We’re in the middle of a series on one of my favorite passages of Scripture, Psalm 119. I contended before that when we think of this psalm as merely Scripture talking about itself, we sell it short. This masterpiece of Hebrew poetry teems with treasures beyond the “famous” verses like, “Thy Word have I hid in my heart that I might not sin against Thee” (v. 11); and “Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path” (v. 105). Those are wonderful verses that encourage us to infuse our lives with Scripture and to use it as a guide in our dark world. However, those truths are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
You can’t read far in this psalm without recognizing that the author is in distress. Though we don’t know the exact circumstances surrounding the writing, we can easily infer that the writer was withstanding persecution, derision, and opposition from his enemies, and it was taking its toll. He mentions being “afflicted” or his “affliction” seven times throughout the psalm, references his general physical weakness three times (vv. 25, 81-82), and makes a plethora of allusions to being persecuted (vv. 21-23, 29-31, 39, 42, 46, 51, 53, 61, 69-70, 78, 80, 84-7, 94-5, 101-02, 104, 113, 115, 121-23, 126, 150, 155-59, 161-, 63).
My pastor is fond of saying that suffering is a fight for faith. I don’t know if he got that phrase from looking at Psalm 119 (I don’t think so), but he could have. This psalm clearly shows us that enduring affliction is not a “grin-and-bear-it” ordeal for the Christian; it is all-out guerilla warfare.
A Fight for Theology (Remember what’s true about God.)
Remember Job’s wife? She lost everything in one day just like her husband did, and when he went down with body-covering boils, she’d had it; she told him to “curse God and die” (Job 2:9). That is exactly the attitude Satan wants us to have. When we enter seasons of affliction, our adversary goes on the offensive and first attacks what we think about God Himself. The psalmist, though, refuses to give in to that. He fights tooth-and-nail for what he knows to be true about Yahweh.
- God is good.
This simple truth may be the most difficult to remember when we enter the valley of the shadow of death or of poverty or of loss. It is easy to wonder “How can God really be good?” when we encounter the truly heart-rending stuff of life. The psalmist must have wondered that as well. When you read through Psalm 119, you’ll find that the psalmist was not writing from a place of prosperity and abundance, but from the mire of genuine adversity. His very life is in jeopardy on a regular basis, yet he clings to what he knows is true about God. God is good.
Verses 65-72 comprise a stanza that
emphasizes the psalmist’s suffering, and right in the middle of it he makes the
bold assertion, “You are good and do good” (v. 68). A few verses later he says
that it was good for him that he was afflicted. Notice how he applies
the truth that he just stated. He knows that this affliction is from God; and
because he genuinely believes that God really is good and really does
only good things, he can genuinely say it was good for him to be afflicted by
this God. God’s goodness is one of Satan’s favorite attributes to attack; but
we must hold tight to the simple truth of verse 68. God is good and does
- God is faithful.
“I know, O LORD, that your judgments are righteous and that in faithfulness You have afflicted me” (v. 75). How could persecution and death threats be marks of God’s faithfulness? Perhaps because of what trials have the ability to do in our lives. Without the adversity, I doubt that the psalmist ever would have written what we know today as Psalm 119. If his life had been hunky-dory, he may have written some frothy praise songs that Chris Tomlin could add choruses to and cover, but he never would have written something so personal. Affliction also led him back to obedience. He says in v. 67 that he had wandered astray before the trial, but now he obeys God’s Word. We don’t “count it all joy when we encounter various trials” because they’re more fun than a Disney vacation. We rejoice in them because our faithful God is at work in our lives, and that is always praiseworthy. We praise Him for faithfully keeping His promise to “complete the good work” that He started in us (Phil. 1:6). Trials aren’t evidence that God has abandoned us; quite the opposite. They’re evidence that He is lovingly involved in our lives as a good and faithful Father.
- God’s mercies are great (v. 156).
Trials reveal our hearts, which want to believe that nothing bad should ever happen to us. Therefore, we’re quick to think God a sadist who enjoys our pain. The psalmist, a man with temptations just like ours, was surely tempted with this lie just like we are. But because he was fighting for his theology, fighting to remember what’s true about God, he clung to the truth that God’s mercies are great. Even in the middle of what brings us to our knees, God’s mercies are there. He never touches our lives without leaving fingerprints of grace and mercy. Jeremiah reminds us of this in the middle of his book of Lamentations: “Remember my affliction and my wandering, the wormwood and bitterness. Surely my soul remembers and is bowed down within me. This I recall to my mind, therefore I have hope. The LORD’s lovingkindnesses [mercies] indeed never cease, For His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; Great is Your faithfulness” (Lam. 3:19-23).
