The Pain of Life, the Supreme Goodness of God, and the Joy of the Psalmists

From Stephen Westerholm’s little gem, Understanding Paul: The Early Christian Worldview of the Letter to the Romans (Baker, 2004), pages 33, 87–88:

The psalmists of the Bible found joy in the presence of God: an overwhelming sense that, wherever one found oneself, and whatever one’s circumstances, God is there — and God is good. The joy may be expressed, as the Psalms frequently enjoin, with music and dance and boisterous shouts. It may find voice in a quiet prayer of assurance: “When I awake, I am still with thee.” In any case, the psalmists repeatedly speak of discovering in the Eternal not only their provision and protection but also their heart’s delight:

Thou hast put gladness in my heart,

more than in the time

that their corn and their wine increased.

In thy presence is fullness of joy;

at thy right hand

there are pleasures for evermore.

Delight thyself also in the LORD;

and he shall give thee

the desires of thine heart.

Not incidental to the pleasure was the belief that the enjoyment was mutual:

He [God] delighteth not in the strength of the horse:

he taketh not pleasure in the legs of a man.

The LORD taketh pleasure in them that fear him,

in those that hope in his mercy.

The psalmists’ joy is rooted in their conviction that, circumstances notwithstanding, life is good, and that they have a share in its goodness, loved by the One who matters most. Praise, for them, is the natural, appropriate venting of joy: to praise the Lord is “fitting” and “good.”

And yet,

The psalmists who found such satisfaction in God’s “face” were fully aware of the darker aspects of life: is there anywhere a literature that more profoundly probes the lot of the despised, the slandered, the despondent, those ravaged by disease or war? God’s ways are often disturbingly mysterious even for the psalmists. They feel that at times he has “hidden” his “face,” and they cannot understand why.

Nonetheless, what prevails in the end is the unshakable faith in their bones, whatever the fate of their flesh, that underlying all is goodness, beyond human understanding but deserving of human trust: a goodness not only worth clinging to when all else fails, but more precious by far than anything else one might desire.

Home Burdens

Octavius Winslow writes the following to comfort all who carry the weight of “home-burdens.” After I read it I stopped to pray for the wives I know who carry a heavy load of family duties and burdens on a daily basis. This is from his book The Ministry of Home (London: 1847), pages 351–352:

Perhaps, your home-duties, trials, and needs, form your burden. Every home is an embryo kingdom, an epitomized world, of which the parent constitutes the sovereign. There are laws to be obeyed, rules to be observed, subjects to be governed, cares to be sustained, demands to be met, and “who is sufficient for all this?” is often your anxious inquiry. Who can tell what crushing burdens, what bitter sorrows, what corroding cares, what pressing demands, may exist within a single family circle, deeply veiled from every eye but God’s? . . . Your children are an anxiety. Your domestic duties a trial. Your necessities are pressing. Your whole position one of embarrassment and depression [financially].

What shall you do? Do even as the Lord who loves you enjoins — “Cast your burden upon the Lord, and He shall sustain you.” Your Heavenly Father knows all your home-trials, for He has sent them! Jesus, though he had no home on earth, yet sympathized with the home-cares and sorrows of others, and is not a stranger, nor indifferent to yours. Bring all to Him, tell Him all, confide to Him all, trust Him in all. You have no family trial too great, and no domestic need too little, and no home-sorrow too delicate, to take to Christ. Obey the precept, “Cast your burden upon the Lord;” and He will make good the promise, “and He shall sustain you.” O costly and blessed home-burden that brings Jesus beneath our roof! . . .

Jesus is the great Burden-Bearer of His people. No other arm, and no other heart, in heaven or upon earth, were strong enough, or loving enough, to bear these burdens but His! He who bore the weight of our sin and curse and shame in His obedience and death — bore it along all the avenues of His weary pilgrimage, from Bethlehem to Calvary — is He who now stretches forth His Divine arm, and makes bare a Brother’s heart to take your burden of care and of grief, dear saint of God, upon Himself.

What do you say to someone who is suffering?

The son of Yale theology professor Nicholas Wolterstorff died at the age of 24 in a mountain climbing accident. After the accident Dr. Wolterstorff wrote meditations about the hole left in his life due to the passing of his son. They were originally intended to be private, a place for him to voice his grief, but they were eventually published as a short book, Lament for a Son (Eerdmans, 1987). His meditations provide a penetrating glimpse into the grieving heart of a Christian enduring deep personal suffering. The following excerpt comes from that little book [pp. 34–35]:

What do you say to someone who is suffering?

Some people are gifted with words of wisdom. For such, one is profoundly grateful. There were many such for us. But not all are gifted in that way. Some blurted out strange, inept things. That’s OK too. Your words don’t have to be wise. The heart that speaks is heard more than the words spoken. And if you can’t think of anything at all to say, just say, “I can’t think of anything to say. But I want you to know that we are with you in your grief.” Or even, just embrace. Not even the best of words can take away the pain. What words can do is testify that there is more than pain in our journey on earth to a new day. Of those things that are more, the greatest is love. Express your love. How appallingly grim must be the death of a child in the absence of love.

But please: Don’t say it’s not really so bad. Because it is. Death is awful, demonic. If you think your task as comforter is to tell me that really, all things considered, it’s not so bad, you do not sit with me in my grief but place yourself off in the distance away from me. Over there, you are of no help. What I need to hear from you is that you recognize how painful it is. I need to hear from you that you are with me in my desperation. To comfort me, you have to come close. Come sit beside me on my mourning bench.

I know: People do sometimes think things are more awful than they really are. Such people need to be corrected—gently, eventually. But no one thinks death is more awful than it is. It’s those who think it’s not so bad that need correcting.

Some say nothing because they find the topic too painful for themselves. They fear they will break down. So they put on a brave face and lid their feelings—never reflecting, I suppose, that this adds new pain to the sorrow of their suffering friends. Your tears are salve on our wound, your silence is salt. And later, when you ask me how I am doing and I respond with a quick, thoughtless “Fine” or “OK,” stop me sometime and ask, “No, I mean really.”