"If 'the nightingale sings best with a thorn against her breast,' why not we?"
--Susan Gilbert Dickinson in a letter to Emily Dickinson (1861)

"Happy are those whom you discipline, O LORD, and whom you teach out of your law, giving them respite in days of trouble..." (Psalm 94:12,13).

Suffering is exact. We don't grieve in general and in abstract, but in specific, concrete ways. Most of the consolation we receive, however, is loaded with generalizations and abstractions, as anyone who has ever received a sympathy card knows. "It's all for the best," our friends assure us; or, "It will eventually turn out for good."

Such comfort, though well meant, is feckless, for when I suffer I crave an answer as precise as my pain. In what sense is my suffering for the best? And what is the good, if any, to which my suffering will be turned?

God is fair and just, I say,[1] though the final explanation for evil and injustice awaits heaven. I cannot know every purpose for which God permits trouble to come my way, and I would be foolish to give an unequivocal answer to the question, "Why suffering?" Yet it makes me happy to know that my afflictions are not meaningless, but part of the specific good God has determined to do, namely, to turn me to his Word for his discipline and instruction.

The psalmist's argument in Psalm 94 is clear and unambiguous: "How long will the wicked (go unpunished)?" he asks (94:3); God answers: "Does he who disciplines nations not punish? Does he who teaches man lack knowledge (of their evil)?" (94:10). God will discipline the ungodly in due time, he insists, but first he must discipline and teach his own children (94:12). The Father begins with his family (1 Peter 4:17).  

Affliction, when we accept it with humility, can be instructive--a discipline that leads us to a deeper, fuller life. "Before I was afflicted I went astray," David says, "but now I obey your word. (Psalm 119:67). And again, "It was good for me to be afflicted that I might learn your decrees" (119:71). Peter would agree: affliction leads us to "live no longer for ourselves, but for the will of God" (1 Peter 4:2).

Pain, far from being an obstacle to our spiritual growth, can be the condition of it-if we're trained by it. It pushes us closer to God and into his Word. It is the means by which he graciously shapes us to be like his Son, gradually giving us the compassion, contentment, tranquility and courage we long and pray for. Without pain, God could never make the most of our lives.

That's why Job, who was afflicted more than anyone I can name, exclaims in the midst of his troubles, "Oh the happiness of the man whom God corrects (Job 5:17)," though admittedly, he, like us, found it hard to sustain that thesis at all times.

Are you one whom God has set apart today to instruct through suffering and pain? Endure his discipline patiently. He can make the trial a blessing, using it to draw you into his heart and into his Word, teaching you the lessons he intends you to learn, working in you the grace he means to bestow, giving you "respite from days of trouble." [2 ]This is the "good" to which your suffering can be turned (Romans 8:28, 29).

Therefore, as James reminds us, "consider it pure joy when you face trials of many kinds." God is making more out of you than you ever thought possible.

David Roper

[1] This is not wistful thinking; God's justice is affirmed in his Word (e.g., Genesis 18:25). The only question about the power of evil is, "How long...?" (Psalm 94:3).

[2] The word translated "respite" in verse 13a means "to be quiet and undisturbed," "to be at rest." The Jerusalem Bible translates, "His mind is at peace though things are bad."

David & Carolyn Roper
Idaho Mountain Ministries
2503 Bruins Circle
Boise, ID 83704
(208) 376-6607
(208) 634-4214 (Shepherd's Rest)