In February 2012, I stood to lead prayer meeting at the church in Louisiana I had pastored for 12 years, but the longer I stood the sicker I became. I had to leave during the prayer time and have my associate pastor take over. That was the first evidence that something had started to go wrong with me physically, and it would just grow worse from there. Soon I could no longer preach on Sunday morning without almost passing out during the service, and that May I went on medical leave until my doctor could come up with a diagnosis. After months of testing, they finally determined that I had what was then a rare & little-known diagnosis, but which has become more common over the last couple of years, called dysautonomia, or POTS: “Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome.”
With POTS, the autonomic system malfunctions; things that are supposed to be regulated by that part of the brain misfire: for example one’s heart rate, which should adjust automatically when you stand, doesn’t. My heart rate might rise from 80 when I was sitting, to 140 or more when I stood. Essentially it was like running in place all the time when I stood, which is why I’d get so sick. It also causes severe fatigue, sleeplessness, nausea, and migraine headaches that were so bad I couldn’t read, or listen to anything.
There is no known “cure” for dysautonomia/POTS — still to this day. They just to try treat the symptoms with whatever medication seems to work best on the individual. But after months of trying different medications and treatments — some of which had side effects that were worse than the illness — nothing was helping, and it became increasingly evident that I was not going to get well any time soon. I knew I needed to step down, and let the church call a healthy pastor, who could minister to them like they needed. I was losing my job, my career, and my ministry. We had to sell our home, Cheryl’s dream house, along with about 2/3 of our possessions. I was so sick while we were moving that I couldn’t even stand to pack our belongings, and some our church members stepped over and around me on the floor as they packed my things. After 27 years of pastoring, I would now be out of the ministry. We moved to Norman, OK, where we had a small apartment, began to apply for disability, and try to convalesce without any human hope for a healthy future. As far as I knew then, my career and my life as I had known it, was over.
Now as you can see, I AM back, and I am able to stand and preach with minimal difficulty. I DID get better over the next couple of years after I resigned from the church. People ask me: how did you get healthy? I wish, especially for the sake of people who have POTS, that I had some “silver bullet” answer for how anyone can get better, but honestly the only answer I have is the grace of God. As I began to get well I filled in at some churches, then did a lengthy interim, and then in March of 2015 Pleasant Ridge Baptist in North Carolina called me back into the full-time pastorate, where I served 4 years before moving here this February. Cheryl & I are grateful to God for His blessing in restoring my health, and placing me back in ministry.
Those two years of sickness and the first part of my recuperation were a very trying time. But I have heard it said that there is a Psalm in the Bible for every situation we face, and I can certainly say that it is true for my own life, and for what our family went through those couple of years.
Some of the verses that ministered to me the most over that time were from Psalm 119:65-72. I want to share with you this morning some of what I learned from them, and what they teach us about “The Goodness of God in the Midst of Affliction.”
First, let me give these verses some context. Psalm 119 is the longest chapter in the Bible, and it is an acrostic. If you will notice, above each section of 8 verses, there is a Hebrew letter listed. In the Hebrew Bible, each of the 8 verses of each section begin with that same Hebrew letter.
Verses 65-72 are the “Teth” section of Psalm 119, so each of the 8 verses in this section begin with the Hebrew letter Teth, (like their letter “T”).
But another significant fact to note, is that almost every verse in this section begins, not only with the same Hebrew letter “Teth,” but also with the same Hebrew WORD: “Tob”, which means “good”:
— :65 in English reads: “You have dealt well with Your servant” — but in Hebrew the verse begins with the word “Good” — (Tob) — “GOOD You have dealt with Your servant …”
— :66 “GOOD discernment teach me …”
— :68 in Hebrew is literally: “GOOD You (are) and do …”
— :71 is literally “GOOD for me that I was afflicted …”
— :72 reads: “GOOD to me the Law of Your mouth …”
So we see this incredible emphasis on the word “GOOD” in these verses:
— GOOD You have dealt with Your servant
— GOOD discernment teach me
— GOOD You are and do
— GOOD for me that I was afflicted
— GOOD to me the Law of Your mouth
This is important for several reasons:
— First of all, in Hebrew they often place a word first in a sentence to emphasize it. So when we see that FIVE out of the 8 times in this section, the word “good” opens the sentence, it’s really emphasizing this word “GOOD.”
