Introduction: What do we say when a Christian mother backs the car over the top of her little toddler, crushing him to death? What do we say when a young Christian man discovers he has brain cancer and must soon leave his three young children without a father? What do we say when a missionary family is brutally murdered for sharing the good news of Godís love in a Muslim country?
Perhaps youíve asked that question in light of a personal trial or tragedy you have endured. Perhaps youíve lost a loved one. Perhaps youíve gone through a heart-rending divorce. Perhaps youíve contracted a chronic illnessóthe doctors have no clue how to help you. Perhaps youíve been betrayed by a Christian friend. Perhaps the Lord has dealt bitterly with you as He did with Naomi, and you want to know why. Why, Lord? Why have You allowed this to happen to me?
A Jewish Rabbi tried to answer this question several years ago in a book entitled, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. In this book, Harold Kushner argued that there is evil in this world which God cannot prevent. God would help good people if He could, but His power is limited. He cannot completely eliminate evil.
There are two problems with Kushnerís answer: First of all, he assumes that men are basically good and do not deserve to suffer. In contrast, the Bible teaches that all men have sinned and are under the wrath of God. Thereís a sense in which we all deserve to suffer. The real question, as the title of another book highlights, is Why Do Good Things Happen to Bad People?
The second problem with Kushnerís answer is his denial of Godís sovereignty. According to Scripture, Godís power is absolute. He not only controls the good things that happen; He also controls the bad things that happen. As the writer of Lamentations declares, "Who can speak and have it happen if the Lord has not decreed it? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that both calamities and good things come?" (Lam. 3:37-38, NIV).
Rabbi Kushner does not have the answer. But that drives us back to the question: Why do bad things happen to Godís people? Itís true that we are still sinners. We are not natively good people who deserve a trouble-free life. But we are Godís people. Through Jesus Christ we have become the objects of Godís love and mercy. We are precious in Godís sight. And when a godly Christian suffers some tragedy, weíre inclined to ask, "Why, Lord, are You allowing this to happen?"
Itís not always wrong to ask that question. In fact, when we read through the Psalms, we find the psalmists raising this question from time-to-time when a difficult trial had come into their life. For example,
Psalm 10:1 Why do You stand afar off, O LORD? Why do You hide in times of trouble?
Psalm 22:1 My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me? Why are You so far from helping Me, And from the words of My groaning?
Psalm 44:23 Awake! Why do You sleep, O Lord? Ö 24 Why do You hide Your face, And forget our affliction and our oppression?
Psalm 74:1 O God, why have You cast us off forever? Why does Your anger smoke against the sheep of Your pasture? Ö 11 Why do You withdraw Your hand, even Your right hand?
The Bible does give us some answers. It tells us that God causes all things to work together for the ultimate good of His people. It tells us that suffering can make us more like Christ. It tells us that Christians will ultimately go to heaven where there is no suffering. But even the Bible does not give us all the answers!
As the hymnwriter reminds us, "God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform." And sometimes Godís mysterious providence can be very unpleasant. When we encounter these dark providences, itís not always wrong for us to ask God "why?" "Lord, why this affliction? Why this suffering? Why this tragedy?"
But there is a danger! The danger comes when we expect that God must give us an answer to all our questions. The danger comes when we demand that God give an account for all of his ways. The danger comes when we expect God to remove all mystery and give us a full explanation of his dealings in our life.
And in light of this ever present danger, I would like to preach today on subject of Trusting God Even When We Donít Understand. When God brings a trial or tragedy into our life that we do not understand, how should we respond? Ultimately, as I intend to demonstrate, we should be willing to trust God even when He does not answer our question. And the text upon which I would base this thesis is Psalm 131. The author is identified as David, and itís inclusion among the Songs of Ascent indicates its popularity and frequent usage in the worship community.
1) A recognition of inexplicable mystery (v. 1)2) An affirmation of trustful humility (v. 1, 2)3) An exhortation to the covenant community (v. 3)
I. A recognition of inexplicable mystery (v. 1)
David recognizes that there are lofty realities that lie beyond our comprehension.
LORD, my heart is not haughty, nor my eyes lofty. Neither do I concern myself with great matters, nor with things too profound for me.
