4 Lessons for Suffering Well
Don’t Give Up
Psalm 88 teaches us a number of important lessons about God and hard times. Not everyone gets a happy ending in a fallen world—and that includes even godly believers. Unrelieved suffering sometimes continues even until the very end of our lives. Mature believers can experience profound dissatisfaction with life. We also learn that some believers endure enormous suffering and still maintain their commitment to the Lord. God’s grace sustains us, even in the darkest hours, so that we never give up.
But this psalm holds out even more lessons of hope than we might first realize. Embedded even in this darkest of psalms are a few notes of light and redemption. Where? Let me propose four ways this psalm emboldens our hope and encourages us in suffering.
Consider the astounding fact that this psalm is in the Bible. Imagine being able to speak to Heman the Ezrahite and telling him that his lament is part of Scripture, preserved for thousands of years in God’s word so that other followers of the Lord might know how to bare their soul to God. What might Heman realize? He would realize that the Lord did hear him! The Lord not only heard these words, he inspired them so that other Christians might sing them in the coming ages to express their own sorrow to God. Heman would also recognize that other followers of the Lord share the same troubles and carry the same burdens. Consider just how many believers since Heman’s time have sung these words, sharing their grief with his.
When Pain Is Real and God Seems Silent
Through brief meditations on Psalms 88 and 89, Ligon Duncan points to God’s promises that sustain Christians even when he seems silent through their suffering.
Friend, your life may be filled with far more suffering than my own, but Scripture teaches that your troubles don’t belong to you alone. God placed psalms of lament, like this one, in Scripture so that we could all learn how to cry to the Lord in our sadness and grief together. Psalms like this one teach us to share in one another’s suffering and to bear one another’s burdens.
Notice how the psalmist describes the character of God. Heman, even in his agony, still comforts himself with the character of God: “O Lord, God of my salvation” (Ps. 88:1). With this description of God, the psalmist acknowledges God as his only help and hope—the only source of salvation. No matter what else might be taken from us, this hope in the character of God cannot be taken away. Our circumstances never alter God’s character.
Many times in the Christian life, God answers our cries “Why, O Lord?” not by explaining his providence but by giving us a deeper understanding of his person. In other words, when we cry, “Lord, why are you doing this?” he often answers by saying, “Let me show you who I am.” And if you see him, he will be enough.
Observe how the psalmist endeavors to live for God’s glory even in his suffering. In Psalm 88:10–12 we find the psalmist asking, “How am I going to live for your glory when I’m dead?” These probing questions reveal a heart that wants God glorified. As Derek Kidner writes,
This author, like Job, does not give up. He completes his prayer, still in the dark and totally unrewarded. The taunt, “Does Job fear God for naught?” is answered yet again. Like Job, the author has received no satisfactory answer for why his life has turned out as miserably as it has. But also, like Job, he does not “curse God and die” (Job 2:9). Rather, he is seen clinging to God.1
We must remember never to allow suffering to make us bitter toward life or cold toward the glory of God.
We can learn two important points from this observation. First, we must remember never to allow suffering to make us bitter toward life or cold toward the glory of God. When I encounter suffering, my first inclination is to think, “Why is this happening? God’s not in control!” But we must always remember that the Lord has both warned us to prepare for suffering and appointed trouble for his people for their everlasting good and for his glory. This psalmist’s heart reflects a right posture toward God: he cries for relief from his troubles even as he acknowledges that they come from God’s hand.
Second, we learn that the trouble we endure in this life should not call into question the genuineness of God’s love. Instead, these troubles prove God’s love. Consider these astounding passages from Scripture:
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. (Rom. 8:18)
For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake. (Phil. 1:29)
Our sonship, our adoption, our being the children of God is actually proved in our troubles. Charles Simeon once beautifully captured this truth:
There are some who by God Himself are brought into manifold temptations, and are suffered to experience much darkness in their souls. And though at first sight it should seem as if these persons were less beloved of the Lord than others, the truth is that they are often to be found amongst those who are his chief favorites: “Whom the Lord loves, He chasteneth;” and usually, those most, who are most beloved.2
Could your Lord be speaking his love into your heart in your deepest trouble? Echoing the words of the hymn “How Firm a Foundation?” ask God to “sanctify to you your deepest distress.”3
Take comfort from the fact that the sufferings of this life are the worst you will ever endure. If you know Christ and have come to him in faith and repentance, then your suffering has an end. The trials of this life are the worst things you will ever endure.
But friend, if you don’t know Christ, then you are alone in your suffering. You are in a far, far worse place than this psalmist. The hopelessness experienced by this psalmist was only apparent and temporary. But those who die without repenting of their sin will know true hopelessness, that which is real and eternal. Hell has no light at the end of the tunnel. If you do not know Christ, then let your sufferings show you your need for a Savior. If you are already a Christian, then let your own suffering remind you that you are an undeserving, hell-bound sinner saved by God’s mercy. Let that thought drive you to share the gospel with those around you so that they, too, might be saved from never-ending hopelessness.
- Derek Kidner, Psalms 73–150: A Commentary on Books III–V of the Psalms (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1973), 319.
- Charles Simeon, Horae Homileticae (London: Holdsworth and Ball, 1832), 104.
- K. [likely Robert Keen], “How Firm a Foundation,” 1787
This article is adapted from When Pain Is Real and God Seems Silent by Ligon Duncan.
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