The pain has been around for a long time. Even more frustrating has been the lack of a diagnosis. Well, the MRI results are finally in, and it’s arthritis. The doctor is recommending surgery. And I’m not even 52 years old.
Last night I was reading Psalm 31, which says, almost as an aside, “My times are in Thy hand.” I noted the Psalmist’s emphasis: the times are mine, but the hand is His. Now that’s a comforting thought.
No, I won’t apply to myself 2 Timothy 3:12: “Yes, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution.” Paul is not referring to the common troubles to which all flesh is heir. It does not mean every little headache, every petty vexation and grievance. That said, living with human infirmities and constant pain can hardly be considered joyous.
Or can it?
Jonathan Edwards, who has been called the “theologian of the heart,” once described the religious affections of a Christian as follows:
The desires of the saints, however earnest, are humble desires: their hope is a humble hope, and their joy, even when it is unspeakable, and full of glory, is humble, brokenhearted joy, and leaves the Christian more poor in spirit, and more like a little child, and more disposed to a universal lowliness of behavior (Religious Affections [New Haven: Yale University Press], pp. 339f.).
What a marvelous description of joy! In my book Paul, Apostle of Weakness, I concluded that the greatest badge of honor for the apostle was not his giftedness, or his intelligence, or his many accomplishments. His greatest badge of honor was his weakness. Nor did he merely endure his infirmities; he exulted in them.
In the Scriptures we read of those who “out of weakness were made strong” (Hebrews 11:34). Have you been made strong? Have I? We can be strong, but it is not in our own strength. We are made strong in the Lord and in the power of His might. When Paul said, “By the grace of God I am what I am” (1 Corinthians 15:10), he meant that he was a Christian and an apostle but above all else that he was a new creature by the grace of God. He had been imbued with a new source of power and victory through the indwelling presence of God’s Spirit.
But God’s strength will not be ours unless we receive it. It is always His power we experience, and never our own. There is too much teaching in the church today glorifying, not the faith, but the flesh. “You are wonderful, you are good, you are powerful. All you need is the power of positive thinking and you can do anything!” Such teaching is nothing but the stench of dead men’s bones even if the sepulchers are whitewashed. Note that it was a mature Christian, at the height of his career, who cried out, “Wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24). Not “righteous!” but “wretched!” Then the same man gloriously added, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
This is the heart of the Christian experience. It is the truth everyone struggling with infirmities needs to glory in. Dead with Christ, we live to walk in newness of life. We die to live; we go down to go up; in wretchedness there is righteousness; in weakness there is strength.
It is a decadent generation that cannot endure weakness. To know Christ, the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings—this is not a tantalizing will-o’-the-wisp, forever dancing just ahead of us, always out of reach. The Psalmist, the Theologian, and the Apostle were right. We can know Him better every day; we can experience increasingly the power of His resurrection; we can enter into the fellowship of His sufferings. We can arrive yet keep on arriving. Amidst the heartaches of life, there is joy.
Brokenhearted joy—O glorious joy!
May 8, 2003
David Alan Black is the editor of www.daveblackonline.com.