THE MEANING OF TROUBLE.
FOUNDATION TEXT:-- "Although affliction cometh not forth of the dust, neither doth trouble spring out of the ground; yet man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward." -- Job 5:6, 7.
TROUBLE is an essential and inevitable thing in this stage of our existence. We are "born" to it. Our every-day life is full of it. It is part of our universal environment. No one escapes it. Common-sense would tell us, therefore, that there must be something bound up in trouble which is necessary for us, something without which we should suffer a grievous loss.
It cannot be, as so many seem to think, because of neglect on God's part that trouble should be so universal, for the Bible plainly teaches that it is a part of our birthright. "Man that is born of woman," we are told, "is of few days and full of trouble;" and the Psalmist, in considering this, declares that he knows God's judgments to be right, and that He had afflicted him in faithfulness.
It is very plain, therefore, that troubles come because of God's faithfulness, and not, as so many seem to think, because of His unfaithfulness. We are taught this in a very striking way in the story of Lazarus. Martha evidently thought their trouble had come because the Lord had failed to be present in the moment of need. "Lord," she cried, "if thou hadst been here my brother had not died." But the Lord's absence had not been a mistake or an oversight. He had planned not to be there; and His absence was for a purpose of mercy.
"Now a certain man was sick, named Lazarus, of Bethany, the town of Mary and her sister Martha. (It was that Mary which anointed the Lord with ointment, and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was sick.) Therefore his sisters sent unto Him, saying, Lord, behold, he whom thou lovest is sick. When Jesus heard that, He said, This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby. Now Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus. When He had heard therefore that he was sick, he abode two days still in the same place where he was.... Then said Jesus unto them plainly, Lazarus is dead. And I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, to the intent ye may believe; nevertheless let us go unto him" (John 11:1-15).
He loved them, therefore He stayed away! It was His faithfulness, not His unfaithfulness, that permitted their sorrow to come upon them without hindrance from Him. And we may be sure that what was true of their sorrow is true of our sorrows also. We say in our ignorance, "If Thou hadst been here, this or that would not have gone wrong;" but if we could see into the heart of the Lord we should hear Him saying in reply, "I am glad for your sakes that I was not there." "I am glad." Love can never be glad of anything that hurts its loved ones, unless there is to come out of the hurt some infinitely greater blessing. Therefore we may be sure, no matter how unlikely it may seem, that hidden in every one of our sorrows there is a blessing which it would be a most grievous loss to us to miss.
"For the Lord will not cast off for ever: but though He cause grief, yet will He have compassion according to the multitude of His mercies. For He doth not afflict willingly, nor grieve the children of men" (Lam. 3:31-33).
The Lord afflicts us, not because He likes to, but because He must, because only so can He bestow upon us the blessings that affliction holds in its gift. We must settle down to this as a fact, and never question it. If there had been any other way of giving us the blessings we need, we may be sure our loving and tender Heavenly Father would have adopted it. He does not "willingly" afflict us. There can be, therefore, no other way!
What, then, are the blessings that sorrow and trial bear in their hands? What is the meaning of the trouble of which the world is so full?
The answer is to be found in this one sentence, "For whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth." The meaning of trouble is love. For trouble is not punishment in our sense of the word; it is chastening. To human thought the word punishment has a legal sense, and means retribution or vengeance. But God's idea of punishment is the parental idea of chastening. To chasten means, according to Webster, "to inflict pain upon any one in order to purify from errors or faults." God's chastenings, therefore, are for purifying, not for vengeance. "Whom He loves He chastens," not whom He hates, or whom He is angry with. The meaning of trouble, therefore, is plainly that we may be made "partakers of God's holiness." In other words, it is for "character building;" and character building is to us the most important thing in the whole universe. What happens to me is of no account whatever compared to what I am. Therefore good common-sense tells me, if I will only listen to it, that no present ease, or comfort, or absence of trial, is to be weighed for a moment against the building up of character for eternity.
"For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal" (2 Cor. 4:17, 18).
Anything that is to do such a wonderful thing for us as to work out a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, cannot surely be counted otherwise than as a blessing. And all affliction would be so counted, I am very sure, if we had but eyes to see its outcome. The marble may quiver and shrink from the heavy blows of the mallet, but there can be nothing but joy and rejoicing over the beautiful statue that is wrought out thereby.
But some may ask whether this is true of all affliction? We acknowledge that there are troubles which are evidently meant for blessings; but are there not others that from their very nature must be only and always curses? To this I would answer, that I believe all trouble, no matter of what sort or nature, is meant to purify and sanctify us; and that, moreover, it always does so in a greater or less degree, even though we may, most of us, fail to receive all the full benefit that we might have gained had we been more submissive and humble. The prophet tells us the effect of trouble when he says, "Lord, in trouble have they visited thee; they poured out a prayer when thy chastening was upon them" (Isa. 26:16). I believe this is true, even in those cases where the trouble is the direct result of our own sins. We see that it was so in the many instances where the children of Israel were plunged into trouble by reason of their sins.
