Suffering and the Shepherd’s Crook
Consider the work of God: who can make straight what he has made crooked?
As we contemplate the way that God works in the world, He teaches us the right way to live. We learn to praise God for prosperity and trust God through adversity. We learn to live a God-fearing life that is free from wickedness and self-righteousness. Those are lessons it takes a lifetime to learn. But now we return to perhaps the hardest lesson of all: Learning to look beyond our present difficulties and see the work of God, accepting all of the crooked things in life until He chooses to make them straight.
We've already discussed Thomas Boston and his sermon on Ecclesiastes 7:13. Boston ended that sermon by listing some of the many reasons why God makes some things crooked.These were biblical lessons that he had confirmed through his own experience of grief and pain—lessons about the sovereign purposes of God that can help us in our own suffering. Why does God make some things crooked, even when we pray for Him to make them straight?
First, said Boston, the crooked things in life are a test to help us determine whether we really are trusting in Christ for our salvation. Think of Job, for example, who was afflicted with many painful trials in order to prove the genuineness of his faith. Our own sufferings have the same purpose: by the grace of God, they confirm that we are holding onto Christ. Or perhaps they reveal exactly the opposite, that we have never fully trusted in Christ at all, but still need to trust him for our salvation.
Second, whatever crooks there are in our earthly lot turn our hearts away from this vain world and teach us to look for happiness in the life to come. Suffering is part of our preparation for eternity. Consider the Prodigal Son, who did not head back home to his father until he lost everything he had. When something in your life seems crooked, remember that day is coming when God will make it straight.
Third, the crooked things in life convict us of our sins. The reason that anything is crooked at all is because there is sin in the world, including our own sin. The Holy Spirit often uses the crooks in our lot to touch our conscience, reminding us of some particular sin that we need to confess. Remember Joseph's brothers. When things went badly for them in Egypt, they thought at once of their guilt before God for selling their brother into slavery, many years before (see Gen. 42:21). It would be a mistake to think every time we suffer that it must be because of our sins. But it would also be a mistake to miss the opportunity that every suffering brings to repent for any unconfessed sin.
Fourth, the crooked things in life may correct us for our sins. There are times when suffering serves as an instrument of God's justice, as a punishment for our sin. So it was for David, after he had murdered Uriah: the sword never departed from his house (see 2 Sam. 12:10). When we suffer, it may be that as a consequence for our sin we are under the judgment or the discipline of God.
These are not the only reasons why God makes some things crooked. Thomas Boston listed several others. Sometimes God allows us to suffer in order to keep us from committing a sin, or else to uncover a sinful attitude of the heart so deep that it could only be revealed by suffering a painful trial. Or maybe—and this is the happiest reason of all—God puts a crook into our lot in order to display his grace in our godliness. We are prone to what Boston called "fits of spiritual laziness," in which our graces lie dormant. But when we have a crook in our lot, it rouses from our spiritual slumber and produces "many acts of faith, hope, love, self-denial, resignation, and other graces."
The point of listing these possible reasons for our suffering is not to suggest that we can always figure out why God has put some particular crook in our lot. The point rather is that God knows why He has put it there. When something in life seems crooked, we are usually very quick to tell Him how to straighten it out. Instead, we should let God straighten us out! In His sovereignty over our suffering, God is hard at work to accomplish our real spiritual good, not just in one way, but in many ways. Therefore, we are called to trust in him, even for the things that seem crooked.
Whenever we are having trouble doing that, the first thing we should do is consider the work of our Savior. Remember that our Good Shepherd once had a crook in His lot—a crook that came in the shape of a cross. In His prayer at the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus asked His Father if there was any way to make Calvary straight instead of crooked. But there was no other way. As Jesus considered the work of God, He could see that the only way to make atonement for His people's sin was to die in our place. So Jesus suffered the crooked cross that it was His God-given lot to bear. And He trusted His Father, waiting for Him to straighten things out when the time was right by raising Him up on the third day.
If God could straighten out something as crooked as the cross, then surely He can be trusted to do something with the crook in your lot! This was the testimony that James Montgomery Boice gave the last time he spoke to his congregation at Philadelphia's Tenth Presbyterian Church. Dr. Boice had been diagnosed with a fatal and aggressive cancer; he only had weeks to live. This was the crook in his lot. So Dr. Boice raised a question that was based on the sovereignty and the goodness of God. "If God does something in your life," he asked, "would you change it?" To say this the way that Qoheleth would have said it, "If God gave you something crooked, would you make it straight?"
Well, would you? Would you change your disability or disease? Would you change your job or your finances? Would you change your appearance, or your abilities, or your situation in life? Or would you trust God for all the crooked things in life and wait for Him to make them straight, just like Jesus did when He died for you on the cross?
Dr. Boice answered his own rhetorical question by testifying to the goodness of God's sovereign will. He said that if we tried to change what God has done, then it wouldn't be as good; we would only make it worse.The Preacher who wrote Ecclesiastes said something similar. "Consider the work of God," he said. "Do not try to straighten out what God has made crooked." Our Savior said the same: “Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Lk. 22:42).
Boston, The Crook in the Lot, 3:511-16.
Boston, The Crook in the Lot, 3:515-16.
James Montgomery Boice, "Final Address at Tenth Presbyterian Church," in The Life of Dr. James Montgomery Boice, 1938-2000, edited by Philip G. Ryken (Philadelphia, PA: Tenth Presbyterian Church, 2001), 44-45.
Philip Ryken (PhD, Oxford) is the Bible teacher on Every Last Word, a weekly radio broadcast from the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. Dr. Ryken also serves as president of Wheaton College. He and his wife Lisa have five children: Josh, Kirsten, Jack, Kathryn, and Karoline. He is the author and editor of numerous books, including Art for God's Sake and Grace Transforming. When he is not preaching or playing with his children, Dr. Ryken likes to play basketball and ponder the relationship between Christianity and American culture.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published on reformation21 in July 2009. To read more from Philip Ryken's "The Crook In the Lot" series, see the list of articles below: