Momentary Affliction, Eternal Glory

A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on March 19, 2023.

            Hear my prayer, O LORD;

                        let my cry come to you!

            Do not hide your face from me

                        in the day of my distress!

            Incline your ear to me;

                        answer me speedily in the day when I call!

            For my days pass away like smoke,

                        and my bones burn like a furnace.

            My heart is struck down like grass and has withered;

                        I forget to eat my bread.

            Because of my loud groaning

                        my bones cling to my flesh.

            I am like a desert owl of the wilderness,

                        like an owl of the waste places;

            I lie awake;

                        I am like a lonely sparrow on the housetop.

            All the day my enemies taunt me;

                        those who deride me use my name for a curse.

            For I eat ashes like bread

                        and mingle tears with my drink,

            because of your indignation and anger;

                        for you have taken me up and thrown me down.

            My days are like an evening shadow;

                        I wither away like grass.

            But you, O LORD, are enthroned forever;

                        you are remembered throughout all generations.

            You will arise and have pity on Zion;

                        it is the time to favor her;

                        the appointed time has come.

            For your servants hold her stones dear

                        and have pity on her dust.

            Nations will fear the name of the LORD,

                        and all the kings of the earth will fear your glory.

            For the LORD builds up Zion;

                        he appears in his glory;

            he regards the prayer of the destitute

                        and does not despise their prayer.

            Let this be recorded for a generation to come,

                        so that a people yet to be created may praise the LORD:

            that he looked down from his holy height;

                        from heaven the LORD looked at the earth,

            to hear the groans of the prisoners,

                        to set free those who were doomed to die,

            that they may declare in Zion the name of the LORD,

                        and in Jerusalem his praise,

            when peoples gather together,

                        and kingdoms, to worship the LORD.

            He has broken my strength in midcourse;

                        he has shortened my days.

            “O my God,” I say, “take me not away

                        in the midst of my days—

            you whose years endure

                        throughout all generations!”

            Of old you laid the foundation of the earth,

                        and the heavens are the work of your hands.

            They will perish, but you will remain;

                        they will all wear out like a garment.

            You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away,

                        but you are the same, and your years have no end.

            The children of your servants shall dwell secure;

                        their offspring shall be established before you (Psalm 102).[1]

Amidst his suffering, Job said, “Man who is born of woman is few of days and full of trouble” (Job 14:1). It’s not a quotation you’ll find on an inspirational quote board, but it’s a truth of life, that if you live long enough, you know. Even our Lord Jesus lived a life few of days; he who lived a sinless life did so as a man of sorrows and died alone upon a cross of suffering (Isa. 53:3).

If righteous Job and sinless Jesus lived days full of trouble, may we expect less? But we do. Personally, I’m always surprised when trouble comes, like an uninvited guest. I want to answer the door and tell him he wasn’t invited, hoping he will turn around and leave, never to visit again. But trouble does, often inexplicably.

But this doesn’t mean that trouble is outside the sovereign will of God, as if trouble hides from his omnipresence, slips past his omniscience, pushes through his omnipotence. No, the troubles of life, like everything else in existence, are well within God’s reign and sovereign purpose. As our Confession puts it, “God the great Creator of all things doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least, by his most wise and holy providence, according to his infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of his own will, to the praise of his wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy.”[2] As much as we would like to divorce God from our troubles in life, Scripture reveals that he is not only sovereign over them but is purposefully using them for our good and his glory. C.S. Lewis writes, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, he speaks to us in our conscience, but he screams in our pain; pain is his megaphone to awaken a deaf world.”[3]

For the Christian, who is neither deaf nor asleep, indeed alive to the things of God, the question is: How shall we respond to life’s troubles? Shall we follow the counsel of Job’s wife, to “Curse God and die” (Job 2:9)? Or shall we agree with Job, when he had suffered great loss, including all of his children, and could still say, “The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job 1:21). In Psalm 102, the psalmist teaches us how to respond like Job, pleading for mercy, praying for provision, praising for promises.