"For all this they sinned still, and believed not for His wondrous works. Therefore their days did He consume in vanity, and their years in trouble. When He slew them, then they sought Him: and they returned and inquired early after God. And they remembered that God was their rock, and the high God their redeemer" (Ps. 78:32-35).
"Nevertheless they were disobedient, and rebelled against thee, and cast thy law behind their backs, and slew thy prophets which testified against them to turn them to thee, and they wrought great provocations. Therefore thou deliveredst them into the hand of their enemies, who vexed them: and in the time of their trouble, when they cried unto thee, thou heardest them from heaven; and according to thy manifold mercies thou gavest them saviours, who saved them out of the hand of their enemies" (Neh. 9:26, 27).
Nothing could be more evident than this, that most, if not all, of these troubles that befell the children of Israel were the direct and legitimate result of their own sins. They were "disobedient and rebelled against God, and cast His law behind their backs," and "therefore God delivered them into the hand of their enemies." But it is equally evident that this very punishment was meant as a chastening to bring them back to their allegiance to Him, and that it always accomplished its purpose. "When he slew them, then they sought Him." It is the Divine way; and it is the way of love.
"Implacable is love!
Foes may be bought or teased
From their malign intent;
But he goes unappeased
Who is on kindness bent."
Hate punishes for vengeance, but love punishes for reformation. God has no feelings of vengeance to satisfy towards us, that He sends trouble upon us. But He has a heart of implacable love, that cannot be satisfied until it sees us perfect. Let us be thankful then that our God loves us enough to chasten us, and let us learn to kiss the rod with which He smites. "He that spareth his rod hateth his son; but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes." How thankful we ought to be that our Father in Heaven loves us too much to spare the rod, and that His love is wise enough to chasten us betimes!
In that wonderful story by Bunyan of the Pilgrim's progress heavenward, we are told concerning Christian and Hopeful, that at one time they wandered out of the right path, and became so entangled in a net that they could not escape. "Thus they lay bewailing themselves in the net. At last they espied a shining one coming towards them with a whip of small cords in his hand.... Then he said to them, 'Follow me, that I may set you in your way again;' so he led them back to the way which they had left.... Then I saw in my dream that he commanded them to lie down; which when they did, he chastised them sore, to teach them the good way wherein they should walk; and as he chastised them he said, 'As many as I love I rebuke and chasten; be zealous, therefore, and repent.' This done, he bids them go their way, and take good heed to the other directions of the shepherds. So they thanked him for all his kindness, and went softly along the right way singing."
"Behold, I have refined thee, but not with silver; I have chosen thee in the furnace of affliction. For mine own sake, even for mine own sake, will I do it: for how should my name be polluted? and I will not give my glory unto another" (Isa. 48:10, 11).
"But who may abide the day of His coming? and who shall stand when He appeareth? for He is like a refiner's fire, and like fullers' soap: and He shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver: and He shall purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness" (Mal. 3:2, 3).
"And I will bring the third part through the fire, and will refine them as silver is refined, and will try them as gold is tried: they shall call on my name, and I will hear them: I will say, It is my people: and they shall say, The Lord is my God" (Zech. 13:9).
To refine anything does not mean to punish it, but only to purify it; to get rid of all its dross and rubbish, and to bring out its full beauty and worth. It is a blessing, not a curse. And instead of its being something God demands of us, it really is something we ought to demand of God. We have a right to be made as pure as God can make us. This is our claim upon Him. He created us, and we have a right to demand that He should make out of us the best He can, and should do this refining work on the creatures He has called into being. It is His duty to burn up our dross, and bring out our full beauty and worth. Love demands that He should.
George Macdonald speaks some strong words concerning this: "Man has a claim on God, a Divine claim for any pain, want, disappointment, or misery that will help to make him what he ought to be. He has a claim to be punished, and to be spared not one pang that may urge him towards repentance; yea, he has a claim to be compelled to repent; to be hedged in on every side, to have one after another of the strong, sharp-toothed sheep-dogs of the Great Shepherd sent after him, to thwart him in any desire, foil him in any plan, frustrate him of any hope, until he comes to see at length that nothing will ease his pain, nothing make life a thing worth having, but the presence of the living God within him; that nothing is good but the will of God; nothing noble enough for the desire of the heart of man but oneness with the eternal. For this God must make him yield his very being, that He himself may enter in and dwell with him."
Trouble and sorrow, therefore, are not our curse, but one of our most cherished rights. We are like statues, "hewn in the rough," which can only be perfectly shaped by means of the chisel's blows; and these blows are surely the statue's right.
" 'Tis that I am not good -- that is enough;
I pry no farther -- that is not the way.
Here, O my potter, is thy making stuff!
Set thy wheel going; let it whir and play.
The chips in me, the stones, the straws, the sand,
Cast them out with fine separating hand,
And make a vessel of thy yielding clay."
This, then, is the meaning of trouble. It is to make us good. And we have a right to be made good, for it is God's purpose concerning us. Let us therefore accept our trials as a part of our birthright, and give thanks to the Divine Potter that He has set His wheel whirring, and is casting out, with a "fine, separating hand," all the chips, and stones, and sand that mar the perfect purity of our clay.
