A Theology of Suffering, Part 2
A Theology of Suffering - Part 2
Rodney Gehman – November 4, 2023 – Psalm 44
We have been going through the book of Acts verse by verse, chapter by chapter, and every couple of weeks, we sort of pull back from the verse by verse approach, and take another look at something we didn’t get to spend much time on, or a question that has come up in the text, and so this week is another one of those Sundays.
So, you may already be there, but we’re going to start out in Psalm 44 this morning, so I’d invite you to turn there with me. And as you do, I’ll start off with a quick story – about 15 years ago, when my wife Jodi and I were wedding photographers, we photographed a wedding down in Grand Bay, Alabama, which is near the Gulf Shores, one of my favorite places in the country – and the couple we photographed had done some professional fishing and offered to take us out into the Gulf of Mexico the Monday after their wedding to do some bay fishing. [ 002 ]
It was the only day we were able to go, it wasn’t the best weather, and the water was rough. I mean, rough. But he wanted to show us a good time, and loaded us up. These professional fishing boats do not have seats, so Brock, one of the men’s ministry leaders here at River City – and another friend of ours that was along – they gave us bean bag chairs to sit on at the back of the boat so we wouldn’t get tossed around. They said just stay in the bean bag and you’ll be okay.
So the groom, his wife of 48 hours, and two friends were standing around the captain's area hanging on to whatever they could find to hang on to, and we lit out across the water at what felt like 100 miles an hour, just launching off of one wave and smashing into the next. It felt at times like that boat was going to snap in half. And about ¾ of the way out, the captain’s friend must have let go for a split second, because we hit a wave and she went flying around the boat like she was bucked off of a horse. Scuffed up her knees and everything… It was pretty wild.
I think that life can be like that sometimes, where we get rocked by the waves that are coming at us day after day, and if we don’t have something solid to hang onto in those moments, we’re going to get pretty battered up and bloody. So my goal today is to give you some handrails to hold on to when you are facing some serious waves like we were that day. That’s the picture you can have in your mind as we go through the message today.
[ 003 ] We’ve been in chapter 4 of Acts, which is the aftermath of a miraculous healing. Two of Jesus’ apostles, named Peter and John, were heading into the temple for afternoon prayer, and as always, there would have been disabled, underprivileged, and poor people there at the gate begging for money.
This one man, who has been crippled for over 40 years, his whole life, sees Peter and John, calls to them asking for money, they look at him in verse 6 of Acts chapter 4, and Peter says I don’t have money – but what I do have, I can give you: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, get up and walk. And instantly the guy’s legs become strong, his ankle bones reshape or whatever, and a guy who probably never learned to walk is now jumping, walking, running, all around the temple and everyone is amazed.
Great story, pretty exciting, would have loved to have been watching all of this happen that day – unless I was one of the other beggars there at the gate. Then, I’m not sure how I would have thought about this. Because, I would bet that these kinds of stories can also make some of us a little angry, if we’re honest. How many of you have ever seen this movie? [ 004 ] There Will Be Blood, with Daniel Day Lewis. If you haven’t seen it, Daniel’s character is an oil man who is in a ruthless pursuit of wealth. In one scene, his adopted son, who is about 10-12 years old is part of an explosion on one of the oil rigs and becomes deaf.
Later on in the story there’s a scene where Daniel is beating up the preacher, shoving his face in oil, and screaming at him saying “you call yourself a healer, but you haven’t come over and healed my son! I think more of us identify with Daniel in that movie than we’d like to admit. We feel some disappointment, even frustration or anger when God chooses to heal someone we’ve never even met, but lets us or someone we love continue in pain.
And so today, I want to talk about a theology of suffering, Part 2, meaning, how do you biblically think about things when you or someone you love is one of the other crippled people who didn’t get the miracle? How do you process suffering when your marriage didn’t get the quick fix? How do you wrestle with infertility or miscarriage, with disabilities, with rebellious children? With loneliness, grief, betrayal, etc?
What are the handrails you can hold onto when the waves are crashing into your boat so that you don’t get tossed around the deck, beaten up and bloodied. One of the most unhelpful and untrue things you can ever hear is “Well, God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.” That is…. not in the Bible. It’s not true. And therefore it’s not helpful. But even though he does give us more than we can handle, he gives us handrails to hold on to. He gives us a place to stand firm until evening comes and the waves calm down.
So, today I want to give you two biblical handrails to hold onto in the waves of life. One for each hand. Let’s start here in Psalm 44.
[ 006-1 ] [Psalm 44:1-8]
Last week, we talked about 5 ways to think about persecution, and number one was the importance of surrounding yourself with people who are headed the same direction you are, who can challenge you and remind you of what’s true and can pray with you. Well, look at the pronouns here… God WE have heard with OUR ears what our ancestors have told US. So boom, check box number one.