— And secondly, in Hebrew, repetition is also used for emphasis. If the Bible says something ONE time it is true. If they want to emphasize something they may say it twice. If they want to say something is ultimate, they will say it three times, like “Holy, holy, holy” of Isaiah 6, which means that God is ultimately holy. How strong of a statement is this, then, when FIVE TIMES here in Psalm 119 it opens with those words: GOOD, GOOD, GOOD, GOOD, GOOD!! This is an incredibly strong emphasis on the GOOD that comes in the times of affliction that he mentioned in :67 &71.
I. God IS Good In Our Times of Affliction. (“You ARE good”)
We see this specifically spelled out in :68, where it says: “You are good and do good.” Again, in Hebrew, that is literally, “GOOD You are and do.” As we saw, the emphasis is on that first word, “good.” It is saying, God is “GOOD.” It is emphasizing His goodness — even in that difficult time.
This is just basic Theology 101. Psalm 100:5 says, “for the Lord is good.” This is a basic truth about God which we need to make sure that we don’t take for granted, and that we always remember, especially in our times of trial. God is GOOD.
Sometimes when we come into hard times, it is easy for us to think that God is like one of those mischievous mythical gods of ancient Greece & Rome, who just enjoyed “toying” with people, and bringing them into times of trouble for their entertainment. But the Bible says NO! God is not only all-powerful and all-knowing, and all-present, but part of His basic essential nature is that He is also GOOD!
Our enemy often likes to hit us at this point when we come into difficult times. He wants us to doubt and question God’s goodness. I am so grateful that my pastor while I was sick and recuperating in Norman Oklahoma, was Ronnie Rogers of Trinity Baptist Church. He preached a series of messages on spiritual warfare from Ephesians 6, and taught us that spiritual warfare isn’t what a lot of people think it is: it’s not us getting a flat tire or something like that, but real spiritual warfare happens when Satan tries to get us to believe something false about ourselves or about God. He wants us to doubt God’s goodness. He wants us to think: “God is punishing me”, or “God is being mean to me”, or “God is not good”, and so on. Which is why in difficult times we have to take up the shield of faith, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God, and believe what God has said; and say, “NO — I will NOT believe those lies; I KNOW from God’s word that He is good!” When we battle those false ideas about God, THAT is doing spiritual warfare. And we do that with the truth of God’s word.
That is why right here in the middle of this Teth section of Psalm 119 we find this basic truth, “You are good and do good.” That’s “Theology 101” of what we need to believe about God. No matter what it may seem like in our trials, we have to hold on to our faith in the goodness of God.
This was part of my test, and part of my family’s test, during those two years: to believe that despite what was happening to us, God is good and does good. And I’ll be honest: there were times during those years when we had family discussions, and different ones of us would say they felt like God was being “mean” to us, or that He was just “toying” with us from heaven. But that was the spiritual battle we were facing: to hold on to this truth that God is good, and does good. I shared Psalm 119:68 with my family, and we repeated it so many times it became kind of our “family memory verse”: “You are good and do good”, we were just clinging to that basic truth of the goodness of God.
We need to hold to the truth of God’s goodness in our times of difficulty. It is easy to say, “God is good” when something good has happened to us: when we get the job they we were applying for, or we win the game, or the house didn’t burn down, or the medical test came back negative. And saying “God is good!” is a perfectly good and right thing to say in those times. God IS good when those pleasant things happen.
But we also need to remember that God is still good we DON’T win the game. God is still good when we DON’T get the job. God is still good when our house DOES burn down, God is still good when the test DOES com back with a bad result — God is STILL good in all those times! God was still good when I got sick and lost my job and my house. “God is good all the time.” “He is good, and does good.” This is part of the basic theology these verses are trying to teach us: the goodness of God in our times of affliction. I believe it honors God when we as His children stand in our most desperate hour and say like Job did: “Though He slay me, yet I will trust in Him” — and somehow just cling to this truth: “God is Good” in our times of affliction.
II. God DOES Good In Our Times Of Affliction (“You DO good”)
One of the few verses in this section that does NOT begin with the Hebrew word “tob” or “good”, is :67, but although it does not actually contain the word “good”, it does speak of the good purpose of God in our trials. It says: “Before I was afflicted, I went astray, but now I keep your word.” He says, even in this affliction which I have gone through, God has done something good. He has worked some good purposes in my life. In this verse he highlights ONE of the scriptural purposes for which God might allow trials to come into our lives, to cleanse us from sin. (And we have to be very careful here; as Jesus showed us in John 9, NOT all suffering is cause by sin. Just because someone is suffering, does NOT mean they have sinned. Don’t heap that guilt upon someone.) But this verse does remind us that God does bring good things out of our suffering. Not only IS He good, but He also DOES good things through our times of affliction.
