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Sermons from the Psalms, 17 - Capitalizing on Our Calamities

By Clovis G. Chappell


      "It is good for me to have been in trouble." (Psalm 119:71, Moffatt)

      Clovis G. Chappell: HERE is a man looking back upon his yesterdays. He is taking a glance at the way along which he has come. That way has not been altogether through green pastures and beside still waters. Sometimes it has dipped down into dreary canyons or climbed up over toilsome mountains. His has not been a sheltered life. More than one tempest has broken upon him. Often have rude winds pounded him with their cruel fists. Here and there treasures to which he clung with passionate devotion have been ruthlessly snatched from his hands. More than once has his face been wet by a gush of hot and blinding tears.

      But as he looks back upon those days of stress and strain he is conscious of the fact that they have not resulted half so disastrously as he thought they would when he was passing through them. In fact, he sees now, with joyous amazement, that they have brought him no abiding harm at all. On the contrary, they have brought abiding good. The very trouble that he thought was going to work his utter undoing has been the making of him. His losses have become gains, and his calamities have been changed into capital. "It is good for me to have been in trouble," he cries in humble gladness. And looking back to those ugly yesterdays through eyes washed bright by tears, they somehow lose their ugliness. "As the mountains hard-by look jagged and scarred, but in the distance repose in their soft, mellow robes of purple and haze, so the rough present fades into the past, tender, sweet, and beautiful."

      I

      Now we are separated from this ancient psalmist by seas and centuries and continents. We are separated from him by widely differing customs and widely differing modes of living. Yet we are like him in this, that we have our troubles. We, too, have been through some trying conflicts out of which some of us have come sorely wounded. There have been times when rude winds have blown upon us that have dashed our houses of happiness to pieces. At times our eyes, even as his, have been blinded by tears. Few of us get very far into life without realizing that there is something more than blind pessimism in those words of Job, "Man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward." (Job 5:7) Therefore we are interested in the struggles and trials of this psalmist because he is so like ourselves.

      Just the nature of this man's trouble we are not told. His may have been some obvious and visible calamity that every one could see. For weary years his own life may have been one long battle with pain. Or, as in the case of Ezekiel, God may have taken away the light of his eyes at a stroke. Or he may have suffered from some sorrow of which the world did not know. He may have bled from a hidden wound. He may have worn sackcloth within upon his flesh while he showed to the world only the royal purple of a cheerful countenance. He may have wept in secret over some sordid tragedy of his own or of one dear to him, that was all the harder to bear because he dared not share it with even his dearest friend.

      But though we do not know the nature of his trouble, we are sure of this, that his life had not been without its tragic experiences. Neither have yours and mine. Life has not been all shadow with any of us, thank God! But neither has it been all sunshine. We have seen our skies suddenly grow dark. We have felt the bleak chill of dear dreams that never came true. And, even to those to whom this experience has not yet come, the chances are overwhelmingly great that one day it will be. I know that to some these words sound very like the croakings of a pessimist. But it is not unkind to say that one day, soon or late, even to you will come the testing of trouble. We may sail for many days upon smooth seas. Then suddenly the tempest is upon us. We realize that even to us the seemingly impossible has happened. With some, life deals far more roughly than with others. But to all, soon or late, there come gray days of bewilderment and trouble.

      II

      Now, since trouble is so nearly a universal human experience, what are we going to do about it? There are three attitudes that we may assume in the face of life's perplexing calamities.

      1. There is the attitude of surrender. There are those who give over the fight at the very first painful wound that they receive in the battle. There are those who walk along cheerfully till by and by some cruel fate trips them and they fall flat. Having fallen, instead of rising to their feet to renew the struggle, they lie and whine and bewail their hard lot. They spend the remainder of their days in a kind of spiritual invalidism. They declare that life has never dealt so harshly with any others as with themselves. They focus all their attention upon their own wretchedness. Thus surrendering, they add both to their own troubles and to those of their fellows.

      When I first went away to school I boarded in a home where there were three lovely children, two boys and a girl. But the destroying hand of disease was laid upon the girl and she faded like a flower. Of course, her mother's heart was broken. We were not surprised at that. That was only to be expected. But what was surprising was that this mother seemed to forget her two children that were still left to her. She seemed to forget her husband, who was almost as heartbroken as herself. She had formerly been active in, her church, but she forgot all religious and social duties. She denied herself both to her loved ones and to her friends. She shut herself in with her sorrow and let it eat her heart out. Instead of going bravely forward in the fear of God and doing her duty, she gave over the fight and surrendered unconditionally to this first great sorrow of her life.

