We live in a world where sorrow repeatedly enters. Indeed, at any given moment, multitudes all over the world are experiencing sadness for all sorts of reasons. Death follows illness, accidents and disasters into families and leaves sorrow behind. And death, however unexpected – however unwelcome – is irreversible; no one returns from the eternal world. If we were to focus seriously on death, as it carries away our friends and loved ones from beside us, we might be overwhelmed with grief.
The world has its own ways of coping with bereavement, and present-day funerals seem to be a massive exercise in denial when, instead of mourning the loss of a loved one, the occasion is treated as a celebration of his or her life and a church is turned into a pop-music venue rather than a setting for the worship of God. How appropriate rather on such an occasion to acknowledge the Lord’s providence in the event, however sad it in fact is!
Few have experienced such a devastating set of circumstances as Job, when, in a very short space of time, he lost all his wealth and, even more distressingly, all his children. Yet his response was: 'The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord' (Job 1:21). This was not the stoical response of a man without feelings; it was the response of a man who had a deep sense of God’s kindness to him in the past. Moreover he had a profound sense of the continuing goodness of God, and could therefore trust Him to support him throughout the rest of his days in this world.
In much of the Western world, people generally refuse to believe in what they cannot discern with their bodily senses; they refuse to accept the existence of an eternity beyond this life. They find it convenient to deny that there is a hell; they do not take the trouble to consider heaven seriously as a place of perfect holiness; and they will not face up to the reality of God’s existence, for they do not wish to submit to His authority over them. This means that, when confronted by the death of loved ones, they have no prospect of the comfort which comes to the bereaved when they cast themselves on Jesus Christ, the 'Friend that sticketh closer than a brother'. And they have no sense that God is in control of everything – sad events as well as joyous, dispiriting as well as encouraging. Without a sense of God’s control of providence, they cannot realise that life – with all its ups and downs – is meaningful, and that it is meaningful because nothing occurs but what a holy God has ordered in infinite wisdom.
But why do we have to face sadness and loss in a world which was pronounced 'very good' immediately after its creation? The answer is that this is a fallen world, a world into which sin has entered. The Fall is a great mystery, but it is an undoubted fact. And the result of sin for Adam was, as the Lord told him: 'Cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life'. Adam’s descendants too are born into this fallen world under the same curse. And just as Adam was further told: 'Thorns also and thistles shall [the ground] bring forth to thee', so various troubles, difficulties and sorrows are, to a greater or lesser extent, bound up with the circumstances of every individual in this sinful world.
In any given instance, sorrow – and the trouble which causes it – may be understood in a number of ways. We will consider three of these.
First, sorrow may come in the way of punishment for sin. Take King Jeroboam as an example. He committed a very serious sin when he forsook the authorised worship of God at the temple in Jerusalem and set up instead the idolatrous worship of golden calves at Dan and at Bethel. It was particularly serious because he was leading astray the people over whom he ruled. But how bitter the sorrow which entered his house when his son Abijah fell sick and then died! Yet, when the prophet Ahijah foretold the boy’s death, this tragedy was only a small part of a devastating message he gave, predicting the destruction that was to befall Jeroboam’s entire household – because of his great sin. Every such instance of sorrow is a warning to sinners alienated from God by wicked works that they are on the way to eternal, unmitigated sorrow. And it is a call to repentance. Thus Ezekiel, as God’s messenger, told the Jews who were in captivity in Babylon because of their sin: 'Repent, and turn yourselves from all your transgressions; so iniquity shall not be your ruin. Cast away from you all your transgressions, whereby ye have transgressed; and make you a new heart and a new spirit: for why will ye die?' (Ezek. 18:30,31).
Sorrow may also come through chastisement. The one that suffers is a child of God who has done wrong. He must therefore undergo what is analogous to the pain a human father would inflict lovingly on a child to influence his conduct for the better, while showing fatherly displeasure. So when David, godly man though he was, wandered far into sin, he had to learn anew that disobedience 'is an evil thing and bitter'. Chastisement included not only the death of the child conceived in his illicit union with Bathsheba but also spiritual affliction. He had to say, 'Day and night Thy hand was heavy upon me: my moisture is turned into the drought of summer' (Psa. 32:4). The outcome was: 'I acknowledged my sin unto Thee, and mine iniquity have I not hid. I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord; and Thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin.' The chastisement had the desired effect; God followed it by a gracious work of repentance in the heart of His child. David experienced 'godly sorrow [which] worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of' (2 Cor. 7:10).
The third way we will consider is when sorrow comes because of God’s purpose to test His saints. The outstanding example here is Job. His three friends completely misunderstood the reason for that whole sequence of desperate sorrows which he had to experience, and their foolish statements only added to his sorrow. But God was to demonstrate clearly that, in spite of all Satan’s malicious attacks on Job, He was altogether able to sustain faith in His servant’s soul. And Job was even able to look forward to an eventual full deliverance; he could say, 'But He knoweth the way that I take: when He hath tried me, I shall come forth as gold' (Job 23:10).
These instances, and many more, are left on record in Scripture for our instruction, support and direction. Whatever our circumstances, whatever our state of soul, sorrow should send us to the throne of grace. To go there, in the name of Christ, the great High Priest, is to acknowledge that God rules over all that takes place and that He is able to deliver us from all our sorrows. Yet we should realise that our sorrows may be intended to bring spiritual blessings in their train, and so we should be more concerned to obtain such spiritual benefit than to have the cause of sorrow removed.
Few people today, however, are willing to bring the light of Scripture to bear on the difficulties of life and the sorrows that accompany them. Few are willing to face the fact that, because we are sinners, we do not deserve happiness; we do not deserve an easy life. The focus, almost universally, is on the things which are seen and temporal. The constant question is, How can I find enjoyment? not, How can I obtain good for my soul? But one important purpose of sorrow is to turn our attention away from the things seen and temporal towards the things which are unseen and eternal – to turn our focus away from the good things and the hard things of this life to the ultimate realities of suffering and blessedness in eternity. We are to learn that sin will be punished in a lost eternity. We are to lay hold on eternal life through a crucified Saviour. The children of God, even in the midst of their sufferings, must never lose sight of the endless, gracious reward in heaven which is promised to all who look to Christ for salvation. They have the assurance that 'all things work together for good' to them (Rom. 8:28).
Rev Kenneth D Macleod is minister of the Free Presbyterian Church of Leverburgh, Isle of Harris, and Editor of The Free Presbyterian Magazine, from the October 2007 issue of which this article is taken, with permission.