The great joy of the Christian life is that it finds its source in God, particularly in the gospel and salvation of the Lord Jesus. Other systems and world views may offer glib happiness but the Bible offers something thicker, something lasting. Truth is, it does not take the work of the Spirit or the peace of God that comes through faith in Christ to enjoy happiness. God’s common grace allows the sun to shine on the righteous and the unrighteous alike. But our hearts were made for much more than happiness. As Matt Chandler has put so forcefully, “happiness can be taken from you in a second.” The fluttering emotion that is happiness is often rooted in changing circumstance. One phone call, one message from a friend about a death in the family or a natural disaster and happiness is gone. But the Christian is one who has been given great joy. In the midst of great sorrow and sadness, the Christian has an abiding peace and an abiding joy. Joy, that is, in God. The fruit of the Spirit does not come without direction. “Joy” is probably best thought of as “joy in God.” My good friend Brandon showed me this some time ago, that the fruits of the Spirit are Godward; subjective fruit rooted in the objective person and work of Christ. Joy can happen in the midst of great sorrow. Tears and joy need not be separated; indeed, they cannot. Paul says as much in 2 Corinthians 6:10 when he describes the redeemed as “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.”
The Christian life, therefore, is a fight for joy in God. Lesser joys (sin) nags daily at our souls, calling us to find our treasure in its lesser glory. Remember that our joy in God serves the purpose of magnifying the worth and value of God. We enjoy whatever we worship. This joy has been purchased for us and wrought within us by the work of Christ and the internal working of God the Holy Spirit. Sometimes joy is eclipsed by the darkness of sin, temptation, hard circumstance, or simply God seemingly removing His presence from us. Affliction is sometimes self-caused and sometimes it is in God’s sovereign mercy that he chooses to afflict us despite there being no known unrepentant sin in our lives. Psalm 102 comes to us as a balm for the soul in the apparent darkness. We must remember from the beginning that God never leaves us or forsakes us (Heb. 13:5). Even when we cannot trace God’s hand, we know His covenant heart for us in Christ. Christ’s cry on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is our assurance that God’s forsaking of us has fallen on Christ as it should us. At the same time, the Christian life promises affliction in various forms. The God-inspired psalmist writes this as a prologue: “A prayer for one afflicted, when he is faint and pours out his complaint before the Lord.” Are you afflicted and faint? Let this Psalm help you take your complaint to God and rest in His goodness and salvation.
Hide Not Your Face From Me
The psalmist takes his case before God. In the midst of darkness, it must be the instinct of the child of God to run to God. We cast our anxieties on the Lord because He cares for us and is the sovereign of the universe. The same God we run to is the God that parted the Red Sea and delivered our brother Israelites (1 Peter 5:6-7). We must remember that this experience is that of a believer. The life of faith presupposes the presence of faith. We must know the sweetness of Christ if we are to understand the bitterness of not being able to see Him as we once have. The psalmist cries to God, asking Him not to hide His face. We seek the face of God in Christ because He has become our greatest pleasure. In our prayers, even in the midst of seeming darkness, we have great confidence before the throne of grace. When sin or something else has temporarily eclipsed the face of God we often are sheepish in prayer. But this is a profound misunderstanding of the gospel. We approach God in prayer with boldness because we do not come with any merit of our own. We come to God the Father because Christ is our intercessor. He is our intercessor because He is our mediator. Christ’s righteousness is the substance of our confidence before God, both for justification and for daily pleading with God the Father for Him to hallow His own name by making us glad in Him.
The psalmist is in tremendous pain. He says his days “pass away like smoke” and his bones “burn like a furnace.” There is a peculiar comfort in these verses. It is God’s grace to us that we feel strain and friction when our hearts are not in a good frame. Coldness and melancholy is terrible for the child of God. When darkness hides the lovely face of God we are not happy. Joy does not continue on in the same way. Our sin makes us waste away. The refreshment that comes from communion with the living God ceases or lessens for a time and we despair. The psalmist goes on to describe himself as an owl in the wilderness. This is not a happy situation.