So while I was going through that illness, and wondering what God might be doing, I identified at least 6 scriptural reasons why God might allow affliction to come through His “shield of protection” to touch the lives of His children. We could do a whole sermon series just on this, but let me share with you these 6 just briefly:
1) Afflictions test the genuineness of our faith. The basic truth of the gospel is that this good God made us to know Him and to have joy and pleasure in His presence forever. But we separated ourselves from God by our sin. That is why God sent Jesus, to die on the cross and pay for our sins, so that if we would repent of our sins and trust Him as our Savior, we could be saved. But when a person hears this message, and they publicly confess Jesus as their Savior, and are baptized, how do we know if their faith is genuine or not? Our faith gets tested during times of affliction. Will we hold to this commitment to Christ, even when difficult times come?
Jesus said in Matthew 13 that “when affliction or persecution arises because of the word” many “fall away.” So a time of difficulty that comes into our life may be to test the reality of our faith. If we hold onto our faith during our trials, it is one of the best evidences that our faith is genuine. So trials WILL come; they are necessary to test our faith.
I remember a couple of years ago, my sister, who serves with our Southern Baptist IMB in a foreign country, wrote to tell me about how a small group of new Christians in her communist country were being persecuted by the government. My first thought was to pray: “God, get them out of that trial.” But then I realized, they HAVE to go through that trial; they HAVE to be tested; to have the opportunity to show through trials that their faith is real.
And you & I are going to have trials like that too. We have to have opportunities to be tested, and to show that our faith is genuine. And there will be times in our trials when we are so weak, and faithless, and all we have left is just something inside of us that somehow still looks to Jesus and asks Him to help us through. And that “something” is that real faith that is in you, through God’s Holy Spirit. But it’s in our times of affliction that our faith gets tested, and it is one of God’s most important purposes for allowing suffering to come into your life.
2) Related to that, our afflictions help us realize how weak we are, and how much we need the Lord. The Apostle Paul said in II Corinthians 12:9 that he had a certain affliction that he called “a thorn in the flesh”, and he asked God three times to take it away. But God said that He had a purpose for that affliction. He said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” God used Paul’s affliction to keep him humble and dependent on God.
And I believe God often does the same thing with us. I have seen this in my own life. For years after I began preaching again, I could no longer stand and walk around when I preached. I have been very weak and shaky, and have had to hang on to the pulpit. (For some reason, since I have been here at Angleton, I have actually been able to walk around on the platform; again, I have no idea why, but it is something I have rarely been able to do in years! But I am thankful for it!) Most Sundays the past several years I have gone to the pulpit just praying, “God, help me to make it through this message; I need You.” Alan Brown, one of my sweet deacons at Pleasant Ridge, told me that he believed that God allowed this to be in my life like the Apostle Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” — to constantly remind me how much I need God to help me. And I believe he may be right.
Sometimes God allows difficulties into our lives to remind us how much we need Him, and to keep us constantly praying and depending upon Him.
3) Suffering also helps us identify with people as we minister to them. II Corinthians 1:4 says that we comfort others with the comfort which we ourselves have received from God. I have a good minister friend in Norman who almost lost his wife to an illness a couple of years ago, and while they were going through this, a wise older minister told him: “You’ll never minister to others the same after this.” Our trials help us to empathize with, and minister more effectively to others. Some of you have experienced this.
4) Suffering conforms us to the image of Christ. Romans 8:28 says that “God causes all things to work together for good …” — and :29 tells us what that “good” thing is: that God’s purpose is to conform us to the image of His Son. God uses all things, including our difficulties, to make us more like Christ. So as we suffer in our trials, we shouldn’t just pray, “God get me out this;” just “getting us out of it” is not necessarily God’s purpose. His ultimate purpose is for us to become like Him, so that is what we should be praying for to happen.
5) Our trials help us to know God better. Our whole purpose for being created is to know God, and worship Him forever. Jesus said in John 17:3, “This is eternal life, that they may know Thee.” And God uses our trials to draw us closer to Him. Many people have shared that testimony. Josh Wilson has a song on Christian radio that some of you may have heard, called “Fall Apart: “‘Cause my whole world is caving in – but I feel you now more than I did then.” God uses our trials to draw us closer to Himself, and to know Him better than we ever did before.