These "great" and "profound" realities would include mysteries about the world and about God who created the world. But more specifically, the terminology David uses is used elsewhere of Godís mysterious providencesóthose aspects of Godís activity in the world that are difficult for the human mind to comprehend (cf. Job 5:8, 9; 9:10; 37:5, 14; 42:1-4).
And this would not only include the good things God did for David, but also the unpleasant thingsóthe trials, suffering, and tragedy that God brought into Davidís life. And I believe those commentators are correct who see verse one as an allusion to some difficult and painful trial David was experiencing. And perhaps what made this trial particularly challenging for David was its mysterious nature. It was not obvious to David why God was allowing this to happen to him. It was too great and too profound [lit., Ďout-of-the-ordinaryí] for David to understand.
Some of us can identify with David. We also have experienced some dark providences. And they are dark not only because of the pain, but also because of the mystery. We donít understand why God has brought these trials into our life.
Illustration: Imagine that youíre about to run a race. Your coach comes up to you at the starting line, and he gives you a pep talk. He urges you to run well and to finish the course. Then, after he exhorts you to do your best, he hurries down the course and begins to set up obstacles in your way. He builds a wall for you to climb over. He digs a pit for you to cross. He breaks up the ground and makes it rough. And you also notice that Heís not putting the same obstacles in front of the other runners. Their way seems smoother and easier. And immediately, you begin to wonder, "Why is he doing this?" I thought he wanted me to run wellówhy is he making it so difficult?
Sometimes, God appears to be dealing with us in this way. He tells us to "lay aside every weight and to run the race with endurance." But then He seems to place obstacles in our wayótrials, hardship, suffering. And we immediately begin to wonder, "Lord, why are you doing this?" "What is Your purpose?" "What are You trying to teach me?" That brings us to our second heading: Having recognized inexplicable mystery, David gives
II. An affirmation of trustful humility (v. 1, 2)
David not only acknowledges the reality of mystery, but he lets us know how he has responded to such mystery as it has directly impacted his life. According to his own testimony, David had come to accept such inexplicable mysteries with trustful humility.
A. David's humility described (1)
- Negatively, David is not proud
LORD, my heart is not haughty, nor my eyes lofty. Neither do I concern myself with great matters, nor with things too profound for me.
David will not dare presume that God owes him an account for all His providences. To insist that God answer all of Davidís questions would be the height of pride. He will not allow such pride poison his heart, show in his eyes, or influence his behavior. Instead, verse 2:
- David positively declares,
Surely I have calmed and quieted my soul
If weíre not careful, asking the question "why?" can promote agitation and anxiety. And these in turn can make us impatient and demanding of God. David knew this. Therefore, he purposely assumes a calm and quiet disposition. Itís not a sullen disposition. David is not pouting. Heís not walking around with a long face. No, the expression David uses here describes a humble, trustful disposition. This is confirmed by Davidís illustration in the last half of verse 2:
B. Davidís humility illustrated (2)
Like a weaned child with his mother;
Like a weaned child is my soul within me.
The preposition "with" would be better translated "upon" or "against." The child is either sitting upon his motherís lap or leaning against his motherís breast. In either case, the picture is that of a weaned child who is no longer anxious, fussy, and agitated, but rather he has become calm and quiet.
What is the analogy or point of comparison between David's disposition and that of a weaned child? I believe there are at least two points of comparison:
- Both David and the weaned child have been confronted with mystery.
And as in Davidís case so too with the child, the mystery is very displeasing and disquieting. The childís mother has removed something from the child that he deems both satisfying and necessary. And the child is not able to understand why. He does not realize that weaning is necessary for his growth and maturation. And even if his mother should tell him it was for his good, he would not be able to fully comprehend the reasons.
So it was with David. God had done something that David found unpleasant. And like the little child, David could not fully understand why. But there is another point of comparison.
- Both David and the weaned child are responding to this mystery with composure and quietness.
Those of us who are parents know from experience that this is not the first response of a child being weaned. Initially, the child objects with loud complaints. But eventually with a little love and discipline, there is quietness. The child becomes restful upon his mother's lap. He no longer insists in knowing why his mother has withdrawn what was so pleasant and helpful and seemingly necessary. Instead, he has contented himself in his mother's wisdom. He is trusting in his mother's love, and at peace in his motherís arms.
