If you are a Christian, you will face affliction — and you will face it in various forms. Affliction comes as hatred from the world, the temptation to sin, the accusations of the devil, the flesh’s desire to make itself God, doubting…the list goes on. We’re told in James 1 and 2 Corinthians 12 that these afflictions are ultimately meant for our good. While we might acknowledge this truth, it seems an insurmountable task to move from a logical agreement to an effectual change in our innermost being. How do I “Count it a joy…when I meet trials of various kinds?” How do I respond to the “thorn [that] was given me in the flesh” with a posture of “[boasting] all the more gladly of my weaknesses?”
Paul gives us a hint in 2 Corinthians when he tells us the Lord said to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” That begins to help, since this word from God is what kick-starts Paul’s realization of the reality going on around him. So if we remember that the Lord’s grace is sufficient for us, and if we remember his power is made perfect in our weakness, then we begin to find some security in life despite the afflictions we face. This shift in Paul’s inner-being is where we ought to drill down, because he is demonstrating something much more significant than believing a logical truth.
This exchange is fascinating. Paul asks the Lord three times to take away his affliction. The Lord responds with something that doesn’t take away the affliction, He instead shows Paul His face. And this sight of God’s character gives Paul rest, security, and satisfaction. In the Psalms, David thoroughly models seeking the Lord’s face, and in many places he gives us explicit instructions how to accomplish that task. Psalm 9:1-2, 13-14 provide both the instruction and the fruit concerning seeking the Lord’s face when one encounters affliction:
I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart;
I will recount all of your wonderful deeds.
I will be glad and exult in you;
I will sing praise to your name, O Most High.
Be gracious to me, O Lord!
See my affliction from those who hate me,
O you who lift me up from the gates of death,
that I may recount all your praises,
that in the gates of the daughter of Zion
I may rejoice in your salvation.
David never once asks God to take away his afflictions. In the latter stanza, he demonstrates how we are to approach the Lord: 1) tell him you are afflicted, 2) praise the Father by recounting all of the wonderful truths about him, and 3) rejoice in his salvation that he has given to you. In the first two verses, David tells us this is how he is going to do it. He spends the entire Psalm counting the promises and the wonderful deeds of the Lord. This includes God’s imprecatory promises, which have not yet come to pass completely–but are promised. It is this bombardment of God’s truth that gives David security in the Lord. This posture is consistent throughout all of the Psalms, the most abrupt being Psalm 13. In verses 3 and 4 of that Psalm David says:
Consider and answer me, O Lord my God;
light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,
lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,”
lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.
Here, David doesn’t ask for his afflictions to be taken away. Instead, David trusts that the answer to his afflictions will come through the sureness and steadfastness of God’s care and love for him. He clearly isn’t concerned with the defeat or demise of his enemies; he is asking the Lord for a felt nearness of His presence–for God’s glory to overwhelm the seemingly infinite brick wall of afflictions before him. The last two verses, 5 and 6, give us a crash course in what we are to do:
But I have trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
because he has dealt bountifully with me.
How do we trust in the love of the Lord and rejoice in his salvation? We sing to him and consider how gloriously he has dealt with us. As we encounter afflictions, the Bible does not tell us to ask God to take them away. The Word so sweetly tells us to seek the face of the Lord and let the magnificence of his glory and holiness overwhelm us beyond anything we can possibly imagine. This is what happens to Paul when he discovers the thorn in his flesh. This is how David time and time again deals with his anxiety, depression, and lowness of heart. Perhaps most significantly, Jesus teaches us to approach the Father in this way with the Lord’s prayer in Matthew 6:9-13:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
Our Next Move
Jesus teaches us first to acknowledge the majesty and authority of the Lord–by praising His name and that His decrees will come to pass. Second, we are to acknowledge our complete and daily dependence on Him and that He has the power and authority to forgive our sins. Finally, we are to move into supplication–for the Lord to sanctify us and bring us closer to him. This model of coming to the Father puts us low before the Lord and puts us in a posture to receive the movement of the Spirit. While the Lord desires to know our hearts and calls us to show ourselves to him, Jesus clearly demonstrates the Lord’s prayer as the primary method for moving towards the Father. Therefore, my charge is this, that we don’t ask God to take away our afflictions as a matter of first importance; rather, may we ask primarily for God to reveal himself, allow us to behold that much more of his face, and remind us to recount all of his love and blessings upon us. We will never find the joy and satisfaction God has for us in this life by merely asking him to rid us of the effects of the fall while on the earth. His desire is for you and me to seek His face–who He is, what He has done for us, what He is doing for us, and what He will do for us. Let us follow the examples of Paul, David, and Jesus Christ and seek the glory of God to overwhelm our afflictions, knowing that His “grace is sufficient” for you and me, for his “power is made perfect in weakness.”