[ 006-2 ] Second in our list last week was having a right view of God and a right view of ourselves, and these verses in Psalm 44 are text book. God, you displaced the nations, you wiped out the bad guys, it wasn’t us that won those battles, it was you. It wasn’t our strength or our intelligence that took the land – it was yours. You are our King! Our God! In your name, there is power to drive out the enemy. I don’t trust my own strength, or lean on my own understanding, we brag about YOU, and we praise YOUR name forever.
Check box #2. But that’s when the author of this Psalm goes, those things are great and all, but this has not been my experience. Great story about winning battles, driving out the enemies, healing the crippled man – Great story, but I’m not seeing it. God, (verse 1), we have heard with our ears the work you accomplished in our ancestors’ days, and all the amazing things you did for them, then ahead to verse 9…
[ 007-1 ]  But you have rejected and humiliated us; You won their battles for them, you fought for them, but you do not march out with our armies.  You make us retreat from the foe, and those who hate us have taken plunder for themselves.
God there are no victories here. This isn’t one step forward, 2 steps back – it’s NO steps forward. Whatever happened to verse 3? What ever happened to “your right hand and the light of your face”? Whatever happened to “ordaining victories,” or giving victory, verse 7? God, what do I really have to praise you for, verse 8? I haven’t seen you acting for me like I’ve heard from my ancestors – or maybe you would say, I haven’t seen you do for me what you did for the crippled man in Acts… so what would I brag about to others, and why should they praise you? My marriage hasn’t changed. My kids haven’t changed. I still wake up in pain every day. That friend still doesn’t want to hang out with me. That teacher still treats me differently than the other students.
Jodi and I have been in and out of this place multiple times over the past 3 years. God we’re watching you answer our prayers, but I think you’ve got the wrong address. You’ve answered all of our prayers, but for someone else! We’re watching other people get the answers to the prayers we’re praying for ourselves, and we’re left hanging! And again, Psalm 44 speaks our language…
[ 007-2 ]  All this has happened to us, but we have not forgotten you or betrayed your covenant.  Our hearts have not turned back; our steps have not strayed from your path. God, it’s not like we’re worshiping other gods here, or that we’ve intentionally started sinning against you. We’re trying to do what’s right. We’re trying to seek you, honor you, live for you, hear from you…[ 007-3 ]  But you have crushed us in a haunt of jackals and have covered us with deepest darkness.  If we had forgotten the name of our God and spread out our hands to a foreign god…That would make sense.
But we haven’t done that. [ 007-4 ]And yet…  Because of you we are being put to death all day long; we are counted as sheep to be slaughtered.
God you’re killing us right now. Let me remind you that Psalm 44 is the inspired word of God. It is not the complaint of some lousy pagan sinner who God is about to unload on as an example to us that we should never question God or tell him how we really feel about our hardships. This is about God’s chosen people, his children, who are experiencing suffering in such a way that they are not sure whose side God is on.
[ 008 ] The Holy Spirit told the sons of Korah (there in the title)… hey, those feelings you’re feeling right now: write them down, give it to the choir director, and then make sure it gets sung in corporate gatherings and collected into the Bible so that everyone who comes after you will have a voice when it comes to the difficult things in life. You can literally pick up your Bible, and read this Psalm to God. These are his words for you to pray to him. So one guardrail you can hold on to in the rough things of life is that God is not afraid of, nor does he condemn us, for not understanding what he’s doing.
When we are counseling people through these kinds of situations and someone tells you, “I just don’t see how God can be good, I just don’t see how he is working in this,” the Psalms actually give them that kind of freedom. We should be careful that as we give advice to hurting people that we are not throwing someone under the bus for feeling the things that are written in the Psalms.
[ 009 ]So here’s handrail #1: God will never pretend your suffering does not exist. The Bible does not pretend that you are not in pain or diminish the pain you feel. In fact, God actually gives you the words to pray when you aren’t sure you should say what you’re really thinking. But if we leave it with this one handrail, we could quickly become chronic complainers like the people of Israel in the first 5 books of the Bible. We need the other handrail as well.
There is one other place in scripture where verse 22 is quoted, and that is in Romans chapter 8, so I’d love for you to turn there now, and as you do, I’ll give you the setup.
[ 010-1 ]In Romans 8:12-17, the apostle Paul is talking about how if we are focused on the things of this earth, the things of the body, the desires and pleasures and pursuits of our sinful nature, we will end up spiritually dead before we die physically. Then he says, but if we, with the help of the Holy Spirit in us, we put to death those things of our sinful nature that are trying to kill us, like pride and envy and lust and greed, we will find spiritual life as we live physically.