Note carefully: The child is not at rest because he has learned the mystery! His mother has not given him a lecture on the importance and significance and necessity of weaning. She has not explained to the child that he is entering in upon a new stage of physical development and that he must now learn to eat solid food. She has not explained that in a few years he shall become an adult like his father and mother and have children of his own. It's all still a mystery! And an undesirable one at that! But now, the child is no longer objecting and complaining and disquieted about the mystery. Now he is willing and content to live with the mystery and trust in his mother's wisdom and love.
Such now was the disposition of David towards God. Perhaps David, like the child, had initially complained about the unpleasant and uncomfortable providences in his life. But now he had come to realize that all such complaining was futileóGod was not going to give in. He had also come to believe that such complaining was unnecessaryóGod would take care of him. And he had come to believe that to continue crying and complaining would be wrongóGod wanted David to quietly trust in Him even though David didnít understand.
And that brings us to the final verse of our Psalm. Having recognized inexplicable mystery; having affirmed a trustful humility, David now gives
III. An exhortation to the covenant community (v. 3)
Turning from his own experience, the Psalmist faces the covenant communityóhis fellow Israelite brethrenóand he exhorts them to respond in like fashion to the dark providences that come into their life.
Let Israel hope [Ďwait for,í Ďplace her trustí] in the LORD from henceforth and for ever (KJV).
David had come to see the truth expressed so plainly by the Apostle Paul in Acts 14:22: Namely, that all of Godís children "must through much tribulation enter the kingdom of God" (KJV). They all will not suffer the same trials. They all will not suffer to the same degree. But all Godís covenant people will, like David, be faced with mysterious, dark providences. And David had learned by experience that the best response to such difficulties was to trust in God even when we donít understand.
What lessons can we draw from Davidís experience and exhortation?
(1) Lesson #1: God intends the afflictions of one member for the good of the whole community
In Psalm 119:71, David says, "It is good for me that I have been afflicted, that I might learn [Godís] statutes" (KJV). But it was not only good for Davidís soul. It was also good for the entire community of Israel. God afflicted David, so that David might encourage Godís people to trust in the Lord.
Such was also Paulís experience:
2 Corinthians 1:3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.
In light of this principle,
- Those afflicted by God should feel a degree of honor and stewardship.
Who are the great teachers in the church today? Not merely those with great intellect, rhetorical ability, and eloquent voice. No, the great teachers in the churchóthose whom God is pleased to use for the good of His people are those who like David have gone through deep waters and who have responded with humble trust.
Dear afflicted brother or sister in Christ, God is fitting you with the qualifications necessary to be an effective teacher in Israel. And God is granting you the tremendous stewardship of being a comforter and exhorter in Israel. You may say, "But I donít know much theology. I havenít learned the difference between supralapsarianism and infralapsarianism." That may be true. But you have learned to trust God even when life hurts? Therefore, you have something to teach us.
- And the rest of us in Israel should be ready to listen to those among us who have endured great trial and are still persevering in the faith.
We might be tempted to think of our afflicted brethren as those God has "set-on-the-shelf." Or worse yet, we may think of them as those God is judging for their sin" (cf. Jobís Ďfriendsí). And as a result, we might think they have a greater need to hear from us, than we from them. But in some respects it may be the opposite. Indeed, as we see in our Psalm, God had a message to convey to Israel, and He chose to convey that message through one of his children who had undergone a dark providence.
Do we know anyone who has undergone hardship and affliction and who has continued to trust in the Lord through the midst of that trial? Let us look at their lives and listen to their words and be motivated to trust and follow the Lord.(2) Lesson #2: The trials envisioned and trust enjoined by this text are not extraordinary, but normative for the covenant community
The imperative phrase given in verse three is very common throughout the Bible, especially in contexts of hardship, suffering, and persecution (e.g., Lam 3:24, 26). The Psalmist is not calling God's people to do something extra-ordinary. Heís calling them to live a life of faith in a sin-cursed world.
Friends, we still live in a sin-cursed world. And as a result, trials and tragedies are not rare, but rather they are part of life.
Job 5:7 Yet man is born to trouble, As the sparks fly upward.
1 Peter 4:12 Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you;
We may not suffer the same trials. We may not be confronted with the same mysteries. But sooner or later, God will bring a difficulty into our life that we do not understand. And trusting God in such a circumstance is what the Christian life is all about!
(3) Lesson #3: According to this psalm, it is truly possible for every believer to trust God through the difficult trials of life even when he doesnít completely understand.