To make matters worse, the psalmist has enemies taunting him. We know that the main enemies of our soul are the world, the flesh and the devil. These things, without dismissing the physical enemies the psalmist may have encountered, were the main threats to this man as well. It is during times of weak faith that Satan likes to tempt us most. He tries to belittle God. He asks us to question His character. He does so by tempting the flesh, the fallen man that though dying is still inside each of us. Sin is stronger when our joy in God is lessened. The more we see God as beautiful, the less power sin has over us. In times of darkness, our flesh seems to rear its ugly head all the more.
The psalmist seems to do something that many of us are uncomfortable to do today. He says that God is causing this to happen to him. Now we have to be careful with how we describe this but the fact remains: God works all things for our good and His glory, including terrible affliction. God is sovereign over the psalmists’ darkness, even leading him into it. God does not sin or directly cause sin but is the final authority over all things, to the praise of His glory and grace. We know that God is not punishing us when he forces us under the rod and into the wilderness. As Spurgeon said, “there is not one drop of wrath in the sea of your sorrow.” God’s discipline is only for His children. Take heart! His correction is for your good. Richard Sibbes reminded us that it is better to go bruised into heaven than unscaved into hell.
But You, O Lord, are Enthroned Forever
The believer in the throes of darkness knows there is little hope to be found by looking within. Our hearts are more sinful than we would like to admit and we are often want to distrust God. But there is great hope in God. In verse 12 there is a great reversal in the text. He interjects: “But you, O Lord, are enthroned forever.” In the midst of turmoil, it does our hearts good to remind it that God is sovereign. He is God, creator and sustainer of the universe and our faith, the Triune joy of His people. When we cannot trace His hand we must learn to trust His heart. God has determined to do nothing but good for us. Now of course that good is defined by God. Our greatest good is our savoring Christ clothed in the gospel. God is committed to that end, even if it hurts a bit along the way. Only trust in the sovereign God of the Bible will give us comfort in times of affliction. There is nothing that has God on the ropes. Jesus doeth all things well!
God’s greatest gift to us is Himself. His glory is better to us that life itself. Eternal life is knowing the Son. With this in mind, our suffering has perspective. We see that our present darkness and affliction is for the greater good of God’s name being magnified in Christ across the entire universe. The psalmist remarks, “you are remembered throughout all generations.” He goes on to exclaim, “nations will fear the name of the Lord.” David says something similar in Psalm 40. He says the result of his being in the “pit” is that many will see and fear the Lord. Our suffering is being used to the end of God’s name being proclaimed to the nations. In this time, it is important to continue in faithful plodding. We read, pray and share the gospel because we know that God would have His name magnified even in the midst of our darkness.
He Looked Down From His Holy Height
Our great comfort in affliction is that we lack nothing already. Our joy rests in the fact that God has not withheld anything from us that is for our good. He has given us Christ. Will He not also give us all things? We have been blessed with every spiritual blessing in the beloved. And we come into these things because Christ has died in our place and that we are clothed in His righteousness by faith. Just like the psalmist recounts, Christ has looked down from His holy heights, condescending to take on human flesh in order to redeem a people from Himself and for Himself. These who were “doomed to die” have been saved that they might “declare in Zion the name of the Lord.”
The psalmist returns and ends with the character of God. God is as He is. That is not just a rhetorical flourish, but a theological necessity for our joy. God exists outside of us and we are dependent on Him to tell us how He is. In our darkness, we might try to rationialize God or to think wrongly about Him. The psalmist banks His hope on what He knows God to be like. “Of old you laid the foundation of the earth,” he remarks! Everything will perish, but God remains. See, it is the unchanging nature of God that is our hope in our ever-changingness. God is not like man. God is God; sitting in the heavens and doing whatever He pleases. And He is pleased to save us to the uttermost. From age to age the same, and He must win the battle. God is doing a million things and we might only see three of them. John Piper has made that idea stick in the minds in hearts of thousands. Again and again I go back to the words of William Cowper, certainly no stranger to suffering. But He knew God. Let’s close with the full text of his hymn “God Moves in Mysterious Ways.”
- God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.
- Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs
And works His sov’reign will.
- Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head.
- Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.
- His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flow’r.
- Blind unbelief is sure to err
And scan His work in vain;
God is His own interpreter,
And He will make it plain.