Pleading for Mercy

To say that God sovereignly upholds, disposes, and governs “all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least” does not render us mute robots. Some ask, “If God is sovereign, why pray?” But the psalms teach us to think differently, not like a critic but a child. We pray because he is sovereign and plead for mercy because he is our heavenly Father. If this psalm teaches us anything, it teaches us to cry out to God in our suffering. “Here my prayer, O LORD,” the psalmist pleads, “let my cry come to you!” (1).  He desperately appeals to the Lord to engage:

            Do not hide your face from me

                        in the day of my distress!

He pleads for speed:

            Incline your ear to me;

                        answer me speedily in the day when I call!

It is the prayer of “one afflicted, when he is faint and pours out his complaint,” crying:  Hear me! Don’t ignore me! Act now! And we all know how he feels; we’ve all prayed it in one form or another before. But amidst his pleas, don’t miss the privilege he has to pray, and to pray like this, that the Lord would turn his face, lend his ear. It is a prayer of relationship, intimacy, and trust. You don’t pray like this to an unknown god, or “the man upstairs,” but to the Lord who blesses and keeps his child, bestowing the grace of his face and peace of his countenance (Num. 6:24-26).

And it is within this relationship of intimacy and trust that the psalmist begins to tell his Father how he feels. He feels lost, lonely, and left alone. His mind is drifting: What day is it? His anxiety escalates: His bones are burning! His heart is so heavy that he has stopped eating, and when he does it’s a meal of ashes moistened with tears? He’s wasting away and his strength with it, and no one seems to care. His friends have abandoned him, leaving him as lonely as an owl in the desert, like a sparrow all alone. Like Job, he needs a friend to affirm him but instead is surrounded by enemies who curse him.

Given his agony, he thinks God is angry with him and treating him like a lump of clay, splatted under the divine and indignant fist of God. It would make you want to cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” as David did (Ps. 22:1), as did our Lord Jesus as he bore the weight of God’s wrath for our sin (Matt. 27:46). And so it is that we look to the cross of Christ when we feel forsaken, knowing that in Christ the Lord says to us, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Heb. 13:5). In Christ we are never abandoned, but adopted by our Father, made heirs with our Brother, given the gift and guarantee of his Spirit, and promised eternal life. We look not to our circumstances but to the Lord Jesus, who became like us “in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God” (Heb. 2:17). And it is through Christ and by his Spirit that we are privileged to pray, knowing that our Father in heaven hears us.

Praying for Provision

Why trouble finds us is a mystery, that it does is a certainty, so we must trust in God’s sovereignty. But that is not our fallen inclination. We would rather look to the idols of the heart. When the day of trouble comes how do you respond? Where do you look? What becomes your strength? In whom do you trust? As our chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever (WSC 1), looking to anyone or anything other than God is idolatry. G.K. Beale, in his book, We Become What We Worship, says, “What people revere, they resemble, either for ruin or restoration.”[4] The psalmist desires not to be ruined but restored, and he knows rightly what to revere, not a dumb idol, or a false god, but the Lord our God, who is “enthroned forever.”

Let this psalm lead you to a point of self-examination: What will I do, when trouble comes?Will I try to entertain myself out of anguish? Will I eat my way to euphoria? Will I drink myself to delight? Or, will I submit to the Lord’s will, go to his Word, trust in him alone and be transformed by the renewal of my mind (Rom. 12:2). God is most glorified in me when I am most dependent upon him. And God is glorified in our prayers.

Of course, our prayers do not enthrone the Lord; he is enthroned. Nor do our prayers validate him; he is “remembered throughout generations,” whether we pray or not. Our lives are but a vapor, but his fame is forever. Therefore, we must guard against dictating who God is and what he does based on our circumstances. God is no less omnipotent when you and I suffer.

