Life is hard and full of uncertainties. You don't always know what will get you. You just know something will: coronavirus, unemployment, student loans, loss of loved ones, and the list goes on.
When life seems worse than expected, as Christians, we know that we shouldn't blame God for our sufferings, but how should we handle the inner turmoil when we find ourselves in a difficult situation? How should we endure hardships faithfully before God?
In our passage, David opens his heart and shows us his personal journey in a time of difficulties.
(Read Ps. 39)
In our time of hardships, we often face the temptation to say sinful words with an arrogant heart (v. 1-3).
In the midst of suffering, David is determined to guard his tongue against misspeaking. We don't know what he is suffering from. It may be his sickness, as it is in Psalm 38. But it seems that the presence of the wicked is the primary reason he is so determined to keep silent. Why? Perhaps he has the same question in his mind as prophet Jeremiah had: "Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all who are treacherous thrive?" (Jer. 11:2) or the complaint of Job: "Why do the wicked live, reach old age, and grow mighty in power?" (Job 21:7).
In hardship, we are so tempted to ask God, "Why am I suffering while unbelieving neighbors and colleagues are prospering? Why would God allow this to happen to me?" These are legitimate questions, but they often lead to sinful answers when we imply that God is not fair in his dealing with us, when we begin to question God's goodness in this difficult situation. When you've fallen into a hardship, it's probably not a good idea to speak out immediately about what comes into your mind. Let's be honest. It probably wouldn't be worshipful, maybe even blasphemous.
But keeping our mouth shut itself cannot help either. In this Psalm, though David didn't say sinful words, his determination to not sin with his tongue presupposes his urge to say something sinful. Holding our mouths cannot quench the inner turmoil if there is something deeper in our hearts tempting us to misspeak. This temptation to misspeak exposes our arrogant hearts.
In verse 2, David says to himself, "So I remained utterly silent, not even saying anything good. But my anguish increased." On the one hand, yes, we should hold our tongue from misspeaking against God in the midst of suffering. But, on the other hand, if we are silent, not remembering all the good things that God has done in our lives and if we cannot even pray to God, though we've not misspoken with our tongue, we've already expressed our silent complaint against God with our arrogant heart. This is arrogant because we have forgotten God's goodness in our lives and because we think that we know better than God about what should happen to our lives.
Without dealing with the arrogant spirit, our silence will lead to increased anger within our hearts. This happens to David. He can no longer hold the inner turmoil. The expression David uses here of "my heart grew hot" also appears in Deuteronomy 19:6 to describe one's uncontrollable anger to avenge the one who killed the loved one. It is this kind of uncontrollable anger growing within David's heart. Notice the escalation: From growing hot to burning fire and from the silent mutterings to full-blown speech.
Brothers and sisters, why is it so difficult to guard our tongue in the midst of suffering? The main problem is our arrogance. We are too arrogant that we think we don't deserve this. We are too arrogant that we dare to demand God to act according to our will.
The question is not whether we should speak out about our feelings when we have fallen into a difficult situation. The question is, how should we bring our difficulties before God? Without the right attitude, we are running the risk of casting sinful blame on God. So, what is the right posture to approach God in our hardship?
We need to ask God for perspective on life so that we may be humbled before we speak about our hardship (v. 4-6)
David can no longer keep silent but pray to God, "O LORD, make me know my end and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting I am!" Note David does not immediately talk about his situation but asks God for perspective on life. Why? Because he needs to be humbled in order to not speak about his hardship in an inappropriate way. This is the first lesson we learn from our hardship: Temporary suffering reminds us that our life is short and death is unavoidable (v. 4).
We live in a culture of "death-denial," as if death does not exist, but hardship forces us to face it! In my country, China, you usually won't see the 4th, 14th, and 24th floors in most of the buildings. Instead, in an elevator, you will see 1st floor, 2nd floor, 3rd floor, and 5th floor … 11th floor, 12th, 13th, 15th, and so on. We skip any number that has 4 because the pronunciation of the number "4" in Chinese is very similar to that of the word "death." We don't want to talk about death, let alone live on a "death" floor, so let's get rid of the number "4." Let's say, "1, 2, 3, 5…, 11, 12, 13, 15 …!"
