"For He hath not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; neither hath He hid His face from him; but when he cried unto Him, He heard." (Psalm 22:24)
Nothing can more forcibly strike an enlightened, observant mind than the fact that real godliness brings a person to an acquaintance with God, to deal with Him, to seek Him, to receive something from Him, to be under His protection, blessing, and favor, and to return Him gratitude for the same. And it is as plain that a false religion does not do so. Its effect we see in one who came to God, saying, "God, I thank Thee that I am not as other men are." (Luke 18:11) It leads a man to recommend himself to God on account of what he is, and to crave favor in return for the good he has done. He worships God for what He can get, and tries to please Him to gain His favor; and if the favors are not returned, the doer considers he has a right to complain. It is the reverse of this with a child of God. He goes to seek favor, and owns his unworthiness to receive it. He craves it on account of God's goodness and grace, because God has promised it. His promise opens the way for a sinner to come before Him. If there were no way for a felt sinner to approach Him, none would come; for there is no possible access to Him on the ground of works.
The Holy Spirit convinces all the family of God of their sins, and also shows them the Lord has made a way for a sinner to come to Him. He shows them God forgives sin; His Christ is a Surety for sinners, and assumes the Name of Jesus, because "He shall save His people from their sins." (Matt. 1:21) In Him there is a fountain opened for sin and uncleanness. (Zech. 13:1) Thus there is harmony in the whole economy of grace. Salvation is provided by the Lord for sinners; and could there be a break in His purpose, could there be no sinner to meet it, there would be no harmony in the work; the whole would be spoiled. He works in the cause of His people, to bring His grace and sinners together.
Sin is always coupled with affliction. "Man is born unto trouble as the sparks fly upward." (Job 5:7) Therefore trouble must come; it is a matter of necessity. Where did you meet with any person that has escaped trouble? Have you and I escaped it? It is greater in one and less in another; but trouble we all must have. The troubles of the world at large we will leave, and notice those of a child of God.
Afflictions of themselves do not produce good. Men are smitten; but they go on frowardly in the way of their hearts. They are troubled; but they blaspheme. There must be something peculiar if affliction is made a blessing to us; if, instead of producing irritability, or making us more evil, it becomes in the hand of God a good thing. "It is good for me that I have been afflicted," said David. If so, God must have had His hand in the affliction; and not have left it to its ordinary working. "Before I was afflicted, I went astray; but now have I kept Thy Word." (Ps. 119:67) The hand of God had done something that brought him to humility of heart before the Lord, and enabled him to thank God for his trials. Sometimes you may feel trouble comes at the wrong time, out of season. It falls upon you when you can least bear it, and everything seems to jar upon your feelings. If you are exhorted to quietude and submission, it only adds to your irritability of temper. What a marvelous thing if you can look back upon the trials of your life, and bless God for them! To feel that out of these trials has been reaped a great amount of instruction to your soul; that thereby you have been brought to see yourself and see the goodness of God; to love Him; to know the deceitfulness of your own heart, and to be afraid of trusting it; to see the certainty of God's Word, and roll yourself upon it!
The words I have read inform us that the Lord has not despised the affliction of the afflicted. They are too plain to be controverted. They are in a Psalm which relates to the Lord Jesus Christ in His sufferings, David having a sight of them by the Holy Spirit. The experience of the Lord Jesus was the same in nature with that of His people. He had to pass under the same wrath that His people feel is due for their sins, and to endure the same conflicts and sorrows as they do. There is no difference in kind; the difference is only in His conduct under them and in their duration and extent. There is the failure of the child of God, and the victory of Jesus Christ. As, then, the experiences of the Lord and His people are identical, it is said of Him and of His people likewise that God "hath not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted, neither hath He hid His face from him." He has never done so when His presence is really required, and His hand and blessing are needed.
The nature and character of real trouble is destruction. It is said to be so in Scripture: "He delivered them from their destructions." (Ps. 107:20) Very often I do not get the help I think is required; because I am in a hurry, and the Lord never is. I cry out in good time, if I see trouble coming, or before it is coming. I present some great affliction before the Lord; but it never comes. But real fire is destruction; so is water; and the Lord says when His people pass through fire and water, they shall not be hurt. If you pass through fire unhurt, God must do something. Nature could not hold itself up; it would be destroyed. There are spiritual destructions which are as dangerous to the soul as fire is to the human system; and they have consumed the religion of many thousands. Also, millions have perished in the waters of adversity, trials, and temptations, and have been heard of no more. They have lost their morality in the waters of affliction, and have never seen their hope again. But the Lord's people are preserved; how they cannot describe, but they lump it all together, and say, "Hitherto hath the Lord helped us." (1 Sam. 7:12) They have not been destroyed in destruction; they have not lost their lives in death; they have not been turned away finally from God, with all they have had to pass through.