[ 010-2 ] Really smart people call this “mortification of the flesh.” Kill those sinful desires before they kill you. Then Paul says, this is not something that is meant to drive us to a new kind of “be better, do better, live better” legalism, where we’re always in fear wondering, “am I doing good enough?” It’s not a picture of God simply as a Master and us as his slaves, where our worth comes from your production and what you bring to the table or how well you are getting all of this – [ 010-3 ] it’s the idea of family, where your worth comes from the fact that you are God’s adopted child, and there is a guaranteed inheritance coming your way – a glorious final chapter to this story!
[ 010-4 ]But we don’t get to the glory at the end without enduring the suffering here and now. If we want to follow Jesus into the inheritance, we have to follow him into the often painful parts of killing our sinful nature, verse 17. These moments can be really painful. Sometimes it’s not at all how we would have chosen to live our lives. But Paul gives us hope in this:
[ 011-1 ]  For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is going to be revealed to us.
The heaviness and weight of the suffering that we face here on earth is very, very real. The Bible doesn’t pretend it isn’t. But, Paul writes, these sufferings aren’t even in the same ballpark as the heaviness and the weight of the freedom and the joy and the fullness of life that is on the other side of it. There’s a promise snuck in there – there is a glory, a beauty, an overwhelming goodness that is going to be revealed to us.
Sin has wrapped everything up in suffering, including creation … but one day it will all be undone.
[ 011-2 ] For the creation eagerly waits with anticipation for God's sons to be revealed.  For the creation was subjected to futility-not willingly, but because of him who subjected it-in the hope  that the creation itself will also be set free from the bondage to decay into the glorious freedom of God's children.  For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together with labor pains until now.
This is telling us that every Autumn, while we are enjoying the colors of the leaves on the trees, and how beautiful that was this year, at the same time that tree is groaning for the day those leaves don’t die, groaning for the day that it’s limbs doesn’t rot and break off, eagerly looking forward to the day when Christ returns and releases it from the cycle of decay that it’s in right now. It’s the day to day dying that it suffers from. Paul moves on to humans:
[ 011-3 ]  Not only that, but we ourselves who have the Spirit as the firstfruits-we also groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.
Do you see this? Paul understands that you can have the Spirit living in you (Your identity is that you are adopted brothers and sisters in the family of God) and at the same time, you also groan inside feeling the weight of decay in our lives! It’s possible to be filled with the Spirit of God, and filled with frustration over the day by day dying of sickness, trauma, accidents, abuse, disease or rebellion, as well as the daily dying that is getting rid of sin in our lives. And so here is Paul’s argument:
- [ 012-1 ] [24 & 25 tell us that We are limited. We will never fully know what God is working out in his story. We will never know what all he is working out in our own stories. But like little kids waiting for Christmas presents next month, we eagerly wait for “it” (the redemption of our bodies) with patience – sometimes we wait with patience better than other times. But we eagerly have confidence in something we can’t see, that one day we will be redeemed.
- [ 012-2 ] 26 & 27 tell us that In the same way that we can’t see the plan of redemption as it’s happening, but we eagerly trust that it’s happening, we also can’t see the work of the Spirit, but we trust it’s happening. Paul tells us there is a communication that happens between the Spirit and the Father that we are not able to listen in on. But they get each other. [ 012-3 ] They know what the other is thinking. They know the plan. They know the process. They know how this all plays out in the end, and so, because they know each other’s hearts, the Spirit that lives in you and me, knows how to pray the precise will of God where I do not. The Spirit works in me to take my prayers and re-word them, perfect them, and communicate them to the Father when I don’t know what to say or how to pray.
- As a result, [ 013 ]  We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. And I know —When you’re in the middle of a hard time, this verse isn’t the one you want people to quote to you. Psalm 44 feels a lot more real when it says, [ 014 ]  Wake up, LORD! Why are you sleeping? Get up! Don't reject us forever!  Why do you hide and forget our affliction and oppression? That aligns a lot more with what I’m feeling than “all things work together for good.”
But look back at [ 015 ] Romans 8:28. What is the good that all things work together for? What is the good that those who love God are called to? What is the purpose of God in all things?
Here’s the next verse [ 016 ] … For those he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, so that he would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. it is that you would be conformed to the image of his Son, so that in the end Jesus would have a huge family with a lot of brothers and sisters. If you are a believer (and I’m not assuming that everyone here is) – If you are a follower of Jesus, trying with the Spirit’s help to kill your sin so it doesn’t kill you, then everything God permits or chooses for your life that you would never have chosen for yourself is not evidence that God has forgotten you, like Psalm 44 seems to think. Instead, suffering is his way of calling you closer to himself, inviting you to know him more deeply than you did before, working in you little by little to reveal more and more of his glory to you, until the day you are fully and completely perfected and glorified.