How changed would be the aspect of all our trials if we could see them in this light! How easy it would be to say "Thy will be done," if we could once recognise the fact that trouble meant only and always blessing for us! I think the Psalmist understood this when he wrote that wonderful 107th Psalm, in which he tells us of how the Lord chastened Israel, when they rebelled against Him and wandered away from Him, and how this chastening always brought them back to cry unto the Lord; and then breaks out after each such recital with the exultant cry, "Oh that men would praise the Lord for His goodness, and for His wonderful works to the children of men!"
In view of all the blessings that troubles and trials have wrought for many of us, can we not also join with our whole souls in this triumphant cry?
Besides this blessed chastening and refining work of sorrow and trouble, I believe it has often another purpose, and that is to thwart us in a course that our Heavenly Father knows would be disastrous, and to turn us into safer and more successful paths. Disappointments are often direct gateways to prosperity in the very things we have thought they were going to ruin for ever. Joseph's story is an illustration of this. He had the promise of a kingdom, but instead he received slavery, and cruel treachery, and imprisonment, and it looked as if all hope of a kingdom was over for ever. But these very trials were the gateway into his kingdom, and in no other way could he have reached it. God's thwartings are often our grandest opportunities. We start in a pathway that we think is going to lead us to a desired end, but God in His Providence thwarts us, and then we rashly conclude that all is over, and are in despair. But after a little we find that that very thwarting has been the divine opportunity for the success we desired; or, if not for just that, for a far better thing that we would infinitely rather have. He changes the very thing we thought was our sorrow into our crown of joy.
"To appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that He might be glorified" (Isa. 61:3).
"Thou hast turned for me my mourning into dancing: thou hast put off my sackcloth, and girded me with gladness" (Ps. 30:11; also Isa. 35:6, 7).
Many times in my life in practical affairs I have had my "mourning turned into dancing," because I have found that the trial I mourned was really a gateway into the good things I longed for. And I cannot help suspecting that this is far more often the case than we are inclined to think. I knew a man who had both his feet frozen off, and was thwarted in all his plans by the lameness that ensued. He thought his life was ruined, and mourned with unspeakable anguish. But this very trial opened out for him another career which proved finally to be the thing of all others he would have chosen, and which brought him a success far beyond the wildest dreams of his early aspirations. His greatest trouble became his greatest triumph. Instances of this are innumerable. Every life has some.
"For ye shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace: the mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of the thorn shall come up the fir-tree, and instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle-tree: and it shall be to the Lord for a name, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off" (Isa. 55:12, 13).
"For the Lord shall comfort Zion: He will comfort all her waste places: and He will make her wilderness like Eden, and her desert like the garden of the Lord; joy and gladness shall be found therein, thanksgiving, and the voice of melody" (Isa. 51:3).
Since we have so often experienced our deserts to be turned into the garden of the Lord, and have found fir-trees and myrtle-trees coming up where we thought there were only thorns and briers, the marvellous thing is that we should ever let ourselves be so utterly cast down and overwhelmed when fresh trouble comes. I think it would be a good exercise of soul for us to write out a little record for our own private use of all the times when this marvellous transformation has happened in our experience. It might make us less ready to despair under our next trial.
But the true secret of endurance lies deeper than this. It is to see God's hand in our trouble, and, losing sight altogether of second causes, to accept it directly from Him. Man may be the instrument to bring about our trouble, or we may even be the instruments ourselves, but back of all is God, who controls everything, and who will not let anything reach us that is not meant for blessing to us, either as refining, or chastening, or as providential thwarting. Why should we allow ourselves to be so needlessly unhappy with thinking that our trouble is one in which God has no part? There cannot be any such trouble. If not a sparrow falls to the ground without our Father, even though a stone from the hand of a cruel boy may cause the fall, then not a trial can come to us without Him, even though some cruel or careless hand may start it on its way. By the time the trial reaches us, it has become God's will for us, and is meant to bless us.
"In all their affliction, He was afflicted, and the angel of His presence saved them: in His love and in His pity He redeemed them; and He bare them, and carried them all the days of old" (Isa. 63:9).
"For He hath not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; neither hath He hid His face from him; but when he cried unto Him, He heard" (Ps. 22:24).
It is the "angel of His presence" in all our afflictions that saves us; and this never fails us. No affliction, let its source be what it may, is "abhorred or despised" by Him, and in none does He hide His face from us. Always He is present, if only we will turn to Him. Perhaps we can tell no human being of our trial. Perhaps if we did tell them they would abhor and despise it. But God knows it, and He does not hide His face from us, nor abhor our affliction. The "angel of His presence" will always save us, if only we will let Him, and He will make all things, even the saddest of troubles, those that arise from our own sins, "work together for our highest good."
"Many are the afflictions of the righteous: but the Lord delivereth him out of them all. He keepeth all his bones: not one of them is broken" (Ps. 34:19, 20).
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