Thursday of Pentecost 22
13 November 2014
The Psalmist says something remarkable: "O Lord, in faithfulness you have afflicted me" (Ps 119:75). How does that work? How is it faithful on God's part to afflict those whom He loves? How are we able to understand our affliction as a sign of God's faithfulness? Only by faith. If we judge according to the feeling in our hearts we must conclude that God is only wrathful toward us. Whenever any trial befalls we sense that this trial has come upon us as a result of our own weakness and spiritual poverty. Faith alone overcomes this feeling. By faith here we cannot mean simply a feeling of greater intensity than that which we already feel in our hearts. Faith is not a feeling that is merely competing with our intense sense of unworthiness. That will not work out very well in the midst of trial and suffering.
Only faith is able to see beyond feeling and sense. Faith apprehends the promises of God which are ours in Christ. Since Christ Himself is the content of faith it is an entirely different order of things than sense and feeling. He is what enables us to face the affliction we feel, while confessing that God Himself sends it to us. This is a miraculous faith, namely, to be sure that affliction comes from God, but that it does not reveal His true heart toward us. A faith that comes from God confesses that He only intends the best toward us, despite the fullness of our suffering. This can only be learned in the crucible of trial as we exercise our faith to believe what we do not and cannot see and do not and cannot feel, but know because Holy Scripture tells us that God is no longer angry with us poor sinners. Christ has born the full weight of our sin and taken it away. No feeling could ever rob us of that work of Christ.
We should believe against what we feel about God's wrath. For our Lord reveals Himself most as gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in love just when we are most liable to feel God's wrath. When there is darkness and clouds, the light of Christ shines through most clearly. When the shadow of death surrounds us the cross of Christ is most comforting. When we don't see, we see. When we don't hear, we hear. We have hope against hope. This is what it means to confess that our faithful God afflicts us.
"Let us learn that amid great and horrible terrors, when the conscience feels nothing but sin and judges God to be wrathful and Christ is hostile, we must not consult the feeling of our own heart. No, then we must consult the Word of God, which says that God is not wrathful, but that He has regard for the afflicted, who are contrite in spirit and tremble at His Word (Is 66:2), and that Christ does not turn away from those who labor and are heavy-laden (Mt 11:28) but revives them. Therefore this passage teaches clearly that the law and works do not bring righteousness and consolation, but that this is produced by the Spirit through faith in Christ, which arouses hope, endures and conquers evil, amid anxieties and tribulations. Few people know how weak and feeble faith and hope are in cross and struggle. Then faith and hope appear to be "a dimly burning wick" (Is 42:3), which a strong wind is about to blow out. But those who believe in hope against hope (Rm 4:18) amid these conflicts and fears; that is, those who fight against the feeling of sin and of the wrath of God by faith in the promise of Christ, afterward experience that this insignificant spark of faith (as it seems to reason, because it is hardly aware of it) will become like elemental fire, which fills all heaven and swallows up all terrors and sins.
"Truly pious people have nothing more dear and more precious in the whole world than this doctrine; for those who hold to this know what the whole world does not know, namely, that sin and death, as well as other calamities and evils, both physical and spiritual, fall to the good of the elect. They also know that God is most near when He seems to be farthest away, and that He is most merciful and most the Savior when He seems most to be wrathful and to afflict and condemn. They know that they have eternal righteousness for which they look in hope as an utterly certain possession, laid up in heaven. When they most feel the terrors of sin and death, when they seem to be the most destitute, they are the lords of everything, according to the words 'as having nothing, yet possessing everything' (2Co 6:10). This is what Scripture calls to receive comfort through hope. But this art is not learned without frequent and great trials."
Martin Luther, Lectures on Galatians, 5.5
It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes. The law of your mouth is better to me than thousands of gold and silver pieces. Your hands have made and fashioned me; give me understanding that I may learn your commandments. Those who fear you shall see me and rejoice, because I have hoped in your word. I know, O LORD, that your rules are righteous, and that in faithfulness you have afflicted me. Let your steadfast love comfort me according to your promise to your servant. Let your mercy come to me, that I may live; for your law is my delight. Let the insolent be put to shame, because they have wronged me with falsehood; as for me, I will meditate on your precepts. Let those who fear you turn to me, that they may know your testimonies. May my heart be blameless in your statutes, that I may not be put to shame! My soul longs for your salvation; I hope in your word. My eyes long for your promise; I ask, "When will you comfort me?" For I have become like a wineskin in the smoke, yet I have not forgotten your statutes. (ESV)