Lessons From Deuteronomy: Suffering and Saintliness

The book of Deuteronomy has been called the “Romans of the Old Testament”. Just as Romans in the New Testament is in many ways a high point, rich in theology and spiritual truths, so too is Deuteronomy. It is an amazing book, and if you have not yet read it, you are missing out big time.

The trouble is, there are so many spiritual gems to be found here, so many important theological truths, that I could be writing a dozen articles with this title. Oh well, so be it. Thus this may well be the first of many such articles. But let me begin here. Consider Deut. 6:10-12:

“When the LORD your God brings you into the land he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give you—a land with large, flourishing cities you did not build, houses filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant—then when you eat and are satisfied, be careful that you do not forget the LORD, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.”

This warning is found throughout Scripture. It is rather ironical, but when a person or a people come into a right relationship with God, they often will prosper and succeed, even in material terms. They become responsible, they work hard, God blesses their efforts, and they begin to do pretty well, materially speaking.

But there is always a danger in this. As they get wealthier or more successful or more filled with worldly goods, there is a very real danger that they will forget about God. The goodies in life drown out their devotion to God, and the very reason for their success is overlooked or trodden upon.

Yahweh here through Moses makes this warning quite clear: God will bless the Israelites, but they must not let such blessings become a snare to them. If they focus on the benefits of God instead of on God himself, they will get into trouble. And sadly this of course happened often in Israel’s history.

Chesterton once said that “the gift without the giver is bare”. Here the people are warned that it is possible they can so enjoy the gift that they forget about the gift-giver. This passage is in fact the first of three warnings given. There are three ways the Israelites might lose their love of Yahweh.

As Chris Wright comments, “Nothing, said the Apostle Paul, can separate us from the love of God (Rom. 8:35-39). Unfortunately there is plenty that can separate God from the love of God’s people.” Daniel Block in his new commentary of Deuteronomy puts it this way:

“With the wealth and excess we in the Western world enjoy, it is easy to forget that everything we have is a gracious gift of God. Sadly, too many of us fail the test of fidelity and faith that prosperity represents. We become like the rich farmer of Jesus’ parable (Luke 12:14-21) – smug and self-sufficient in our excess but paupers toward God.

“But the principle extends beyond personal, material, or physical well-being to the health of the church as well. Difficult days for a congregation test the faith of God’s people, but so do times of growth and apparent effectiveness. When our buildings are large and our congregations huge, then more than ever we must guard ourselves so that our commitment extends beyond glib confessions of love for God, or regurgitation of creedal affirmations, or emotional passion in cultic worship, to the daily obedience of faith. Jesus said, ‘If you love me, you will obey my commands’ (John 14:15).”

Exactly right. So great is this temptation for riches, wealth, success and abundance to draw us away from God, that God in his mercy and grace will often allow us to lose our goodies, or indeed experience pain and suffering, to get us back on track.

We must thank him for this. We are far too prone to wander, to forget God, to get enamoured with things. C. S. Lewis spoke much of this truth. In the film Shadowlands we find Lewis speaking in a university lecture: “I’m not sure that God wants us to be happy. I think He wants us to be able to love and be loved. He wants us to grow-up. We think our childish toys bring us all the happiness there is and that our nursery is the whole wide world. But something must drive us out of the nursery to the world of others. And that something is suffering.”

This of course derives mainly from his very important 1940 volume, The Problem of Pain. Let me here quote just one passage from this classic volume:

“My own experience is something like this. I am progressing along the path of life in my ordinary contentedly fallen and godless condition, absorbed in a merry meeting with my friends for the morrow or a bit of work that tickles my vanity today, a holiday or a new book, when suddenly a stab of abdominal pain that threatens serious disease, or a headline in the newspapers that threatens us all with destruction, sends this whole pack of cards tumbling down. At first I am overwhelmed, and all my little happinesses look like broken toys.

“Then, slowly and reluctantly, bit by bit, I try to bring myself into the frame of mind that I should be in at all times. I remind myself that all these toys were never intended to possess my heart, that my true good is in another world and my only real treasure is Christ. And perhaps, by God’s grace, I succeed, and for a day or two become a creature consciously dependent on God and drawing its strength from the right sources. But the moment the threat is withdrawn, my whole nature leaps back to the toys: I am even anxious, God forgive me, to banish from my mind the only thing that supported me under the threat because it is now associated with the misery of those few days.

“Thus the terrible necessity of tribulation is only too clear. God has had me for but forty-eight hours and then only by dint of taking everything else away from me. Let Him but sheathe that sword for a moment and I behave like a puppy when the hated bath is over – I shake myself as dry as I can and race off to reacquire my comfortable dirtiness, if not in the nearest manure heap, at least in the nearest flower bed. And that is why tribulations cannot cease until God either sees us remade or sees that our remaking is now hopeless.”

We can and should thank God for the good times, for the successes and the triumphs. But until we can also as fully thank him for the hard times, the trials, and the suffering he allows to come our way, we will never know God as fully as we ought. Innumerable saints can testify to these truths. Let me close with just three of them:

“Affliction is the best book in my library.” Martin Luther

“If you knew the value of trials, you would praise God for them more than for anything.” Smith Wigglesworth

“I can say with complete truthfulness that everything I have ever learned in my seventy-five years in this world, everything that has truly enhanced and enlightened my existence, has been through affliction and not through happiness, whether pursued or attained. In another world, if it ever were possible to eliminate affliction from our earthly existence by means of some drug or other medical mumbo jumbo, as Aldous Huxley envisaged in Brave New World, the result would not be to make life delectable, but to make it too banal and trivial to be endurable. This, of course, is what the cross signifies. And it is the Cross, more than anything else, that has called me inexorably to Christ.” Malcolm Muggeridge

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