am I resting on the promises in God’s Word? Am I listening carefully to the preaching of God’s Word? Don’t look for God’s word to come from heaven when it is sitting on your shelf. Affliction is a way God gets us to pry open his book.
Fourth, suffering comes from the hand of God and is part of his faithfulness to us. There is a lot of room in theological discussion for how God is connected to the difficult things that come into our lives. But for the Psalmist God is sovereign in his suffering. God is the one who afflicts him. For many this is disturbing and hard. If God is good why does he allow suffering? If God is good why does he afflict me? But the Psalmist knew that God’s “judgments are right.” God cannot err. Therefore whatever affliction he brings is done in “faithfulness” to us, his children. Suffering and affliction are not signs that God has forgotten us. They are signs of God’s firmness and steadfastness to his people.
Finally, all of this means that suffering and affliction are good. This does not mean we seek it out. The Bible does not encourage self-affliction. Neither does this mean we sit back and refuse to use medicine or to alleviate suffering where we can. But it does encourage us to view suffering as from the hand of our faithful God. Small things like flat tires and broken bones and big things like cancer are tools in the Lord’s hand to drive us away from sin and towards obedience to His word. We are to be “patient in affliction” (Heidelberg Catechism Q 28) knowing that in the end we will say, “It was good that I have been afflicted.”