      The same tragic blunder was made by Miss Havisham in Great Expectations (Charles Dickens). She was to be married, you remember. The guests were gathered. The wedding feast was being prepared. The wedding cake was on the table. The bride was decked in her bridal costume. But the bridegroom never came. Therefore her watch and every clock in the house was stopped at twenty minutes to nine, the hour of her humiliation, the hour of her first and one great sorrow. All sunlight was shut out of her home. She lived in the dark except for the light of candles. Her wedding cake stood on the table till the cobwebs wrapped it round and it became the homing place of spiders and mice. Her once white wedding gown hung in yellow decay about her shrunken figure. For her all life had stopped at the hour of her tragic disappointment, twenty minutes to nine. She, too, met her sorrow with unconditional surrender.

      What a terrible tragedy is the life of Judas Iscariot! But what is the climax of that tragedy? It is not altogether in the fact that he betrayed his Lord. It is not the pangs of hell that got hold upon him in the damning realization of the terrible crime of which he had been guilty. The supreme tragedy of his life was rather this: That after his deed of treachery he did not dare to make a new start. His betrayal was ugly enough, God knows. But to have been too cowardly to pick up the shattered ruins of his broken life and start again, that was the thing that wrecked him. More deadly even than his kiss of treachery was his failure to come back to the Master whom he had so deeply wronged and ask for a chance to make another start. Instead of doing this he surrendered, took the coward's way that is all too common to-day, and flung out of life by suicide.

      "Did you tackle the trouble that came your way With a resolute heart and cheerful?
      Or hide your face from the light of day With a craven soul and fearful?
      Oh, a trouble's a ton, or a trouble's an ounce, Or a trouble is what you make it,
      And it isn't the fact that you're hurt that counts, But only-how did you take it?

      You are beaten to earth? Well, well, what's that? Come up with a smiling face.
      It's nothing against you to fall down flat, But to lie there - that's disgrace.
      The harder you're thrown, why, the higher you bounce; Be proud of your blackened eye!
      It isn't the fact that you're licked that counts; It's how did you fight - and why?

      And though you be done to the death, what then? If you battled the best you could,
      If you played your part in the world of men, Why, the Critic will call it good.
      Death comes with a crawl, or comes with a pounce, And whether he's slow or spry,
      It isn't the fact that you're dead that counts, But only - how did you die?"

      2. Then we may allow our troubles to make us hard and cynical. This is only another way of surrender. This is the surrender of the strong, while the other is the surrender of the weak. There are those who gather strength by the buffetings through which they pass. But through their grim fightings they overdevelop their pugnacity. They come to view all weakness with scorn and contempt rather than with sympathy. They say to their weaker brother, "Why do you not fight as I did?" Such become rocklike in their nature. But they are like the rock upon which the ship crashes to go down to its death rather than like the shadow of a great rock in a weary land where tired travelers may find refreshment and rest. There are few sadder losses than a lost sorrow. Such is the sorrow that embitters rather than sweetens and makes tender and sympathetic.

      In Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Scarlet Letter" there are three outstanding characters. There is the prodigal wife, Hester Prynne. There is the unfaithful minister, Arthur Dimmesdale, the partner in her sin. There is the wronged husband, Roger Chillingworth. All these sin and all suffer. The sin of the woman is proclaimed to the world by the baby she holds in her arms as she stands on the pedestal of shame. It is further blazoned by the scarlet letter that she is compelled to wear upon her bosom. She suffers, but her suffering is small in comparison with that of the young minister whose sin is unsuspected, save by Roger Chillingworth. But the supreme sufferer, I am sure, is the wronged husband. In seeking revenge he hangs like a terrible bloodhound upon the track of the man who has wrecked his home. He watches him with fiendish glee as he writhes in his agony. At last one night he tortures him to the pedestal of shame and compels him to stand where Hester had stood seven years before. It is terrible to be the victim of a hate like that, but it is far more terrible to be the possessor of such a hate. Roger Chillingworth suffered a great wrong in the loss of his wife, but by far his greatest loss was in that he allowed this wrong to kill his better self and make him unspeakably hard and bitter and cruel.

      3. Then there is the group to which this psalmist belongs. These refuse to surrender to their sorrows either by turning cowards or becoming calloused and hard. Instead, they make capital out of their calamities and change their losses into gain. It is of these we can sing

      "Ye spread and span like the catholic man who hath mightily won
      God out of knowledge and good out of infinite pain
      And sight out of blindness and purity out of a stain."

      Therefore, it is this group that find life most worth while. It is to this group that the world owes its supreme debt. They are the most useful and winsome souls that we know. Of course, there may be helpful people who have known little of sorrow; but, as a rule, by far the most helpful are those who have had their hearts broken. They are those who have been to school in Gethsemane, but whose very want has been changed into wealth.

