This article is about the cries and outbursts of believers in Scripture and the way God uses suffering and affliction to bless the believers.

Source: The Banner of Truth, 1989. 4 pages.

The Rare Outbursts of Good Men

There is a diluted form of Christianity which equates godliness with politeness. Christians of this school consider it to be their place and their duty to say nice things about God and nice things to him. Prayer, in their view of it, is an exercise in religious courtesies by which we are to express ourselves only in clinical phraseology and with passionless elegance. This is an appealing form of religion. It resembles the classical correctness of a marble figure or one of Botticelli's painted cherubs. But it falls far short of the religion we find in the Bible.

There are a number of things wrong with this genteel form of Christian faith. For one thing, it is cruel. If all lived and moved in aristocratic circles, it might suit this world very well. But of what use is such religion to that part of mankind which is suffering the agony and pain of hunger, war, misery, fever and grinding poverty?

For another thing, genteel Christianity is unreal. It suggests that its disciples have no experience of the temptations of Satan and are too superficial to enter feelingly into the general sadness of fallen mankind. A third criticism is that the religion of politeness is unacquainted with the spiritual wrestlings of heroic men in the Bible. 'Deep calleth unto deep' (Psalm 42:7) in many of the devotional exercises of great saints. Their utterances in prayer are not always consistent with the chaste inscriptions we read on the pedestals of alabaster statues.

It is a disconcerting and astonishing fact that Bible saints sometimes had their outbursts of spiritual passion and perplexity. These are recorded in the Bible for our comfort and instruction. God has preserved such utterances for us to read in his Word and this is the evidence of the fact that real religion goes beyond the merely polite and the merely courteous. The heroes of the Bible are not presented to us like superhuman and unfeeling demigods. They live and breathe. They weep and sigh. They struggle and suffer. They cry out to God and are afraid.

There is no great Christianity where there is no great feeling. The doctrine we profess needs to be worked into our soul till it brings forth appropriate affections and emotions. Man is more than mind. Our creed is not part of us, nor has it shaped our spiritual character, until it finds an echo in every faculty of our being. It needs to rouse our conviction as from great depths and to make the entire nervous system of the soul vibrate in sympathy with 'every word which proceedeth out of the mouth of God' (Matthew 4:4).

It is, therefore, God's way commonly to deepen his people by placing them under periodic providential strains and pressures. These pressures are not accidental, but are ordained for our profit. They should not be looked on as unrelated incidents in our life, because they are a real part of God's dealings with us. They are integral to the believer's life. They are not extraneous. When God would bless us with greater depth of grace, he generally places us under the discipline of one of these times of stress. It is then that we meet with the Hill Difficulty, to which Bunyan refers.

All the outbursts uttered by Bible characters spring from their inner suffering during one or other of these periods of pressure sent on them by God. These cries are comparable to molten lava, poured out from the heart, because men feel themselves to be in a ferment and cannot remain silent any longer. Life becomes as bitter as death to them when God's providence hems them in and ensnares them. At such a time a believer may feel like a wild animal caught in a net. We dare not say that these outbursts are always excusable or justifiable. But they are always understandable, and they call forth our sympathy because we too, in our day, are familiar with the same strong emotions which they felt in their lifetime. Moreover, it is not clear to us that such outbursts were sinful in every way or in every case.

The Heart has its Reasons🔗

Good men do not curse God. But they may curse their day. That is to say, they may loathe life and wish they had never been born. Job and Jeremiah both came into this state of mind (Job 3:1; Jeremiah 20:14-18). It was not suffering alone which brought them to that mood of mental agony. It was because they experienced suffering of a kind which they felt to be irrational and inexplicable.

Job was the best believer alive in his day. We have the repeated testimony of God himself to that effect (Job 1:8; 2:3). Job's conscience and reason told him that he was a most careful and diligent believer. He had had long experience of the fact that the Almighty favoured him. The candle of God shined upon his head, he tells his friends (Job 29:3). But when the repeated blows of providence fell upon him, he came to that extreme of suffering in which he supposed that God had turned to become his enemy (Job 16:8-18). The whole Book of Job is an extensive record of the patriarch's pathetic agony of mind in which he gives vent to groaning cries, sighs and lamentations. These are not drawn from him by pain and fear alone, but from his puzzlement. The outbursts are the result of his inability to read God's character from His strange dealings with him at that time.

The outbursts of Jeremiah differ from those of Job in that they are the distinct effects of ministerial suffering. They show that, in the course of ministering God's Word, a man may come to the point at which he feels discouraged to death. He may feel that God 'deceived' him into becoming a preacher (Jeremiah. 20:7). He may almost resolve never to preach again and only succeed in beating off this mood of depression by the realisation that God's Word is an unquenchable fire burning in his bones, which he can no more silence than he can voluntarily stop breathing (Jeremiah 20:9). A true preacher is driven on by this inward fire. Jeremiah felt it to be so in his day. True ministers, however far down their moods take them, feel the same constraint in every age:

Woe is unto me if I preach not the gospel.                                                                   1 Corinthians 9:16

It was a distinctly ministerial pressure which led to one of the notable outbursts in the life of Moses. The occurrence is awesome because he was so great a saint. He expostulates with God for having laid the burden of all Israel upon him.