We see this in the psalmist’s transition, from his plea for mercy to his prayer for provision. He looks beyond his troubles and toward a time of favor for Zion, signifying God’s covenantal favor upon his people. In Zion, God blessed his people who would serve and worship him. They value even the stones and dust of the temple’s deterioration, for it was the chosen dwelling place of the Lord among his people. And what the saints of old looked toward with longing, came in the person of Jesus Christ in fulfillment. In Christ, the prophesied time of favor has come, as the Lord is building his temple with stones formed from dust, quarried from every tribe, tongue, and nation, a house of worship forever. The psalmist in his day of trouble, looked toward the Lord’s provision in Christ, just as we look back.

And so, our prayers ascend to our Father in heaven through the Son by the Spirit, prayers for ourselves and for one another. In an individualistic era, it is easy to pray for ourselves, but what about our brothers and sisters who are suffering? What about those in the church who are in the day of trouble? The Lord does not despise but “regards the prayer of the destitute,” so let us pray for one another, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:15-16). The apostle Paul calls us to “bear one another’s burdens,” and this is no more the case than when we are faithful to pray for our fellow suffering saints.                           

Promises of Praise

Yet, even when we know that God calls us to cast all our anxieties on him, because he cares for us (1 Pet. 5:7), amidst the trials and tribulations of life, it’s very easy to justify … complaining. The temptation is to replace prayers to our Father with complaints to our neighbor. Just as prayer is “an offering up of our desires unto God, for things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgement of his mercies,”[5] when we complain, we elevate our desires, disregard God’s will, ignore our sin, revealing our ingratitude. Yet, complaining is so easy for our sinful flesh, we often dismiss it.

I can only imagine what this psalm would sound like if written by a chronic complainer: “God never listens to me, never meet my needs, and leaves me shamed and ashamed, feeling reprimanded and abandoned, left to wallow in my self-pity, ever eager to eat a meager meal of ashes and tears. Alone. Forever.” It sounds pathetic, doesn’t it? But have you ever considered that your complaining is an insult to the providence of God?

This is why verse eighteen can feel like an unexpected turn in the psalm. Though the psalmist’s prayer to his Father is brutally honest, he will not wallow in self-pity. He knows “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18). He understands “light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen” (2 Cor. 4:17-18). And it is our perspective of this truth that will make a complainer a proclaimer, not of our troubles but the truth of the gospel in glorious praise to God.

Like a good ancestor, the psalmist wants the “generation to come” to know, he wants this remembered: He who reigns from heaven redeems a people to praise him forever. He who made heaven and earth, after the Fall did not leave us alone, but looked down in mercy, “For God so loved the world.” He hears the groans of our depravity and does not leave us prisoners to sin, giving us “his only Son.” And though the wages of our works doomed us to die, whoever believes in the Son of God will “not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

We were not saved by God’s mercy and grace to be grumblers and complainers but to be proclaimers of his excellency, declaring “in Zion the name of the LORD, and in Jerusalem his praise” (21), not alone but gathered, together. This is one of the beautiful things about corporate worship. It sets life’s troubles in perspective, not hiding our hardships but elevating the glory of God and his gospel above everything else. When troubles come, we do not hide in our homes from God’s people, but every Lord’s Day we come together as a redeemed people, a kingdom of priests, “to worship the LORD” (22), knowing that though heaven and earth pass away never will the praises of his people.

In the moment, it is easy to think of our troubles as enduring, but they will pass away just like the world as we know it. The Lord “laid the foundation of the earth” long ago, but it will perish. He formed the heavens by hand, but they will wear out “like a garment” (25-26). But he who made heaven and earth is ageless, he doesn’t wear out, and he will never perish, and neither will all who trust in him. This is why we must not think of our troubles as unending or seek to find solutions in what will perish. We must look to the Lord in our time of need, for ourselves but also for one another. For though our afflictions are momentary, in Christ we look together toward an eternal glory.

[1] Unless referenced otherwise, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Wheaton: Crossway Bibles, 2001).

[2] “The Confession of Faith” 5.1, The Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms (Lawrenceville: PCA Christian Education and Publications, 2007), 19 – 21.

[3] C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 17.

[4] G.K. Beale, We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 16.

[5] “The Shorter Catechism” Q. 98, The Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms (Lawrenceville: PCA Christian Education and Publications, 2007), 400 – 401.

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