Physical Suffering & Biblical Meditation

Last week I was diagnosed with a lifelong autoimmune disease. I’ve certainly endured physical and mental suffering before, but for some reason this has made me feel excruciatingly far from the Lord. Never before have I so resonated with the words “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

What strikes me right now is that Jesus himself endured physical trials and even felt far from the Father. I would guess that the two hardest moments of his life were his time on the cross and his time in the desert. In both instances he was in physical and mental agony. But, most astonishingly, both times he managed to sustain himself with Scripture.

In Luke 4 we get a glimpse of Jesus’ first agonising trial before launching his ministry: a solitary 40-day fast in the desert. (If I tried this myself I think my friends would put me in a psychiatric institution, but that’s beside the point.) Importantly, he was very hungry. God chose to take on a physical suffering.

When we are hungry or lonely or tired (my guess is that Jesus was all three of those), our most vulnerable selves are exposed. Trials such as these are where the scaffolding surrounding us is taken down, and the foundations of our lives are revealed to either be strong or shaky. What is at your core?

Can I still praise God for his goodness, even when everything tastes like the colour grey? Will I still worship him even when my worship playlist doesn’t give me the dopamine spike it used to?

In the desert the devil leads all three temptations with a question around what God has already said. The first is “if you are the Son of God…” and thereby questioning what God had publicly declared at Jesus’ baptism in the previous chapter: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” The devil always questions what God has already said. Notice with Adam and Eve as well: “Did God actually say…?”

I think one of our primary temptations is as Christians is to not take God’s Word seriously enough. “Surely this but is only symbolic” we tell ourselves. Or, “Jesus didn’t mean that all rich people should give their money to the poor, only those ones.” Or we just skip the challenging bits altogether.

But, as Psalm 18:30 tells us, “the word of the Lord proves true; he is a shield for all those who take refuge in him.” So Jesus responds to the devil’s question by quoting Deuteronomy 8:3: “man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” Indeed, throughout the rest of Luke 4 Jesus responds to all temptation with Scripture.

Why? Because he a) knew it was truth, and b) knew it. Scripture was embedded in his system. It was in his bloodstream. He had meditated on it and memorised it since he was a child. He knew the Word that came from the Father, and when the trials inevitably came (and they do come) he had something solid to rely on.

What about the cross?

The three synoptic gospel writers each give a slightly different account of the crucifixion with some overlapping similarities, probably because they each remembered different parts of the event. But they all remember Jesus quoting a Psalm. In Matthew and Mark’s account, he quotes Psalm 22. In Luke’s account, he quotes Psalm 31. Personally, I imagine he was reciting a bunch of them.

He knew the Word. He knew what God had spoken through the Torah, the Prophets and the Psalms and even directly to Jesus himself through the Holy Spirit. But he didn’t just know it on an intellectual level; he knew it deeply in his soul because he had meditated on it throughout his whole life.

The Hebrew tradition of Biblical meditation was more than a verse on an Instagram post with a pretty background. They would chew on it. It was uttered on their mouths repetitively. It was memorised. It took time and discipline, but because it was deep in their hearts it was easy to regurgitate when they needed to remember it again.

An American preacher once asked his congregation, “who here has ever worried about something so much that you could not sleep due to your mind ruminating repetitively on the problem?” Almost everybody raised their hand. He raised both his hands. “Good,” he exclaimed, “that means you all know how to meditate!”

I guess it’s just a question of what we meditate on rather than whether or not we do it at all.

Psalm 1 talks about meditating on the Word of God day and night. Notice how it’s not about reading a passage and then forgetting; it’s about allowing a passage to bypass your mind and penetrate your soul.

Let’s be clear: I don’t do this. In fact I have never done this. But I imagine it is much easier to call out the lies of the world if you already have the truth of God’s Word embedded in your system.

When police officers in the UK are taught how to to spot counterfeit money, they are fist given real money to spend time with. They touch it, they smell it, and they look out for the intimate details. Only once they are deeply familiar with the real thing are they then able to spot the fake.

It’s the same with all truth I guess. When you know what God has already said you can spot when the enemy is trying to contradict it. You don’t know you’re being lied to if you don’t first know the truth.

The only problem is that getting to this place requires discipline. I do not (yet) have this discipline! I do wish I tried to establish this during a time of peace rather than waiting for the turmoil to hit me. But I guess it’s never too late to start.

Lord, help me to learn how to not just study your Word but to also meditate on it. Embed it into my bloodstream and teach me to rely on your truth entirely.

S

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