Fight for Joy
Frankly, much of the Christian life is this type of fight, but never is the fight for joy more arduous than in the valley. Psalm 119 gives us glimpses of how the psalmist engaged in this battle. The most significant method is through delighting in the Word of God. He says in verse 92 that if he hadn’t delighted in God’s Word he would have perished in his affliction. The New Living Translation puts it this way: “If your instructions hadn’t sustained me with joy” (emphasis added). Psalm 119 shows the Word of God giving life, strength, wisdom, and peace. Surely that’s worth delighting in!
Maybe you’re in the thick of the fight right now, and you have found the Bible to be anything but a delight. Indulge me in offering these two pieces of advice. First, remember it’s a fight for joy. Joy doesn’t always come easily, but if sought in the right places, it does come. We don’t manufacture it; the Holy Spirit does (Gal. 5:22). Second, on a practical level, read through Psalms (perhaps starting with 119, but not necessarily), and keep reading until you find a psalm that seems to be saying the same things you are (there’s one in there, I promise!) and then camp out there. Pray it, memorize it, meditate on it…delight in it.
The second way I see the psalmist fighting for joy is through gratitude. He says that he praises God seven times a day (v. 164). Don’t take that number too literally. Remember that in Scripture we often see the number seven used as a mark of completeness. The psalmist is saying that he praises God until he has no more praise to offer. His praise is complete. Additionally, he looks for reasons to be thankful for his affliction (v. 71). Remember God’s mercies are never far away, but sometimes they’re not readily obvious. Look around and see what God is doing right in the middle of your circumstances.
It seems that because of his affliction, the poet often can’t sleep—he makes numerous references to night watches (vv. 55, 62, 147). However, he uses this time to meditate on God’s Word and to praise Him. He uses the literal darkness as a time to fight the figurative darkness trying to creep into our hearts. We must go on the offensive in our fight for faith as we suffer.
Tools for the Fight
The psalmist does not fight in his own strength. This is not a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps pep talk, so let’s end with four tools that the psalmist uses in fighting.
- The Word of God—Now is the time to recognize the richness attributed to Scripture in this psalm. We don’t want to ignore it, but we don’t want to ignore the canvas it’s painted upon either. Now that we have basked in context of the psalmist’s suffering, we see that his praise for God’s Word is not a flimsy Sunday school-flannelgraph. No, it is his strongest weapon in the battle of his life. It’s his source of joy, as we just saw, as well as life, strength, sustenance, and counsel. We dare not go into battle unless we are equipped with the Sword of the Spirit.
- Prayer—Let’s not forget that this psalm is almost entirely one long prayer to God. As we do battle against our enemy in the midst of our circumstances, we cannot neglect the throne of grace to which we come boldly to receive mercy and find grace to help in our time of need (Heb. 4:16). (For more on Psalm 119 and prayer, click here.)
- Thankfulness—I am convinced that a thankful heart is like kryptonite to Satan. He cannot stand to be in its presence as it stands contrary to his agenda. Yes, we must fight to see the grace of God in our circumstances, but it is a fight well worth the struggle. What can you thank God for right now?
- Companions—We need each other, and never do we need each other more than in the crucible of testing. The psalmist says in verse 63 that he is the companion of all who fear God. He did not fight alone, and neither should we. We’re not called to be Lone Ranger Christians, and thankfully, God has given us the Church so that we can fight as an army. This privilege, however, comes with responsibility. First, we must know the burdens of others and be willing to ask potentially awkward questions and delve into the lives of those around us. Second, from the other perspective, we must be willing to allow others to bear our burdens. We have to let them in. I am admittedly terrible at both of these things, so these reminders are mostly for me. But maybe, just maybe they’re for you too.
Are you “exceedingly afflicted” like our friend the psalmist? Or maybe just marginally or mildly afflicted? If so, fight. Fight for your theology, fight for joy, and do not fight alone.