Many of us love Robert Robertson’s hymn “Come Thou Fount” because of these lines:
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it;
Seal it for thy courts above.
We understand this. We all keenly feel our proneness to wander from the God we love. And we all want this terrible proneness to decrease.
So if we sing this hymn seriously and in faith — really wanting God to keep us from wandering so we persevere and make it to his heavenly courts — what are we asking God for? What does losing our proneness to wander look like?
A Severe Mercy
God has left us plenty of mystery in how he “keep[s] [us] from stumbling and . . . present[s] [us] blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy” (Jude 1:24). But it’s not all mysterious. From Genesis to Revelation, we find a consistent element present in the lives of persevering saints of God. And it is captured in this brief sentence in Psalm 119:67: “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep your word.”
What cured, or at least decreased, the psalmist’s proneness to wander? Affliction. If the writer of Psalm 119 was working with Robert Robertson on composing “Come Thou Fount,” he may have suggested the last sentence to read something more like,
Here’s my heart, O take and break it;
So I love thy courts above.
To borrow a phrase C.S. Lewis used when comforting a suffering friend, God uses affliction as “a severe mercy” to help keep his saints from going astray.
The Effects of Affliction and Prosperity
This is a paradox. Affliction is typically an evil we experience in our bodies, relationships, circumstances, achievements, or religious persecution. Prosperity is typically a good we experience in our bodies, relationships, circumstances, achievements, or religious freedom. Yet, we have a tendency to move toward God in affliction and wander from God in prosperity.
The Bible is full of examples of this paradox, but let’s look at two: 1) when good came through the evil of affliction and 2) when evil came through the good of prosperity.
The Blessing of a Satanic Thorn
The revelations and power granted to the apostle Paul by the Holy Spirit in order to fulfill his apostolic calling to plant and oversee many Gentile churches, as well as function as the global-historical church’s foremost theologian, were overwhelming for any fallen human being. How did God help Paul remain faithful? Paul tells us,
To keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. (2 Corinthians 12:7)
“We need God to do whatever it takes to keep us desperate for him so we don’t wander.”
What specifically this “thorn” was isn’t important (I thank God we don’t know for sure). What is important is that we see how God used an evil affliction, a messenger of Satan, to keep Paul humble and faithful.
None of us bear the same responsibility as Paul. But if we think we therefore need fewer afflictions, we are significantly wrong. We are tempted to unbelief in ways Paul wasn’t because of the things he saw and we haven’t. Just like Paul, we need God to do whatever it takes to keep us desperate for him so we don’t wander.
The Peril of Prosperity
David knew by experience the truth of Psalm 119:67. When he was afflicted with King Saul’s plots to assassinate him, with barely one step between him and death (1 Samuel 20:3), David did not go astray. He kept close to God and would not sin against him (1 Samuel 26:10–11).
But David also experienced the flipside of the paradox. When David was the unrivaled king of Israel, and God had prospered him in every way, that’s when he strayed from God into bed with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11).
Why did David’s affliction result in faithfulness and his prosperity result in sin? We all know. David was desperate for God when Saul (acting as a messenger of Satan, it would be fair to say) afflicted him. This experience even resulted in glorious psalms of worship (like Psalms 18, 54, and 57). But when David was not desperate for God, he was more vulnerable to his self-destructive depravity.
Whatever It Takes, Lord
The same is true of us. When are we most prayerful and faithful? When we keenly feel our desperation for God, like we can’t live without him. And we are most vulnerable to sin when we don’t feel that way.
We don’t romanticize affliction, just like we don’t romanticize death. Evils themselves are not to be loved, but resisted. God is to be loved and trusted. Only he is wise and strong enough to work for good what is meant for evil (Romans 8:28; Genesis 50:20). Paul pled with God for his thorn to be removed (2 Corinthians 12:8), and so did David (Psalm 7:1–2). They were good prayers. God simply had something better in store for Paul and David and us by letting the thorns remain, and supplying his sufficient grace (2 Corinthians 12:9).
“Affliction makes us feel our real desperation for God.”
What was the better thing he had in store? Desperation for God. Affliction makes us feel our real desperation for God, and we cry out for him. That’s why Paul boasted more in his weaknesses than his strengths. He knew that when he was weak, he was strong — because when he was weak, God was his strength (2 Corinthians 12:9–10).
In all our proneness to wander astray from the God we love, we don’t need to ask our loving heavenly Father for affliction. Instead, let us ask him for the merciful gift of desperation, for that is what we really need.
We do not need to be afraid to ask him to make us desperate for him, because our Father loves to give good gifts to us (Luke 11:13). We can trust him to do for us what we need most. Therefore, we can make this our prayer:
Whatever it takes, Lord, decrease my proneness to wander from you by keeping me desperate for you.
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