6) And our afflictions can help cleanse us from sin, as Psalm 119:67 speaks specifically about here: “before I was afflicted I went astray; but now I keep Your word.” Not all of our afflictions are the result of our sin; but SOME are; so we should always ask ourselves when we come into times of difficulty, “God, is there any sin in my life that I need to turn from, or confess to You?” And maybe that sin is not the reason for your affliction, but it is still always good to confess and turn from sin. We can always benefit from that.
God uses our afflictions both to purify us, and to work all of these other purposes into our lives as well. And there are other reasons, but these will get us started. The point is, we should trust that even in our suffering, God IS good, and He DOES good. And the end result — IF we are paying attention spiritually — is that we will be able to say with the Psalmist in :71, “It was good for me that I was afflicted …” and we will realize that if we had NOT gone through the trials that we had, both we and others would not have been blessed in a multitude of ways.
A couple of years ago, a friend shared with me the story of a man who found the cocoon of a butterfly. One day it started to open, and he watched the butterfly struggle to make its way through the opening. Wanting to help it, he took some scissors and snipped it open to let it out. But what happened was the the butterfly spent its remaining days with shriveled wings and a swollen body — because that struggle to get out of the cocoon was God’s way of forcing the body fluid into the wings so it could fly. Without the struggle; that never happened, and it never grew to maturity!
God’s creation often shows us spiritual lessons. No one wants affliction when it comes upon us. We want our life to be “smooth and easy” — but a “smooth & easy life” is not God’s purpose for us. If someone tells you that, they are a false teacher. God’s purpose is NOT for your life to be pleasant and easy — God’s purpose is for your life to become like Christ. And He knows the only way that will happen is through the pressure of trials and suffering. He knows it will be much better for us if He allows us to be afflicted, than had He not allowed that suffering to come into our lives. OUR part is to believe that by faith, even when it is very difficult; to hold onto those truths that He is good, and that He does good — even in our most painful situations.
I can stand here with the Psalmist today and testify that “it was good for me that I was afflicted”:
— It was good for my understanding of God’s word that I was afflicted, just like :71 says. The Bible was my rock, my anchor during that time of illness. There are whole sections of the Psalms I had never identified with before, which came alive to me through that trial; lessons and truths and verses I will never forget because God spoke to me through them during this time. So I can say with :71 that “It has been good for me that I was afflicted, that I may learn Your statutes.”
— It was good for me in my relationship with the Lord that I was afflicted. I always believed that my walk with God was more than just a “job”, but in my suffering I got the chance to prove it. Did I still believe all those things I preached about, even when I wasn’t getting a paycheck for it?
I can remember when I was at the lowest point of my suffering: I was in between medications, with a huge migraine headache that left me unable to read or watch or even listen to anything without great pain. All I could do was lay in bed in the dark, with a hand towel over my face to keep out the light, and at one point I just looked up to heaven, and said, “God, I am just laying here like a vegetable; I can’t do anything. Why are You allowing this?” But even then, my faith was real to me; and in a few moments I just raised up my hand to heaven and in my heart I sang, and worshiped God. If Satan had asked God about me like he did Job, “Does Shawn serve you for nothing?”, well I had the opportunity for my faith to be tested, and I rejoice in that. I am certainly far from perfect, but I do know that my faith in God is real — and I had the opportunity to demonstrate it in my suffering.
— It was good for others that I was afflicted. I had many people tell me that the way I responded in my suffering, encouraged them in their own walk with God.
— It was good for my marriage that I was afflicted, as it tested Cheryl & I and drew us closer together as we walked through this, and questioned and prayed and sought God together in His word. It wasn’t easy for Cheryl; in fact in a lot of ways I think it was harder on her than it was on me. And (as you all here know) Cheryl is a very “real” person; she doesn’t put on “airs”. We’ve jokingly said that her tombstone is gonna read, “She didn’t go quietly!”
She didn’t tell me at the time but later she told the story that when I was at one of those really low points physically, and we were having to sell everything and move; that I was laying in bed and I looked up at her and I said, “You know, this isn’t easy, but I am at peace with it; I really am.” Well, Cheryl was standing there, losing her dream house, and 2/3 of her possessions, including some things that were very dear to her; she was having to bear all the brunt of the packing & moving by herself. She didn’t tell me until later, but she said when I told her I was at peace with all this — she said it was all she could do, to keep herself from taking one of the pillows on the bed and just suffocate the snot out of me with it!
But overall it was good for our marriage that we went through all this together. And I am thankful for that, because I know that sometimes suffering can cause shipwreck for marriages, but I can honestly say that we got closer in our marriage than ever before: “It was good for our marriage that I was afflicted …”.