      III

      Now, capitalizing our calamities is one of the finest of all fine arts. What knowledge is more to be coveted than that of changing our pains into palms, our crosses into crowns? Years ago certain scientists undertook to find a method of extracting the gold out of the brine of the ocean. What a marvelous discovery that would have been had they succeeded. It would have revolutionized commerce. But there is an infinitely more priceless secret that we may discover through Jesus Christ our Lord. We may learn how to extract the gold of a larger manhood and of a larger womanhood out of the brine of human sorrow and human tears. How can we learn this secret?

      1. Let us believe in the possibility of it. Years ago a man named Paul desired with burning eagerness to be allowed to preach the gospel in Rome, then the very center of the world. But he was thrust into jail, where he remained for long, weary months. It looked as if his dream were going to come to nothing. But, by and by, we find him writing a letter from a prison cell in Rome. In this letter we read this heartening word, "I would have you know that the things which happened unto me have fallen out rather unto the furtherance of the gospel." (Philippians 1:12) That is, the very things that seemed destined to thwart him had made possible the realization of his hope.

      On his way over to Rome there was a terrible storm at sea. This storm raged till all hope of reaching land was destroyed. But instead of its bringing Paul to a grave in the sea, it gave him a place in the confidence and in the hearts of his fellow voyagers that he could have attained in no other way. Then this man was pierced by a thorn. Just what it was we do not know. We do know that he insistently went to God about it and asked for its removal. But the Lord refused his request, saying, "My grace is sufficient for thee." (2 Cor. 12:9) And Paul lived to thank God even for this thorn. "Most gladly, therefore, will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me." (2 Cor. 12:9) So constantly did Paul find his losses changed to gain that, after long experimentation in the laboratory of life, he reached this conclusion: "We know that all things work together for good to them that love God." (Rom. 8:28)

      2. Then if we would capitalize our calamities it will help us to recognize the fact that not every sorrow that comes to us is in accordance with the will of God. For instance, we used to say at every funeral, "For as much as it hath pleased Almighty God, in his wise providence, to take out of this world the soul of," etc. Now, at times this was an altogether fitting word. But at other times it was sheerest mockery and little less than a slander against God. Think of saying such a word over that little child who died the other day of partial starvation in this land of overproduction. Such untimely deaths are not according to the will of God, but flatly contradictory to his will. There are many ills we suffer that are equally so. Then "why does not God prevent them?" we ask desperately. "Because in consistency he cannot," is the only fair answer. He has left us free. Therefore, if we are minded to do wrong, God cannot prevent it.

      But, because we so often fail to recognize this, we sometimes blame God for wrongs against which He burns with far greater indignation than we ourselves. When Joseph's life fell into ruins how easy it would have been for him to become bitter and to have flung away from God. But it was his salvation that he was wise enough to see that God was not to blame for the wrongs that he had suffered at the hands of men. How unjust it would have been for him to have railed against God for what those hostile to God had done! How unjust it is of ourselves! We may have suffered desperate wrong at the hands of some member of the Church, or at the hands of some minister of the gospel. But we must not blame God for wrongs that wound Him far worse than they wound ourselves.

      3. Then it will help us to remember that while God cannot prevent much of the evil that we suffer, yet whether our trouble comes in accordance with His will or contrary to His will, if we remain true, He will bring us through with honor. Not only so, but He will make us the richer for our very losses. This was the experience of this ancient psalmist. It has been the experience of countless others. "You meant it unto me for evil," said Joseph, speaking of the awful wrong he had suffered; "but God meant it unto good." (Gen. 50:20) He always does. Nothing can defeat us except our own rebellion. Joseph refused to rebel. Therefore his path of pain became a roadway to abiding spiritual wealth. Such will surely be the goal of your weary road, if, in spite of all your perplexing troubles, you walk it in the fellowship of Christ.

      What a Master is ours! What a gospel we have to preach! There is absolutely nothing that can wreck us so long as we live within the circle of His will. With the storms of life beating upon our faces, with disease preying upon our bodies, with ghastly death wrenching our treasures from our clinging fingers, we can still be undismayed. We can shout with Paul, "We know that all things work together for good to them that love God." All things, the joyful things and the bitter things, the things that make us sob and the things that make us sing, the things that seem to impoverish and the things that enrich, all things work together for good. I know there are times when we cannot possibly understand how this can be true. But if in spite of difficulties we hold fast to this high faith, then be sure that one day we, too, shall be able to sing with this psalmist, "It is good for me to have been in trouble."

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