Wherefore hast thou afflicted thy servant? And wherefore have I not found favour in thy sight, that thou layest the burden of all this people upon me? ... I am not able to bear all this people alone, because it is too heavy for me. And if thou deal thus with me, kill me, I pray thee, out of hand, if I have found favour in thy sight; and let me not see my wretchedness.Numbers 11:11-15

It is one of the passages which Christians in evangelical congregations ought to read over to themselves regularly. As it is, too many faithful pastors are being subjected to excessive and unreasonable pressures from their congregations. The human spirit is finite. Pastors ought not to be asked by churches to take on unlimited burdens simply because unthinking Christians expect them to do so. There is a modern disease called 'ministerial burn-out'. Those preachers who have to resign through over-work are probably a long time crying out for help and no brotherly ear hears them.

There are a number of outbursts from God's servants recorded in the Scriptures, notably in the Book of Psalms. But there is one especially well-known case, that of Elijah, whose experience of mental agony is recorded for us in considerable detail. It deserves particular notice. Again, it is the experience of a man of very extraordinary nearness to God. It is a sacred privilege for us to see so eminent a prophet in a mood of depression and defeat. Yet this is what we are shown in the passage where Elijah flees from Jezebel and sits down under a juniper tree: 'It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life; for I am not better than my fathers' (1Kings 19:4). Elijah's sorrow is many-sided. It includes sorrow for the state of the cause of God, for the perversity of Israel and for his own infirmity in fleeing from the place of duty.

God Afflicts Us to Bless Us🔗

Good men in this life come sometimes to the point of spiritual exhaustion. They are brought to their wits' end. They labour and feel they have spent their 'strength for naught and in vain' (Isaiah 49:4). Their motive of love for souls seems sometimes to launch them on a sea of troubles. They may come to the place where they long for death. All good seems to be unattainable. All hope is darkened. Every spiritual gift feels paralysed. God seems to have shut them up in a coffin of despair. They cry out to the God whom they love:

While I suffer thy terrors I am distracted. Thy fierce wrath goeth over me; thy terrors have cut me off.Psalm 88:15-16

It must be a question that cries out for an answer in the hearts of God's people at such times: Why has the Lord dealt with me like this? God has wise reasons for his mysterious personal dealings. We may not know all of his ways in this life. But there are some answers which it may be proper for us to give. Among them we offer the following:

  1. Those who were never in a state of spiritual agony never loved God with all their hearts. Those who are close to God agonise over the state of the churches and they struggle to understand his mind and purpose for their lives and for their generation. Therefore, when the Lord blesses men with a spiritual mind, they care more for his glory on earth than for their very life. There is no way in which we can be spiritual and yet be emotionally detached from the cause of Christ in our generation. It must cheer us to know that when we grieve for God's cause we grieve through the sympathetic influence of love to the God whose cause it is.

Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.Matthew 5:4

  1. God will have the disciples of Christ to be as their Master. Though our sufferings are never expiatory as Christ's were, yet they make us compassionate and tender of heart, as he is. Hence, mysterious pressures and problems in life may lead to outbursts of anguished prayer to God, but they also induce deeper spiritual character and they promote a more elevated devotion in us. They belong to the process of our being conformed to Christ, of whom it is written:

He learned obedience by the things which he suffered.Hebrews 5:8

  1. Our weakness under providential pressures teaches us to be thankful that we are not exposed to more frequent or more fearful temptations. If we cry out at the few, occasional strains which God permits to come upon us, how should we be if faced with those imprisonments and martyrdoms which so many of our forefathers in the faith suffered, and some living Christians still do suffer?

If thou hast run with the footmen, and they have wearied thee, then how canst thou contend with horses?Jeremiah 12:5

Our feeble powers are soon daunted by difficulties. It ought to make us blush to think what burdens a Luther was called on to carry, or a Calvin, or many another great worthy — and carried them better than we do ours.

  1. Our weakness under God's discipline should, above all, lead us to a more intense appreciation of the sufferings of Christ for us. What exposure to misrepresentation he suffered! What taunts! What vilification! What pressures from corrupt churchmen! What emotional suffering from the unfaithfulness of false friends! Above all, what unfathomable agony in the garden and on the cross as he became sin for us! It is one thing to pay lip-service to Christ's sorrows.

    But have we felt a fitting love to him for all his 'obedience unto death'? (Philippians 2:8). Christ too was brought to the place where the human spirit cries out in agony to God. His sinless cry of desolation must ever remind us that our outbursts to God, though tinged with weakness and sin, are not despised in heaven. God knows the language of human hearts. He is able to give us our heart's desire in the end:

Hope deferred maketh the heart sick; but when the desire cometh, it is a tree of lifeProverbs 13:12

John Calvin used to say that it is enough to know we suffer only what the Lord has ordained. Then let us be assured that our sufferings are not valueless, but will glorify God, if we bear them courageously. Good men have their occasional outbursts, but they do not give up till the task is done.

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