Wednesday, 10 November 2010

The Adversity Gospel

We've all heard of the prosperity gospel (which is really no gospel), this is the teaching that if you become a Christian your life in this world will get better. Your bank balance will soar, your car will become faster, your house will get bigger and more comfortable, and life in general will get much easier. But that's not biblical Christianity.

Instead of the prosperity gospel, the Bible teaches the adversity gospel. It teaches us that affliction is God's good gift to his people. This is what the Psalmist of Psalm 119 recognises. In verses 65-72 he spells out why the adversity gospel is such good news. That is, why affliction itself is a good gift of God to his people.

Throughout this section there is an emphasis on the goodness of God. Notice the repeated words that draw attention to this (v. 65, 66, 68, 71, 72). He is delighting in the goodness of God towards him and inviting us to join with him in doing the same.

But how has God been good to him? This is where we get a suprise. God's goodness is shown to him by afflicting him. In v. 65 he affirms "You have dealt well with your servant". Having had this taste of God's goodness he hungers for more, praying "Teach me good judgement and knowledge" (v.66) which only comes from the word of God. This is not just head knowledge, but a whole life transformed by the word of God to walk in the way of the word. But how has he tasted this goodness? He continues in v. 67: "Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep your word." It is precisely by afflicting him that God has been good to him. Affliction is God's good school for teaching his people His word. It is this truth that led Martin Luther to describe suffering as one of the exegetical keys to understanding the Bible. When we are afflicted as Christians, it is God's goodness to us that we might know and live out Scripture more deeply. Therefore, the Psalmist is able to say: "You are good and do good; teach me your statutes" (v. 68). So also, when we are afflicted (whether it be persecution or sickness or any other trouble), we also ought to be able to join with him saying "You are good and do good".

In verses 69-70 the he spells out a little more what his affliction looks like. He is smeared with lies because he delights in the word of God. Notice the contrast in these verses between the Psalmist and his opponents. They (v. 69) smear him with lies, slandering him with all sorts of untruths about him. They have hard hearts (v. 70), hearts that are unfeeling like fat. Their hearts are hardened to the word of God, therefore they oppose those who love the word of God. On the other hand, the Psalmist strives to keep God's word with his whole heart (v.69), an obedience to God's word that comes from a deep delight in it (v. 70). The contrast in these two verses shows us that the more we delight in Scripture, the more we shall be opposed by those whose hearts are hard, and refuse to submit to the word of God.

This does not give the Psalmist cause for despair. No. Rather, it leads him to exactly the opposite. He rejoices. He knows that this is a good thing. He says: "It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes." (v. 71). The affliction that God has sent his way is a good thing, because it teaches him God's statutes. Look at the result of his sufferings, he is brought to say: "The law of your mouth is better to me than thousands of gold and silver pieces." The more he suffers the more precious the word of God becomes to him. It ought to be the same with us. The more we face affliction and suffering, whatever form they take, the more we are thrown upon the promises of God as our only hope in the midst of a fallen world. When we lose our job for holding to biblical values, when family reject us for becoming a Christian, when the doctor breaks the news to us that it's cancer, when the finances don't stretch - when all of these things come upon us they ought to open our eyes even wider to the all-surpassing preciousness of the word of God, which alone gives life. Affliction does not give us cause for despair, instead it ought to bring us to delight in, and cling to, the word of God.

All this means that when affilction strikes we can fall down on our knees and thank God. As the tears roll down our cheeks, our mouths can be filled with praise. Our suffering, painful as it may be, is a good gift from our Heavenly Father and serves to teach us His word and bring us to an even deeper Bible delight. Surely, as a watching world looks on, this is a testimony like no other to the supremacy and all-sufficiency of Christ, the one who stands at the centre of the word of God, the one in whom all the promises of God find their yes and amen (2 Corinthians 1:20).