That’s the other handrail for us to hang onto as the waves batter our ship. This verse tells us that God is using every experience that a human can go through to accomplish something in us. The pain isn’t pointless. There is no such thing as wasted years. Not a single doctor visit is wasted. Not a single tear cried on a pillow is wasted. Not one prayer prayed in desperation is wasted. Not one. Unless you throw up your hands, decide that God hates you, say I’m done with him and you walk away. That’s the only way you lose in this whole thing, is if you reject the only one who can save.
But God’s goal is to change you from living in the flesh to life in the Spirit, so that little by little we look more and more like Jesus, filled with humility, contentment, grace, forgiveness for those who have wronged us, love even for the unlovable, peace instead of anxious fear. And here’s how committed to this process he is:
[ 017 ] verse 30 says God is so committed to this, and the work of Jesus is so powerful, so persistent, so full and complete and sufficient that when it is applied to a sinner by faith, it’s as good as if we’re already in his presence right now.
[ 018-1 ]  What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? If God is that committed to saving you, who is going to stop him?  He did not even spare his own Son but offered him up for us all. How will he not also with him grant us everything? [ 018-2 ]  Who can bring an accusation against God's elect? Who is going to say, “you must not have enough faith to be healed”? Who is going to say, “you must have sinned and upset God for him to allow this to happen”? God is the one who justifies. I don’t have to justify myself – Christ is my righteousness!
[ 018-3 ]  Who is the one who condemns? Who can throw you under the bus for what you’ve done and say you’ve sinned too much to be forgiven? Christ Jesus the one who could have condemned you, instead is the one who died, but even more, has been raised; he also is at the right hand of God and intercedes for us. The very person who could have rightly sent you to eternity in hell because of how you’ve treated him, and how you’ve ignored his ways has lived, died, rose again, and is now serving your defense attorney in the courtroom of heaven! You’re not going to lose that case, I promise you!  Who can separate us from the love of Christ? Can affliction or distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?
And here’s where he quotes Psalm 44:  As it is written: Because of you we are being put to death all day long; we are counted as sheep to be slaughtered.
[ 018-4 ]  No, in all these things In all those kinds of sufferings where it feels like God is standing back and watching us die, it’s actually quite the opposite. In all these things, we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers,  nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
So these are your two handrails to steady you in the waves of all kinds of suffering that may rock your boat:
- [ 019-1 ] God does not pretend your suffering does not exist. You don’t have to perfect yourself: Jesus’ blood has perfected you, washed you. His perfect life has been applied to your account. You don’t have to try to increase your righteousness so that God hears you: In Christ, with his righteousness applied to you, you are already as righteous as you’ll ever be; you’re adopted, you’re accepted, you’re loved - so just tell God how you feel. Pray Psalm 44 and let the tears flow. That’s handrail number one.
- And [ 019-2 ] handrail #2 is that the Bible does not count you as expendable, or collateral damage – like you’re the lab rat that has to die so that they know to adjust the chemical for the next one. You are not a throwaway story in the bigger, grander story. God does not have bigger fish to fry, where his attention is on more important people or more important situations. Your suffering is never wasted. He is so intimately committed to seeing you put to death the things of the flesh and look more and more like Jesus that he intentionally works all things together (including suffering) for your highest good – which is, verse 17 that we will be glorified with him. That’s the plan God has for your life: Transformation here and now, so that you will experience more and more of the glory of Christ here on earth, becoming spiritually and morally more and more like him, until he returns and you are fully and completely glorified – spiritually, physically, and emotionally, and surrounded by an army of brothers and sisters who have been adopted with you into the family of God. That’s what God is working on in you through all things.
So let’s go to prayer here: [ 020 ]
- Grab the handrails. #1 God doesn’t ignore your suffering, and #2 He doesn't waste it. Which one are you tempted to believe isn’t true? Psalm 44 started with remembering the past – recalling God’s faithfulness in previous generations. The Psalm ended with them corporately calling out to that same God to be faithful again, so ask God for the faith and the strength to keep calling out to him, even when it feels like you’re alone.
- Give Thanks What stood out to you today that you can praise God for? Where can you recognize that God has blessed you, and praise him for it? God thank you that when we are parenting our rebellious kids – you are parenting us. God, when I’m trying to love my spouse who is currently not super lovable, thank you for revealing how unlovable I was when you found me, and thank you for not walking out on me when you had every right to do so. God, when my job falls apart, thank you for revealing more and more how you are my source of provision.