The Character of God in Suffering

By Ryan Itzel 

“For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving, abounding in steadfast love 

to all who call upon you.” – Psalm 86:5

           Life is full of struggle, and it seems like it is only getting more difficult. Since the fall in Genesis 3, the world is groaning and awaiting the Lord’s return and restoration of all things. But as we live in this world full of dismay, believers are not exempt from the struggle. We are not free from the difficulty, and in fact, there is a greater struggle for the believer. We face not only the struggles of normal life, but we wage war against the flesh, the lures of this world, and the distraction and temptation to doubt from the evil one. Yet, as we live in this world, we have a lasting and sure hope that gives us strength to endure! Believers are not like the world who is without hope or God, for we have a sure confidence in the good character of God! The Word of God reveals this good character that gives us hope in this world!

          Psalm 86:5 is one of my favorite verses of meditation as it points believers directly to the Lord in the midst of struggle. It says, “For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving, abounding in steadfast love to all who call upon you.” In this verse we see three truths of the character of God that gives all believers hope when we go through suffering of any kind!

         This Psalm, like many others, was written by David, king of Israel. David loved the Lord and was described by God as a man after His own heart. David is known for writing many of the psalms that we are most familiar with and love: Psalm 23, 103, 139. When David wrote Psalm 86 he was going through a time of difficulty. Verse 1 of Psalm 86 says, ““Incline Your ear, O Lord, and answer me; For I am afflicted and needy.” He was going through a time of struggle and needed help from the Lord. What was this difficulty he was experiencing? Verse 14 makes it clear, “O God, arrogant men have risen up against me, And a band of violent men have sought my life, And they have not set You before them.” David’s life was one of war and it seems like there was rarely a time in which his life was not under threat. Whether it was Saul or Absalom, David rarely knew times of peace. Though we do not know exactly who these “violent men” were, we do know this, David was in a time of struggle, and he turned to the Lord for help! So, what did David know about the Lord that gave him and can give us help in our time of need? David gives three truths: the goodness, forgiveness, and love of the Lord!

The Goodness of the Lord

         David knew that the Lord was good! In verses 1-4 he brings requests before the Lord and in verse 2 he says, “save your servant, who trusts in you.” David trusted in the Lord because he knew that He was good! The Bible is full of this reality that God is good. Psalm 119:68 declares, “You are good and do good.” Mark 10:18 makes clear that no one is good except God alone, and 1 John 1:5 describes that “God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all.” God is good, but what does it mean that He is good? It means that the character of God is perfect, bound to what is right, and cannot be lured by, entertain, or do evil! We see this perfect goodness in creation as God made the world “very good,” (Gen. 1:31), in His common grace to all people (Matt. 5:45), and ultimately in the just salvation of sinners through the propitiatory sacrifice of Christ (Romans 3:25-26). The world view God as some cosmic kill joy because His standard of God is not “acceptable” to them. Mankind would rather live as the arbiter of truth, right and wrong, and goodness. However, the believer gladly runs to the Lord, trusting His supreme goodness! God does not submit to some overarching standard of goodness, but rather, He is the standard of goodness! Since God is good, believers can trust God in all circumstances. God is not only good when times are “good,” but He is good when times are tough! In fact, we can hope in the goodness of God in all things! Romans 8:28 says, “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” This is truly goodness for those who love God! We can trust God’s goodness because: 

1.    He is faithful – 1 Cor 1:9

2.    He never changes (Immutable) – Hebrews 13:8

3.    He cannot lie – Titus 1:2

4.    He is good by nature – Ps. 100:5

When you go through times of difficulty do you run to God or from God? Believers should not be surprised when we go through times of trouble, for we are promised fiery trials (1 Peter 4:12-13). But we also have the sure character of our good God in which we can trust! God’s goodness is faithful and endures forever, trust in Him!