Medical technology today gives us a similar illusion that we can control our fate. But can we skip death? During the pandemic, a few coughs left you panicking if you were on your way to death's door. My friends, every temporal hardship is a reminder of the unavoidable death that is on its way to you.
Some of you may think, "Well, I am relatively young; I am still in my 20s or 30s. Don't tell me that life is short. I still have a long life ahead." You are right in saying so. Comparing your lifespan with your pets—dogs or cats—your potential lifespan seems quite long. But how about comparing your life with the eternal God? What is your life like before the eternal God?
In comparison to the eternal God, our lifetime is but a mere breath! The term "handbreadth" is four fingers wide, the shortest measure in the ancient world. David says that this is the measure of my lifespan. But then he goes on to say, "You know what? Even four fingers are too much to describe my lifespan because compared with the eternity of God, I am nothing! Every person at his/her best state is but a mere breath." That is the totality of our lives: A mere breath that vanishes into thin air immediately after it is exhaled!
Some of you may think that Well, life is not just about quantity but quality. I can live a short but meaningful life. Well said! But verse 6 says, "Surely a man goes about as a shadow! Surely for nothing, they are in turmoil; man heaps up wealth and does not know who will gather!" Not just your lifetime, all human efforts and activities without God are meaningless. Just like a shadow, you can see it, but it has no substance, so are our existence and our activities. There is no substance, no meaning to them. Death takes away all the value, meaning, and purpose of all your hard toils.
As the preacher in Ecclesiastes 1:14 says, "I've seen everything that is down under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind." How foolish we would be if we spend our whole lives to labor for nothing but a striving after wind! The biggest idol today is "busyness." Many people keep themselves busy to secure a sense of existence, but they don't know what they are striving for. They may not even live to enjoy what they labor for.
The reality of our fleeting life really humbles us by letting us know how small we are as creatures before the eternal, almighty Creator! If even in our best states, we are but a puff of air, then we should begin to realize that there must be something more important than getting out of this temporal suffering. Instead, the temporary hardship should inspire us to seek something that outlasts this life. It forces us to ask the fundamental question: What is my hope in this hardship if my whole life is but a breath?
Temporary hardships should humble us to place our hope in the eternal God (v. 7-11)
David gives us the ultimate answer: "And now, O Lord, for what do I wait? My hope is in you." God is our only hope in whatever situation! If you've not been humbled, this answer is too simple to be true to you; but if you are humbled by the reality of your fleeting life, this is the only truth you will hold on to. No matter what you are experiencing, the Almighty God is your only hope! He never ceases to be sovereign over everything.
Pause for a moment and reflect on the fact that everything that comes to you comes through the filter of God's grace and love. Your hope is not that God won't let anything bad happen to you. Your hope is that God is still in control, even when he allows us to fall into difficult situations.
Once we realize that our hope depends on our relationship with the eternal God, our concern will shift from our difficulties to our sins. If we truly put our hope in God, we will see sin as far more important and worse than our sorrows and difficulties. I am not saying your difficulties are always due to your particular sins, but don't rule out that possibility, especially when you've just fallen into a difficult situation.
When we find ourselves in a difficult situation, we shouldn't say, "Lord, remove this situation from me! I don't deserve it!" The right posture is first to humbly ask God, "Lord, have I sinned against you? Is this your discipline for my sins? If so, I want to deal with my sins first. I want to recover a healthy relationship with you before any improvement of my physical situation."
If we discover that our hardship is God's discipline upon our sins, we continue to place our hope in him by confessing our sins and asking his forgiveness. This is what David did. Many believers turn away from God when they realize that it is God who disciplines them. But David puts his hope in the disciplinary God because he knows that God disciplines him as his child whom he loves!
