For you, O God, have tested us; you have tried us as silver is tried. You brought us into the net; you laid a crushing burden on our backs; you let men ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water; yet you have brought us out to a place of abundance (Psalm 66:10-12).
Last night my son Joseph was asking about suffering—in particular how, in his words, the Lord could let so many Christians be killed.
Scripture is not silent. Even though God’s purposes for suffering are often hidden in the moment (or at least those purposes are not as clear as we might like), there are answers to these questions. Or, if not answers, at least windows into God’s purposes and ways that keep us from losing heart. Psalm 66 gives us one of those windows.
For you, O God, have tested us; you have tried us as silver is tried (66:10). The way to remove the impurities of silver is to heat it, so that the pure silver separates from the dross. On the other side of the trying, the heat was worth it, which is precisely the perspective of the psalmist. After their suffering, “you have brought us out to a place of abundance” (66:12). The psalmist sees their suffering from the other side, a place of abundance, and can therefore give thanks. God is purifying a people.
It can be very difficult to see God’s hand in the midst of suffering, or to see suffering from the perspective of the other side. For in the midst of suffering that other side can often only be seen by faith. But God calls to His people to do exactly that—to remember that He is good and He is working for the good of His people, even in the midst of pain. Even Jesus learned this, for it was for the joy that was set before Him that he endured the cross. In other words, Jesus found strength to endure the cross because He saw the other side, the place of abundance, by faith. Even when that other side was on the other side of death.
Paul calls Jesus’ resurrection the firstfruits of a grand harvest to come, a pledge looking ahead to the time when all God’s people will likewise be raised from the dead. That does not erase the pain, but it does remind us that God is not absent, that He has not forgotten His children. There is a grand harvest coming—a place of abundance, indeed.
Woe to those who draw iniquity with cords of falsehood, who draw sin as with cart ropes… (Isaiah 5:18).
The metaphors in the Bible are very instructive. Here, in the simple picture of a cart drawn by cords, we have a powerful lesson on the dangers of falsehood.
The cart is sin, and the means by which it is pulled is falsehood. The implication is that, apart from the cords of falsehood, the cart of iniquity is left behind. Which is exactly the way it is in life. Although there are exceptions (sometimes one may sin with pride—Isaiah 3:9), where you find sin you will find lying, for the sin seeks to be covered over. Just as Adam and Eve hiding behind the bushes in the garden (and then shifting the blame when the Lord did find them), we seek to cover over sin. And we do it by lying. We can do this by, as Isaiah says two verses later, calling good evil and evil good (5:20), or we can do it by covering up sin in other ways, usually by lying.
The implication? Cutting the cords of falsehood cuts away sin. Darkness breeds sin, but light drives it away: “when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light” (Ephesians 5:13-14). While it is an illusory refuge to be sure, darkness and dishonesty is nevertheless a refuge to which we will flee if we make it available. But what if we have no such place to flee? Then we are forced to walk righteously, and when we do sin, to forsake darkness and bring our sin to Jesus. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:8-9).
Make no peace with dishonesty. Those in Christ who refuse to lie, whether implicitly or explicitly, will find that other areas of sin in their lives will come back into plumb.
The Scriptures are, from front to back, concerned with fullness. From the very beginning, mankind is called to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth, the obedience to this command resulting in the earth being filled with His image. If the garden of Eden is a picture of anything, it is a picture of fullness, where both the needs and the desires of mankind--physical, spiritual, and emotional--are filled to the full. Isaiah looks ahead to the day when "the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea" (Isaiah 11:9). In Christ we are called to be filled with the Holy Spirit. The Lord does not do things halfway.
Apparently neither do we. Having forsaken the fullness offered by God, we nonetheless continue to pursue fullness. Hence the description of Judah given by Isaiah: "Their land is filled with silver and gold; and there is no end to their treasures; their land is filled with horses, and there is no end to their chariots. Their land is filled with idols; they bow down to the work of their hands, to what their own fingers have made" (Isaiah 2:7-8). These things, of course, are precisely those things which draw people from the Lord. The land is full of riches, even though the love of money is the root of all evil, and that one cannot love God and riches. The land is full of chariots, even though the Lord has promised to be the strength and shield of His people, their stronghold and their defense. The land is full of idols, trusted by those who look to them, even though they cannot save. The people forsake the Lord, but they do not forsake fullness.
The language of fullness also serves as a plumbline, or a yardstick, for Isaiah suggests that sin is not done halfway. Which raises questions. Where is the fullness in our land? Where is the fullness in my land? In my home? My community? My time? My resources? What are the things that I/we are most concerned with? We will be full. The question is, with what? Our desire for fullness suggests that what is most important to us should not be hard to find. We need just look around.
I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him (Ecclesiastes 3:14).
The verse above drew my attention to one of Hannah Barry’s recent blog posts, which draws from similar wisdom. This from August 26, concerning her first weeks as a young teacher in a new school in a foreign land:
This evening I was trying to nail down some "goals," or (to use the terminology of the RE Dept. here) "Target Understandings," for the entire year, and from there to each semester, each unit, etc. As I was writing the things that are most important, the "if they take away only one thing from the class" type stuff, it quickly became overwhelming. Every single thing I wrote down was something that I know for a fact that I am not able to communicate.
Let me interrupt myself briefly: communication does not happen when I say words. It happens when you (or whoever) understand the meaning that was behind the words. I would say I can communicate certain things to certain people, in a way "on my own strength." I know a few people well enough to be able to do and say the things that will actually touch them in a way that's meaningful to them, far behind their eyes and ears. I have tools for communication and in a (very) few cases I know how to use them effectively. However, even at the best there are certain things I cannot communicate to anyone.
I'm not sure if this is another interruption of self, or continuing where I left off, but another piece of this is the difference between knowing something in your mind and knowing it beyond your mind--in your heart, I guess. That second kind of knowing, for me, is almost always experiential. I can't help it, that's just the way it is. And being a regular sort of person I naturally assume that it is the same for everyone else. I can't really trust God without experiencing and recognizing His faithfulness and reliability--His being there when by all rights I think He oughtn't be, His provision and blessing that continue when I break the conditions I make up for them. But there's a solidness in the experiential kind of knowledge: nobody can tell me that God's character is other than what He's been to me.
So my "goals" or "Target Understandings" for the year, for three grades (I still don't know how many students exactly), are all things that are too hot to touch... things that are very real to me, but I feel comprehended by them, rather than the other way around.
I want the students to understand that God is love; that the book we hold is God's Word; that God wants us to know and love Him. Stuff like that.
Tonight I was praying, a little frustrated. "Everything I want to do is something that ONLY YOU can do!"
Then I laughed. Maybe that's the point.
Indeed. You can find more of Hannah’s writing at http://thecloudgrowsthin.blogspot.com.