The Forgiveness of the Lord

          David continues on in Psalm 86:5, giving more of the character of God to be trusted in times of trouble. He speaks of the forgiveness of the Lord! In struggles of David’s life, David looked to God’s forgiveness for hope. But what is the problem that would necessitate God’s forgiveness?  It is the universal problem of our sin (Romans 3:23). The Bible is abundant in passages that speak of the seriousness of our sin before a holy God: 

1)   We all have sin (Romans 5:12)

2)   We all are under sin (Romans 3:9)

3)   We all are alienated from God (Eph. 2:12)

4)   We all deserve eternal death (Romans 6:23) 

But what makes our situation so bad is the fact that there is nothing we can do in our own effort to fix our relationship with God. Salvation is not by works (Eph. 2:8-9; Titus 3:5), under the Law no one can be justified (Gal 2:16), and even our best efforts are as filthy rags (Is. 64:6-7). Our greatest problem is our sin! Yet, this problem is not without an answer. David knew the character of God and had hope in it! David knew that the Lord was forgiving. The NASB translates it “ready to forgive.” God is a good God who is willing to forgive us of our sin. The God of Islam is not like this. You can work your whole life seeking to please him and yet not be forgiven in the end. Praise the Lord the one true God is ready to forgive! We see this reality made clear as well in Nehemiah 9:17, “But You are God, Ready to pardon, Gracious and merciful, Slow to anger, Abundant in kindness, and did not forsake them.” For those who call on the name of the Lord, forsaking their sin in repentance, and trusting in the work of Christ alone to save, they will find mercy! God is ready and willing to save those who call on Him! Paul said in Romans 10:11, ““Whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame.” This is the greatest hope that our greatest problem can be forgiven by the grace of God through faith in the work of Christ!

As amazing as the message of the gospel is, one might wonder why David brings this up in the midst of a prayer of petition during suffering. The reality is that when our greatest problem has been dealt with, all other struggles pale in comparison!  Paul speaks of the same truth in Romans 8:18, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” This does not diminish the fact that life has serious pain and real struggle but mediating on the truth of the gospel and our hope of eternity with Christ gives strength to those who suffer. 

The Love of the Lord

         Finally, we see David’s confidence is in the steadfast love of the Lord. Our sinfulness deserves nothing but the wrath of God, and yet, God pours out His love on His own! Romans 5:8 says,“But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” This is a great joy for the believer! The Hebrew word for steadfast love in Psalm 86:5 is Hesed and is sometimes translated as lovingkindness, faithful love, loyal love, or mercy. My pastor, while teaching on the word Hesed described it as God’s “steadfast, loyal, unending, unchanging, faithful, satisfying love.” This is love to hope in, not a love that will disappoint! We see this love no more clearly seen than in Eph. 2:1-5, 

And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)

The Word of God has many wonderful realities of this love of God on which we should meditate:

1.    God loved us while we were yet sinners (Rom. 5:8)

2.    God loved the world and sent Jesus to save sinners (John 3:16)

3.    God’s love is everlasting (Psalm 136)

4.    God’s love is steadfast and something to be hoped in (Psalm 63)

5.    God’s love never ceases (Lam. 3:22)

This great love of God is not distributed sparingly but poured out on believers! David says it is “abundant” or “abounding” picturing this overflowing love for those who know the Lord! Like a wave that engulfs everything it comes into contact with on the shore, God’s love overwhelmingly covers the believer! In Psalm 103:11-13, David connects this love to the picture of a loving father caring for his child, “For as high as the heavens are above the earth, So great is His lovingkindness toward those who fear Him. As far as the east is from the west, So far has He removed our transgressions from us. Just as a father has compassion on his children, So the Lord has compassion on those who fear Him.”Our God is a loving Father to all who are His children by faith (John 1:12). This love, however, is only for those who call upon the Lord! For those who humble themselves, calling on the Lord in repentant faith, God will overwhelmingly pour out his goodness, forgiveness, and love! When you are going through trials, look to the Lord who loves you. The enemy will call you to doubt God’s goodness, forgiveness, and love. It is the same lie that he has been telling from the beginning. However, we have a liar within us, called our heart, and it is deceitful above all things. We must assault our hearts with God’s Word and fill our hearts with His truth so that we might trust even more in His faithful character! As with David, we can trust our great God, no matter what kinds of suffering we endure. When we look at who our God is, we are supplied with more than we could ever need to endure the trials of this life!