God's discipline is painful at that moment. God often disciplines us by consuming what is dear to us, what we love most, even beyond God. Tim Keller once said, "You are only as durable as the thing you love most … if I love anything that's vulnerable, I'm vulnerable. I'm as durable as that which I love most."
If your deepest love is anything other than God himself when the things you love most are threatened, the meaning of your life is threatened; when they are destroyed, you may even lose the purpose to continue to live. Therefore, God's discipline is to destroy the false love in your life so that you can truly place your hope in God, our Rock, instead of anything that is shakable.
But what if God has not removed my pian? How can I continue to hope in God when I am still stuck in suffering, and God seems to be silent about my situation?
Cry out for God's mercy because we as sojourners have no other hope in this world (v. 12-13)
If God is our only hope, don't be silent! Cry out for God's mercy. Instead of holding his tongue silent, David humbly asks God to hear his prayer. When David cries out, "look away from me," he is asking God to turn away his holy gaze and lift his disciplinary hand. This is an honest prayer with tears and hope. On the one hand, there are tears because God has not yet delivered him from the suffering. But on the other hand, there is hope because David continues to trust in God!
This is an important lesson that our hope in God is not necessarily an immediate solution to our situation because God is not here to make this life easier but is preparing us for eternal life! God may allow us to get impacted by COVID-19; God may allow us to lose a job and remain unemployed for a long period of time; God may allow us to die of cancer; God may even put a thorn in our flesh to prevent us from a future sin as he did with Paul. But even if God has not removed our afflictions, we continue to place our hope in God because we know that we are not home yet. Instead, we are pilgrims on our way home.
Psalm 39 is unique in its ending. Instead of a happy ending, the Psalm ends with an unsolved tension. On the one hand, David asks for God's presence: "Hear my prayer, O LORD, and give ear to my cry; hold not your peace at my tears!" On the other hand, David asks for God's distance—"look away from me." This is the tension between the longing for God's mercy and the fear of God's punishment for our sins according to his holiness and righteousness. This tension is solved on the Cross.
If you read Psalm 39 carefully, you will see many connections between this Psalm and Isaiah 53. Both David and the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53 are determined to keep silent in the midst of suffering: "He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth" (Isa 53:7; cf. Ps 39:9). The difference between them is that while David suffered for God's discipline upon hisown sins, Jesus suffered for the judgment upon the sin of the world. Isaiah 53:5 reads, "But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds, we are healed." Moreover, while David prayed for God's removing of his stroke, the suffering servant in Isa 53, esteemed by others, was stricken by God (Isa 53:4) as a sacrifice substituted for all of us who confess our sin and trust in him.
It is because of Jesus' death on the Cross that we can ask for God's mercy without the fear of his punishment for our sins because he has embodied God's mercy by dying for our sins and demonstrated God's holiness and righteousness by suffering divine wrath on our behalf. Waltke says it well in his commentary on Psalms, "… this tension between seeking divine presence and distance is shattered on the cross where Jesus suffers complete abandonment (Matt. 27:46; Mark 15:34)."
When we look at the Cross, we know that God is good, and we can place our hope in him. Although at this moment, we may not understand why God would allow us to fall into this difficult situation or how he is exercising his sovereignty in the midst of our suffering, we know that God is good and trustworthy chiefly by looking at the Cross.
Life is hard. No matter what gets you down, let’s humbly place our hope in the eternal God! Even if it's God's discipline in our suffering, do know that he is preparing us for eternity. Even if God has not removed our pain, do know that we are not home yet. It is ok to feel homesick; it is ok to cry before God, but don't get lost on the journey home. Keep placing your hope in Jesus Christ, who will bring us home where we truly belong!
Chenci Yu received a Master of Divinity in May 2021 from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, where he will pursue a Master of Theology in New Testament starting Fall 2021.