It was good for me to be afflicted: Monster-Psalm Meditation #9

Psalm 119:65-72

65 Do good to your servant
   according to your word, LORD.
66 Teach me knowledge and good judgment,
   for I trust your commands.
67 Before I was afflicted I went astray,
   but now I obey your word.
68 You are good, and what you do is good;
   teach me your decrees.
69 Though the arrogant have smeared me with lies,
   I keep your precepts with all my heart.
70 Their hearts are callous and unfeeling,
   but I delight in your law.
71 It was good for me to be afflicted
   so that I might learn your decrees.
72 The law from your mouth is more precious to me
   than thousands of pieces of silver and gold.

Is it good to be afflicted? It’s one of those questions where you know the right Christian answer is supposed to be yes. As Paul says, “We rejoice in our sufferings because suffering creates perseverance which creates character which creates hope which does not disappoint us.” But is it that just a pious response? Is it just putting a brave face on a difficult situation? Or is there actually benefit in affliction?

I’m really thinking about this question this week because I have to preach on Jacob’s wrestling with God at Peniel and somehow place it in the context of Jacob’s reconciliation with Esau. God afflicts Jacob by permanently wounding his hip. Jacob then goes and meets his brother. They cry, they kiss, it’s a beautiful reconciliation. Did Jacob’s hip need to get wounded for this to happen? Was it because Jacob was limping that Esau said, aw shucks, I kinda feel sorry for that guy, I’ll tell my 400 men not to slaughter him and his wife and kids? Was Jacob somehow better emotionally prepared for Esau? More humble? More grounded? It seems contrived to make the wrestling match fit neatly because it doesn’t. So I’m not sure what I’ll do with it.

I’ve been wounded by God before. I often talk about the battle with depression and hypomania that I went through a decade ago. The gift of that affliction is that I tend to be very suspicious of myself since there was a time in my life when I literally couldn’t trust my own mind. This means that I question myself a lot particularly when I get flak from other people.

I took a lot of heat yesterday for the article I wrote about Dave Ramsey’s promotion of self-reliance. People said that I was being opportunistic and deliberately misinterpreting what he was saying. It’s a criticism I’ve often made of other bloggers (before I became one) and I would probably make this criticism of myself if I were somebody who had been in debt and Dave Ramsey had helped me. I still stand by what I wrote as a reasonable response to that promotional video for Great Recovery, because Ramsey really went way further in his historically inaccurate laissez-faire capitalist propaganda than he needed to. Perhaps I’m acting out of my contempt for the phenomenon of Christian celebrity (or my envy?). In any case, I don’t trust myself, because my past wounds chasten me in a good way. I don’t really have anything conclusive to say except that I’ve been chewing on other peoples’ criticisms and taking them to God.

The psalmist ties his affliction to the way the arrogant have smeared him with lies. I can’t really say that about my affliction. People have misunderstood me, but I don’t think anyone has cynically misrepresented me. Perhaps others have seen me as the arrogant liar and that’s why I’ve been attacked. It’s good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn God’s decrees. There’s a degree to which I don’t feel right unless I’m afflicted, because if I’m comfortable with myself, that means my sin is covered in fat. So keep on afflicting me, Lord. I want to learn your decrees. Somehow I don’t feel any rest except when I’m wrestling with You. Maybe that’s what my sermon on Jacob wrestling with God is going to be about.

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