Learning to Endure
There’s no way you’re ever going to learn endurance without having to keep on going through something hard that doesn’t go away. There’s no way you’re ever going to learn forbearance without having to face something that you really wish you didn’t have to, and you need to somehow come to grips with it.
Martin Luther said he had three masters, and he got them out of Psalm 119. He said that the first master (in Latin) is meditatio. This is meditation or reflection on Scripture, taking words to heart, wrestling with who God is and what he says in relation to who you are. All these things are obviously are full-force in Psalm 119, which says something about the Word of God in every verse.
Luther says that suffering is the touchstone. It’s the thing that proves our faith to be real and proves God to be real.
The second master is prayer, or in Latin, oratio. In Psalm 119, there are probably 70 or 80 direct, pithy, pungent requests like Lord, don’t forsake me. Lord, make me understand this. Lord, awaken me. Lord, incline my heart. Lord don’t let me… There’s a passionate cry—out of need—for God to intervene that grows out of a reflection on Scripture.
Interestingly, Luther’s third master is affliction, and it’s another underestimated thing in Psalm 119. Affliction appears almost everywhere: the sense of darkness, the sense of threat, the sense of pain.
The Value of Affliction
The author goes so far as to say It was good that I was afflicted that I might learn to keep your Word. The psalm is notorious for being difficult to find a larger structure. It just seems like the only structure is A to Z, and because it’s in Hebrew letters, it means nothing to us.
But, there is a structure that relates to suffering, where the last line of the first section besieges God not to forsake. The last line of the whole psalm (the twenty-second section) besieges God not to forsake. It’s typical for something significant to happen in the middle of Hebrew poetry. Dead center in the psalm there is a reflection on heartache, disappointment, and pain. It’s one of the few areas where many of the consecutive verses are all on the same theme.
Luther says that suffering is the touchstone. It’s the thing that proves our faith to be real and proves God to be real. I bear witness out of my own experience. I’ve been a Christian for more than 40 years, and it is actually usually through struggling with something that my faith had to grow. I can look back and say Twenty years ago, was I even a Christian? I so didn’t get it. Ten years ago, was I even a Christian? I so didn’t get it.
I was a Christian, but part of the “getting it” of what it means to be a follower of the Lord who walked the road of death, suffering, betrayal, and humiliation and came out into resurrection and life is that you have to walk, take up his cross, and follow him.
It is actually the way that we learn the most profound and the best lessons that we could ever learn. It’s where faith, love, and joy are most profoundly formed.
David Powlison (MDiv, Westminster Theological Seminary) is a teacher, a counselor, and the executive director of the Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation. He is also the senior editor of the Journal of Biblical Counseling and the author of Seeing with New Eyes, Good and Angry, and Speaking Truth in Love.