The afflictions of God's people vary as much as the troubles of life vary. Some are spiritually strong and robust; others are afflicted all the days of their lives. How cruel it would be to make a person with heart disease run a race with a strong man, or to force a weak child alongside of a strong one! God has never done so. Yet in the ministry of some it appears that all must run alike; all must show a brave front; it is their "duty." It is not so in the gospel. Could it possibly be the duty of a blind man to see, or of a lame man to make his legs straight? Do you think it is? Or is it his infirmity that he cannot do so? Is it possible for a poor panting soul to face the things that a stronger one would? It is true the law does not regard man's inability, and curses every one for not performing all its demands. (Gal. 3:10) So there is no way to heaven by man's duty. "By the deeds of the law shall no flesh be justified in His sight." (Rom. 3:20) But God has provided a salvation suitable for a weak, helpless sinner. All our spiritual strength He gives; every right thought comes from Him. We read in Scripture of the "fearful heart." If we put it into modern language, we should call it a nervous one. There are people who are really nervous. You might as well try to stop the moon in its course as to make them strong in heart. They have no power; they have a fearful heart; they are not self-willed. You may say their imagination is foolish; but they do not think so,--there is the evil. If you could get them to believe they were foolish, it might assist them.
Naturally, it needs much patience to bear afflictions. The lame man would run faster if he could, or do anything to cure his lameness. Nervous persons are a trial to others and a greater trial to themselves. So it is spiritually; and the Lord only can cure afflictions of soul. When He speaks to the fearful heart and says, "Be strong; fear not," it is accompanied with power. He gives these trembling ones ground to rest upon: "Behold, your God will come with vengeance, even God with a recompense; He will come and save you." (Isa. 35:3,4) That is generally the subject of their fears. Do you not sometimes feel great nervousness about dying, and fear it will put an end to all your little hope? You delight to meet the people of God, to read the Word, and to pray; and if death should put a stop to these things, a fearful heart feels what a loss it would be.
Or perhaps you are coming into some affliction in reality, just putting your feet into the waters of trouble, or feeling the singeings of the flames of trial. Your heart cries out, "How shall I behave under it?" It is easy to sit comfortably when all is going well; and it is not possible then to know how it would be under trial. You may say as Peter did, "I will go with Thee to prison and to death;" but how was it with him in trial? There is no appearance of prison and death now; he can be a bold servant, and cleave to his Master. The Lord takes no account of our swelling words; but He will try them, and see how they turn out. We know how Peter behaved under trial; and how do we? Just the reverse from what we thought we should. The very moment trial comes near, a trembling heart seizes us. We cry out, "This is going wrong. That is working against us, and ultimately we shall be brought to ruin. Man is against us, and God is against us." Probably Satan then steps in, saying, "This is what I have told you for a long time. God has no regard for you; and here is the proof of it."
To tell poor sinners in this condition not to be fearful is simply vain. They are afflicted with fearful hearts, and may carry their fearfulness down to the grave. But when they come to their dying moments, the Lord generally removes that affliction; and the most fearful may pass through Jordan's flood the boldest of all.
This fearful heart is closely connected with unbelief. The unbelief of the world arises from infidelity; but a great part of the unbelief of a child of God is something peculiar to himself. It does not arise from infidelity, but from fearfulness. He is afraid the Lord is not his God. How gladly he would say He is if he could believe it; but he is afraid it is not true. All these fearful people have affectionate hearts towards the Lord. They ask Him continually, Say unto my soul, I am thy salvation." (Psalm 35:3) Perhaps the Lord has said so to them before. Why not be satisfied? Why not rest comfortable? There is a nervousness rising in their hearts; with some, it may be, not lest God should finally be against them, but from a felt unworthiness of Him and His mercy, lest He will not condescend to have anything to do with them now. They want Him very often to speak: "Say unto my soul, I am thy salvation." Probably the Lord answers this question a hundred times. By and by the soul has lost sound of His voice, and cries, "Now, Lord, say it again. Do let me see if I am pleasing to Thee." That the Lord is pleasing to these persons is plain; but they have a sense of their own shortcomings, and their prayers and their own worship are so displeasing to themselves that they want to know if He accepts them.
Now here is an afflicted people. They must be met in their circumstances. There is no remedy for them but God himself. No pounding them will help them, but will harm them. They must be met where they are; and God meets them now and then by dropping a word into their souls, and giving them a little comfort. But the nature of a fearful heart is such that comfort is quickly gone again. Some scarcely hold it long enough to say, "The Lord is my God and my salvation;" and a very long time it is if they hold it so long.
