3 Doctrines That Sustain Us in Suffering

 

BookOfJob1

Ligon Duncan:

Undergird Your Hope

While we may not understand what God is doing, we can always trust who he is. We must never interpret God’s character by our circumstances. We must instead interpret our circumstances by God’s character. In Psalm 89, we can find three doctrines that undergird the psalmist’s hope in God and that sustain him in the midst of his suffering.

1. The Doctrine of Election

First, we find the psalmist taking comfort from the doctrine of election. The doctrine of election is not an esoteric theological point for seminarians to fight about. Election in Scripture is meant to generate both hope for the people of God and worshiping hearts in the people of God. Notice how the psalmist celebrates God on account of his electing grace:

I will sing of the steadfast love of the Lord, forever;
with my mouth I will make known your faithfulness
to all generations. . . .
You have said, “I have made a covenant with my
chosen one;
I have sworn to David my servant . . .” (Ps. 89:1, 3)

The psalmist celebrates God’s steadfast love, his electing love, that he showed to David and his offspring. God chose David over his brothers, appointed him to be king, anointed him as the ruler of Israel, and promised him a dynasty—and he did all this on his own initiative. God chose David not because of something in him but because of God’s inscrutable and wise purpose.

The doctrine of election should cultivate hope and joy in the Christian life. Jesus himself employed this doctrine to comfort his disciples. In the upper room, he reminded them, “You did not choose me, but I chose you” (John 15:16). Why did he remind them of this truth? They were all about to fail him and abandon him, even in his moment of greatest need. As they had to process their own shame and guilt for abandoning Christ, Jesus wanted the doctrine of election to ring in their ears and bring them comfort: “You did not choose me, but I chose you.” Their love may prove fickle, inconstant, and weak. But his never changes.

2. The Doctrine of the Covenant of Grace

God’s covenant of grace is the outworking of his salvific promises throughout redemptive history. In the covenant of grace, God enters into relationship with his people. The promises given to David in 2 Samuel 7 are part of that covenant, which the psalmist repeatedly recalls throughout Psalm 89:

You have said, “I have made a covenant with my chosen one;
I have sworn to David my servant . . .” (Ps. 89:3)

My steadfast love I will keep for him forever,
and my covenant will stand firm for him. (Ps. 89:28)

I will not violate my covenant
or alter the word that went forth from my lips. (Ps. 89:34)

Once for all I have sworn by my holiness;
I will not lie to David. (Ps. 89:35)

Lord, where is your steadfast love of old, which by your faithfulness you swore to David? (Ps. 89:49)

When God enters into covenant with his people, he binds himself to them by an oath. The covenant of grace, which he swore to David, his offspring, and the people of Israel, is not just a pledge that David’s descendants will reign forever. In the covenant of grace, God pledges himself to his people: “I will be your God, and you shall be my people” (Jer. 7:23; cf. Ex. 6:72 Sam. 7:16).

Have you ever wondered what God wants out of your salvation? Short answer: you. God has bound himself to you in his covenant of grace. God could have simply redeemed us for an eternity apart from sin and the curse. But instead, he brought us into fellowship with himself. He makes us his friends, objects of his special love. As Paul says in Ephesians, we are “his glorious inheritance” (Eph. 1:18), the precious possession of Jesus himself.

If anything should sustain us in suffering, it is God’s covenant of grace. In the midst of sorrow and suffering, the covenant of grace reminds us that God has redeemed us to draw us near and say, “I want you as my inheritance.”

3. The Doctrine of the Sovereignty of God

God’s sovereignty helps us bear up under the perplexities of life. Oh, that the Holy Spirit would work confidence in God’s sovereignty deep into our bones. When we embrace God’s sovereignty, we can stare down the worst suffering, the obscenities of sin, and the greatest wickedness in this fallen world and still confess with the hymn writer, “Whate’er my God ordains is right.”1

The psalmist celebrates God’s sovereignty in Psalm 89:8–13:

O Lord God of hosts,
who is mighty as you are, O Lord,
with your faithfulness all around you?
You rule the raging of the sea;
when its waves rise, you still them.
You crushed Rahab like a carcass;
you scattered your enemies with your mighty arm.
The heavens are yours; the earth also is yours;
the world and all that is in it, you have founded them.
The north and the south, you have created them;
Tabor and Hermon joyously praise your name.
You have a mighty arm;
strong is your hand, high your right hand.

God’s sovereignty is indeed astounding. He raises and calms the sea. He covers the nations with morning and evening. He crushes the most powerful armies and lays hold of the powers of the created order. Our God can do anything— and he loves you. Because God is good, his sovereignty is a benevolent omnipotence, not a tyrannical one. God wields his sovereign power for the good of his people and for their ultimate blessing (Rom. 8:28).

We can dig in our nails and hang on even in the worst sorrow and pain because we know that God, the God who chose us and entered into covenant with us, is sovereign over all.

Notes:

  1. Samuel Rodigast (1649–1708), “Whate’er My God Ordains Is Right,” 1675, trans. Catherine Winkworth (1827–1878), 1863. .

This article is adapted from When Pain Is Real and God Seems Silent by Ligon Duncan.

Peter serves as a pastor-teacher, at home and abroad, resourcing gospel-centred communities.