When we think of Psalm 119, we might think "really long Psalm" or "acrostic song" (i.e., each section starts with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet) or "a really long, acrostic song all about Scripture (all but a few of the 176 verses make specific reference to God's Word). Rarely do we think "suffering." But here in this longest-of-songs is a treasure trove of how to prayerfully think about suffering. Consider a few ways this song can be a steady counselor during times of hardship.
Suffering Leads to Singing
It's frequently overlooked, but the songwriter behind Psalm 119 had a reason for writing. It wasn't that he went to a Bible conference and was so full of fresh insights and faith that he just had to write a song all about God's Word. Rather, this song was brought about by a time of great suffering in his life. Throughout the meditations on Scripture are frequent references to his own shame (v6), destitution (v25), affliction (v67), the wicked generally (v53), and the wicked persecuting him (v84). In other words, had the Psalmist not been persecuted, we wouldn't have this wonderful song.
This shouldn't surprise us. As we call to mind your favorite prayers in Scripture, chances are very, very good those prayers were brought about through suffering. And as we'll see if we follow the theme of suffering through this song, singing during and after suffering is often the sweetest.
Suffering Leads Us to God's Word
People turn in many directions when suffering: finding solace in friends, finding distraction in entertainment, finding numbness in drugs or alcohol, finding escape in sleep or even suicicde. But the Psalmist shows us the right direction, that suffering is always a call back to God's Word.
Not only does God's Word illuminate the path we walk during suffering, it's also the only source of sense during the extreme disorientation suffering always brings. By turning to God's Word, we are reminded that God made me (v73). And the God who made me is good (v68) and in goodness afflicts me (v67). And while those who sin against us are guilty, God can use their evil for great good (v50). Only in the story of Jesus' death and resurrection will we find true reassurance from a God who is absolutely capable of using evil for good. Only in God's Word will our desires - rocked by suffering - be ordered according to eternity rather than our comforts.
Whenever suffering comes into your life - and it will - it will always be a call for you to value (v72) cling ever more tightly to God's Word. (v92)
Suffering Leads Us to Prayer
In fact, we might say that suffering is really how we learn to pray and praying is the only way to suffer well. Suffering is so often what God uses to shake us out of the smallness and staleness of our prayers and to lift our hearts to him in new and desperate ways. As C.S. Lewis famously wrote, "Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world."
We might also say that suffering is what makes prayer really real. Real in the sense of vital and important and life-giving (v28). And real in the sense of brutally-yet-respectfully honest (v82).
Whenever suffering comes into your life - and it will - it will always be a call for you to raise your heart to the Lord in prayer (v82).
Suffering Leads to Sanctification
Wouldn't it be great if we could "learn our lesson" without hardship and suffering? Wouldn't it be wonderful if the process of growing as a Christian was simply reading the Bible, hearing sermons and prayerfully getting more holy every day? Alas. We aren't machines and sanctification isn't a linear process of grace constantly leading to holiness. More often than not, the key that opens new doors of sanctification is suffering.
The Psalmist's understanding of how God used suffering is bracing: "It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes." (v71)
What was true for our Savior must be even more true for us: "...he learned obedience through what he suffered." (Heb. 5:8) In God's trustworthy hand, suffering becomes a spiritual scalpel, cutting away our idolatry, disbelief, worldliness, prayerlessness and selfishness. In God's hand, suffering leads to sanctification.
Whenever suffering comes into your life - and it will - it will always be a call toward greater holiness, great Christlikness.
Suffering Leads to Glory
A final word of encouragement from the big picture of Psalm 119: God will use your sufferings not only for you but also for others and, ultimately, for Himself. Just as the Psalmist's pain led to a wonderful song and countless voices raised to God in praise, so your suffering will be seen by others as a testimony to God's grace, an echo of the sufferings of Christ, an example to follow and even a warning to unbelievers. Paul tells us in Philippians 1:29 that "it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake." Take courage and pray that God would use your sufferings to silence demons, to glorify His name and to give courage to others in their sufferings!
Whenever suffering comes into your life - and it will - it will always be used for the good of others and for the glory of God.
Much of this post was inspired by David Powlison's article on Psalm 119, "Suffering and Psalm 119."