Another affliction the Lord's people have is poverty of spirit. All are poor; but some are very poor. When they come to pray, poor creatures, they have not a thought to put into form. Sometimes they hear others go down upon their knees, and words come apace; and they think, "If I have that to do, what will become of me?" They could not do it, for the life of them. I am not struck with those who can; it never draws my heart to them. If I hear one begin to pray, break down, and go on again, I might be pleased with that. "Well," you say, "it is confusion." Not to me. It is a poor man trying to do better than he can; but the other is flourishing; and I am sure no flourishing will ever do before God. His people want a mouth, that is, the Spirit to help their infirmities; and they have it provided for them. "The Spirit also helpeth our infirmities with groanings that cannot be uttered." (Rom. 8:26)
When we come to the thoughts of the Lord's people, how poor they are! They are not sufficient to think, nor to express themselves. When we look at their thankfulness, how poor they are! How rarely they feel it spring up in their hearts! Daily mercies, daily favors they acknowledge; but alas! the gratitude, where is it? Others say, "I am very well, thank God!" but they cannot say so for the world; they cannot feel it. Then there is humility. They have not got it at command. They have a proud heart that often brings them into mischief; and humility, what a way off it is! They read of faith which is rich; but how rarely they feel to possess a little smattering of it; so that they cannot worship as some people do. Others say how well they have heard; how suitable it was. But you hear a sermon that is right and suitable, and no advantage comes to you; no strength enters your heart. You are disheartened, and sometimes say, "I won't go any more." That will not improve your poverty, it is certain.
The Lord will speak to these people. They are called the Lord's poor, and He thinks upon them. I tell you what He will do. He will take the will for the deed. "If there be first a willing mind, it is accepted according to that a man hath." (2 Cor. 8:12) Oftentimes there is the greatest willingness under felt inability of soul. The man would bless God if he could, and therefore feels his infirmity; he is poor. Well, the Lord has promised to supply His people out of the riches of His grace; for He has an "afflicted and poor people."
Some are afflicted by Satan's temptations. This is as sore affliction. Where and by what means the tempter comes upon them they cannot tell; but the whole course of their lives seems open to this temptations. Under these afflictions some of the Lord's people live and walk, with little rest, all their days. They are afflicted also with a very wandering mind. Ask them where their thoughts have been when attempting to pray, they cannot tell; and probably from the time they knelt down until they got up, they have no recollection of them. How ashamed they are, and abhor themselves; but O, how to cure it!
There are others whom the Scripture calls lame. Run in the ways of the Lord with delight you cannot; your lameness prevents you walking in His paths. You hear some rejoicing in God's method of saving sinners, and see them walking in the paths of God's salvation, and finding them ways of pleasantness. But you are lame, and scarcely feel any heart to rejoice at all. There seems nothing definite in your pathway. You do not know where it will lead you nor what path it is; and directly it gets rough, you begin to limp, and limping requires greater exertion. A lame man has to use a great deal of exertion; and has not the extra power that is needed; so he must go slowly, and keep behind.
God's people are an afflicted people; and it is really useless to attempt to force those that are afflicted to do what others could do. There are often most intense desires in them to render obedience to God, under felt inability; and I would not care for a religion that can perform what it desires, and live above. If the sprightly people we meet or read about had a burden on their backs and a couple of lions to dispute their journey in the way; if Satan strode across their path and forbade them to go further, they would be brought to a standstill. But God has said, "The lame man shall leap as an hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing." (Isa. 35:6)
What a mercy for an afflicted person still to advance, with all his difficulties, and now and then to raise an Ebenezer, and say, "Hitherto hath the Lord helped us." "If it had not been the Lord who was on our side when men rose up against us, then they had swallowed us up quick." The others cannot say that. Their faith does not rest upon what God has spoken to them; and though they take His Word, they have not His testimony. It is clear by their own witness that He is not the Author of their faith. The Lord's people are placed in circumstances to require Him to sanction their faith. "Say unto my soul, I am thy salvation." When He does it, they have something to rest upon. If He tells you He will be with you, you have His Word for it. What a firm foundation! Then in coming before the Lord for Him to fulfill His Word, you do not presume; you come upon His own promise and grace.
"He hath not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted." (Ps. 22:24) Their afflictions often make them abhor themselves, and make others do so too; but the Lord will not abhor them. It is very natural for us to be sociable with those who will do us credit; but when we meet one whose position in life will not exalt us in the eyes of the world, do we not despise his affliction? That is human, but not divine. Suppose a poor sinner is in all his rags; will the Lord despise his afflictions? There is a poor, ragged, tattered son who has gone from his father, and comes back to him in filth and rags. Does his father abhor his affliction? It was a good thing he was his father, or he might. This figure sets forth the great love of God towards His children. He will never despise nor abhor His people in their poverty and weakness. If you were not a good enough believer for Him, He would make you a better one. If you were not thankful enough for Him, He would give you more thankfulness. But He takes the will for the deed. You might offer the Lord a great deal, without the will; and it would be nothing. He will accept two mites, when He will not accept a large sum. He will never despise you for want and poverty. This is spoken for our encouragement and our hope: "For He hath not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted ; neither hath He hid His face from him; but when he cried unto Him, He heard."