David was a man of like passions as we are. He was not an angel or a glorified saint. To be sure, he had a regenerated heart; but he was still a sinneróa man who may have struggled with doubtsóa man who may have sometimes complainedóa man who was tempted in all points as we areóyet a man who did not merely talk of the hypothetical possibility of trusting God when life hurts, but he actually calmed and quieted his soul. He came to trust in Godís wisdom and love.
If David could trust in God even when he did not understand and if he exhorted all Israel to do the same, then such trust is within our reach as well. By Godís grace we can do it! And with that in mind, let me leave you with some practical counsel for cultivating this kind of disposition.
- If there is any pride in your heart, repent and seek Godís forgiveness.
If you think God owes you an explanation for everything He doesóif you believe that is your inalienable right, then you are high-minded and proud. You have the opposite spirit of David. Indeed, your disposition is contrary to the proper attitude of a Christian disciple. Jesus said in Matthew 18:3: "Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven."
Becoming a Christian is like assuming the disposition of a little childóeven the disposition of a weaned child! You have to learn to trust God even when He allows heartache and pain in your lifeóeven when you donít understand why!
Perhaps thereís someone here who is struggling with a dark providence. Perhaps youíve been entertaining negative thoughts about God. Perhaps youíve become angry and bitter towards God. And perhaps youíve proudly demanded that God give you an answer. Perhaps youíve said things to God youíd be ashamed for us to hear. What should you do? Listen to the words and example of Job:
Job 42:3 I have uttered what I did not understand, Things too wonderful for me, which I did not knowÖ. 5 "I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear, But now my eye sees You. 6 Therefore I abhor myself, And repent in dust and ashes."
Whether youíre still an unbeliever and pride rules over your heart or whether youíre a believer and pride still remains in your heart, this is where you need to begin. Stop demanding that God give you an account for all of His dealings in your life. Repent of your pride, and assume the posture of a weaned child. This is the first step towards cultivating a disposition of humble trust in God.
- Secondly, donít expect God to answer all your questions about His dealings in your life. Instead, learn to be content with mystery.
Deuteronomy 29:29 "The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.
Learning from trial and tragedy does not mean that God must make us privy to His secret counsels of redemption. Noólearning from our trials and tragedies often means learning that God is God, that we are His creatures, and that we need to trust Him. Period! Thatís a hard lesson for us to learn.
If we could see, if we could know, we often say
But God in love a veil doth throw across our way
We cannot see what lies before
And so to Him we cling the more
He leads us till our life is oíer, trust and obey.
Dear friends, until we learn this lesson not only intellectually, but practically and experientially, then we are not ready to graduate from the School of Dark Providence.
- Thirdly, seek out, learn from, and imitate other brethren who have faithfully persevered through trials and tragedies.
Several years ago, the Lord brought me through a particularly difficult providence. At that time I had four pastors I could turn to for counsel and encouragement. But one of those pastors had just lost his oldest son in a tragic death, and he had continued to trust God even though he didnít have all the answers. You can probably guess which pastor I called first.
That doesnít mean other pastors or other believers couldnít have helped me. But it does highlight the fact I underscored earlier: those whom God is often pleased to use for the good of His people are those who like David have gone through deep waters and who have responded with humble trust.
Therefore, when you are going through deep waters, seek out, listen to, and imitate those believers who have learned to trust God even when they donít understand. And they donít have be living saints. You can benefit from the books and biographies of tried saints, such as David Brainard, Henry Martin, Robert Murray McCheyne, Charles Spurgeon, Amy Carmichel, and others.
- Finally, determine to view all reality, including Godís providence and your own feelings about Godís providence in the light of Godís Word.
As William Cowper artfully reminds us:
Blind unbelief is sure to err, and scan Godís works in vain;
God is His own interpreter, and He will make it plan.
Therefore, when God brings trial or tragedy into your life, donít set your own feelings or some elseís opinion as a judge over Godís providence. Rather, let all your thoughts and feelings about Godís dealings with you be governed by the teaching and promises of Word of God. Only then will you and I be able to properly cope with tragedy when it strikes. Only then will we be able to trust God even when we do not understand.
"Great peace have those who love Your law,
And nothing causes them to stumble" (Psalm 119:165)
Home Help for Those Who Grieve Reflections