— It was good for my family that I was afflicted. We ALL went through this. Our youngest son Michael was still at home, and he was right in the middle of it. At one point, I was laid out sick on the couch, couldn’t get up at all, and Cheryl had gone out to try to work, and had sprained her ankle, so neither of us could get up. Thankfully, Michael did school at home, so we could call him in from the other room if we needed help. One day, after we’d called him in to help us for about the third time, Cheryl said, “Poor Michael; he must feel like he’s got a new job in a nursing home!”
So it was a trial for all us — but it was also “good” for all us, just like this scripture says. I told Cheryl, I wonder how much of this might have been to benefit Michael, who has some gifts for music, and writing — what lessons might God have built into his life during that time that we’re going to see the fruit of in years to come? It was good for our children to see their parents’ faith tested and affirmed. So it has been good for our family that I was afflicted.
— It has been good for my ministry that I was afflicted. What that wise minister told my friend is true: I will never minister the same after what I went through. Because now I know what suffering is like. Now I have been there: now I’VE been one on the sick bed; now I’VE been the one who lost his job; now I’VE been the one who lost his home; now I’VE been the one in the need of prayer; now I’VE been the recipient of church benevolence and pastoral care — I will never minister the same again after this. I’ve had numerous people who were sick say to me over the last several years: “You know what this is like Bro. Shawn …”. And on top of that I’ve gotten phone calls and e-mails from people all over the country who have this same illness, with whom I’ve had some great opportunities for ministry. In so many ways it has been good for my ministry that I was afflicted.
— It has been good for my priorities that I was afflicted: It’s reminded me that my glory is not to be in my house, or in my job, or my career, or my “ministry” — all these can be taken way. My glory is to be the Lord Himself, Whom we can never lose, no matter what afflicts us.
In all these ways and more, I can say with the Psalmist: “It was good for me that I was afflicted”:
— There are lessons I would never have learned had I not suffered.
— There are scriptures that would have never come alive had I not suffered.
— There are prayers I would never have prayed had I not suffered.
— There is confession I would never have made, had I not suffered.
— There are sermons I would never have preached had I not suffered.
— There are ministries I would never have had, had I not suffered
— There are people who would never have been blessed, had I not suffered.
— There is a maturity that would never have come had I not suffered. I had a friend visit after I got well, and after I spoke in prayer meeting they said, “There is something different about your preaching now … it is hard to say; it is more serious; more touching.” That would never have happened had I not suffered.
— There is praise that would have never been given to God, had I not suffered.
Though I would never have chosen for all this to happen, I can say with all conviction that “It was good for me that I was afflicted.”
In fact, after I had gotten well, and before I was called to a church to serve, one day I stood in the foyer of our little apartment in Norman, and I just thought back over all the events of the past two years, and all that God had done. As I stood there, looking out the glass door, I suddenly found that the words of this Psalm came out of my mouth: “It was good for me that I was afflicted …”. And I really meant it. I could see so much of what God had done, and how He had changed my life, and it was good.
This is what Psalm 119 is saying here. When all is said and done, and we see all of God’s purposes in eternity, every one of us will be able to say with :65, “You have dealt well with Your servant, O LORD, according to Your word.” No matter what we have been through, there is not one of us who will ever say in eternity, “God did not treat me fairly. He did not do well by me.” Every single one of us will have more than we deserve, and every single one of us will be able to say: “You have dealt well with Your servant, O Lord”! Even in our most difficult hours of adversity and suffering, the words of this Psalm are true: “You ARE good, and DO good.” And we can know that if God calls us to suffer, it is for our ultimate good, and for His ultimate glory. May it be our prayer and our commitment to glorify Him, in whatever He chooses to bring into our lives as His people.
— Maybe you have been in a time of trial, and like most of us tend to do, all you have been asking God for is to “get you out” of it. But maybe God is showing you today that there is something GOOD He is trying to work in you, or in others, through this trial. Would you ask Him what that is, and ask Him to build that thing into your life?
— Maybe you just need to look over the list of those 6 scriptural things God does in our lives in times of trial, and ask Him: “God, show me what You are doing, so I can work together with You.”
— And even if you can’t understand or see anything good, maybe your response today is just to trust God and worship, and to ay like Job, “though You slay me, yet I will trust in You, and I will glorify You in this.”
— Maybe it’s not you, but somebody you love who is going through something difficult right now — that can be eve harder than going through it yourself! And you just want to pray for them this morning, that God will work in them, and that they will see what He is doing.
— Or maybe you need to truly give your life to Jesus, right now! Bow and ask Him to save you for the first time …