Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word… It was good for me to be afflicted, so that I might learn your decrees… I know, Lord, that your laws are righteous, and that in faithfulness you have afflicted me. Psalm 119:67, 71, 75
Hindsight… it’s a wonderful thing, isn’t it? “If only I’d known then what I know now!” we say. Or perhaps, more positively, “Looking back, I can see now how everything worked out for the best.”
Whoever wrote Psalm 119 gives a perfect example of hindsight. He’s been having a hard time – three times in a handful of verses he talks about being “afflicted” (“humbled” or “corrected” are other possible translations).
He doesn’t tell us what these afflictions were: an illness? a family problem? money worries? some kind of spiritual crisis? Perhaps he had drifted from God and his disobedient behaviour had got him into trouble.
It doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that, looking back, he can see that the experience, ultimately, has done him good: “it was good for me to be afflicted…”
I’m glad that we aren’t told exactly what his difficulties were, because that leaves us free to look at our own “afflictions”, and to apply to ourselves the lessons he has learned. And what were those lessons? I think we can highlight at least two…
First, he has come to a new appreciation of God’s word.
“Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word” (verse 67). He has “learned your decrees” (verse 71). He has grasped, perhaps for the first time, that “your laws are righteous” (verse 75).
I must admit that there have been times in my life when, if you had asked me if I believed the Bible was really the word of God, I would have said, “Of course! I’m a Christian, aren’t I? I read a bit of it every day. I’m always glad to hear it opened up in services and meetings. How can you ask?”
But when it comes to practical day-to-day obedience, I wonder if claims like that were much more than lip-service. Was my daily Bible-reading really just a matter of doing what I thought was my duty? Did I take the time and trouble needed to think it through and digest it, to soak up its glories and to grapple with its difficulties?
It seems as if the psalmist’s afflictions forced him to take God’s word more seriously. And if our afflictions have the same effect on us, that can only be good. Is it time some of us got to grips in a new way with our Bibles?
Second, he has come to a new appreciation of God’s love.
“I know, Lord, that your laws are righteous, and that in faithfulness you have afflicted me.” He sees his troubles as permitted, or indeed inflicted, by the faithfulness of God, not his indifference or coldness.
It’s easy to think, when we are passing through times of difficulty, that it’s all arbitrary, a matter of pot-luck. We may even get a bit aggrieved: “What have I done to deserve this?” And, let’s be honest, there are times when things happen to even the most faithful children of God which seem completely meaningless: life’s like that.
But the psalmist, with the benefit of hindsight, can see that it was “in faithfulness” that God afflicted him. In other words, even during those dark times, God was acting as his loving Father, not as some cold, uncaring and distant god. God is always faithful to his children, even in the times when he seems farthest away.
In a word, the psalmist’s troubles have brought him into a fresh and deeper relationship with God. And if that could happen to him, why not to us too?
The psalmist’s words find a very clear New Testament echo in Hebrews 12:4-11. That whole passage is well worth mulling over, but here are some key parts: “… do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines the one he loves… Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children…”
And then this: “… God disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness.” That last part is absolutely vital: the fact is that God is remaking us as people – remaking us in the holy likeness of his Son. And that is a life-time process (never in fact complete in this life) which entails the enduring of hardship.
Put it this way… God is a doctor, a spiritual surgeon, and his plan is that we will eventually be perfectly healthy. But just as no operation is pain-free, and no medicine pleasant to take, so God’s loving “treatment” of us is bound sometimes to involve suffering.
The psalmist has grasped this. May God give us grace to do the same – even without the benefit of hindsight!
Father God, give me faith and grace to see your hand in my life even when things are “going wrong”. And give me ears to hear what you are saying – even if it is unwelcome. Amen.