Praise our God, O peoples, let the sound of his praise be heard; he has preserved our lives and kept our feet from slipping. For you, O God, tested us; you refined us like silver. You brought us into prison
and laid burdens on our backs. You let men ride over our heads; we went through fire and water, but you brought us to a place of abundance. - Psalm 66:8-12
This is a wonderful psalm, written under inspiration of the Holy Spirit. It begins with joy: “Shout joyfully to God, all the earth; sing the glory of His name!” It invites the whole world to adore and glorify God for His wonderful works of creation and providence. In fact, it prophecies that the whole world will one day accept this invitation: “All the earth will worship You, and will sing praises to You; they will sing praises to Your name.” (verse 4) And then, beginning in verse 8, we have this remarkable passage that speaks so honestly about the trials and sufferings we must endure in this life.
Yes, we can see God’s hand in our happy circumstances and readily give Him thanks when He grants them to us, but how should we see those dark and difficult times which will inevitably come our way? Are they times when God has forsaken or forgotten us? Not according to the inspired writer here. Far from it! God is so much with us and for us in our trials that the Psalmist does not hesitate to say that it is God who has caused these awful things to happen to us. Yes, he could have said God allowed them to happen to us and that would have been accurate but that would have made it seem as though God had relinquished control of our lives and had no particular reason for permitting these terrible things to occur.
Today, the ready answer to suffering is to attribute it simply to the malevolence of Satan, the wickedness of men or the indifference of nature. Wanting to protect the reputation of God, we try to isolate Him from the chain of cause and effect ending in our adverse circumstances. This is not the Biblical way of looking at things. Yes, God “does not afflict willingly [literally, ‘from the heart’] or grieve the sons of men.” (Lamentations 3:33) He does not delight in leading us through “the valley of the shadow of death”. But He does so lead us. It is also true that we would avoid much worse evil if only we would trust and obey His commands. Still, as the case of Job makes clear, along with the histories of all the faithful followers of the Lord, including that of the Lord Himself while He was on earth: “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” (Acts 14:22) It is a necessary part of what will fit us for the final installment of God’s rule and the fullest manifestation of His glory. As William Penn wrote: “No pain, no palm; no thorns, no throne; no gall, no glory; no cross, no crown.”
It is not that you, as a believer in Christ and His follower, should expect to suffer more natural vicissitudes in this world than someone who lacks faith and rejects Christ. Believers in Christ are not more prone to disease, accident or reverses of fortune. In fact, generally speaking, believers will experience less of some forms of suffering than unbelievers. This is because the path of God’s commandments is a path that steers us away from the natural consequences of doing evil. Keeping the Ten Commandments, for instance, is wonderfully life enhancing, both to those who keep them and to those who encounter those who do. Everyone, even those who exempt themselves from the duty to obey those precepts, appreciates it when others keep them. Faith in God, likewise, promotes empathy, maturity, contentment, and happiness, as common sense and many scientific studies attest. On the other side of the ledger, however, many believers in Christ have suffered in the past and suffer today from persecution for their faith. This is indeed an extra burden of suffering to which we may be heir if we “follow the Lamb wherever He goes.” (Revelation 14:4; see also John 12:26) The recent bombing on Easter in Lahore, Pakistan, though it also killed and injured many Muslims, was intended for the large number of Christians whom the bombers knew would be visiting the park after Easter services. Whole Christian communities in the Middle East, which have endured there for almost two millennia, have been decimated and uprooted, forced to flee for their lives, simply because they are Christians.
We may be truly grateful for the level of freedom to worship we enjoy in the United States and that persecution for our faith is rare. Yes, we experience some subtle pressures to hide our faith and occasionally have to take a principled stand for which we may experience repercussions, but generally we are left alone. Does that mean we don’t have to bear the cross or experience trials? No, for believers in our circumstances, the “heartache, and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to” are transformed from “outrageous Fortune” to God-ordained trials through which we may learn, grow and be purified.
That is certainly how our Psalmist sees it. God wants us to have a firm footing in His eternal kingdom, which the fall of the angels and our first parents show is not guaranteed by perfect natures and surroundings. We must be tried and purified by sufferings, strengthened by striving to stand true despite our fallen natures and environments. As Job remarks, “When He has tried me, I shall come forth as gold.” (23:10) And as Peter tells us: In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ…” (1 Peter 1:6-7) If we learn in this life to love even our enemies, to trust God even in sore trials and remain steadfast in hope despite heavy disappointments, we will certainly not fail or fall in God’s eternal kingdom. God is preparing us for something more wonderful than we can even dream or imagine. When that day comes we will indeed say to God, “we went through fire and water, but You brought us to a place of abundance!”