Good That I Was Afflicted? (Newton)

Sometimes during a hard and heavy trial there doesn’t seem to be a light at the end of the tunnel.  Just when you think the trial may be going away like a storm passing, just when you think the sun might finally be coming out, another dark cloud blows in and the trial is back – sometimes with a vengeance.  That’s when you think, “What’s it all worth?”  That’s when you don’t want to get out of bed in the morning.  That’s when tears come at random during the day.  That’s when you can sort of understand why people might want to just give up and die.

God’s promises speak to this.  Although they don’t take the storm of trial away, they do provide shelter during the storm of trial.  God’s promises don’t always immediately show us the light at the end of the tunnel, but they do give us a firm reminder that there is a Light at the end of it!  God’s promises give us reason to get up and go on with life by his grace and strength.  John Newton talked about this well in a letter he wrote to a Christian friend facing a hard trial.  These words are for all Christians facing affliction:

“Many are the trials and exercises we must expect to meet within our progress; but this one consideration outweighs them all: the Lord is on our side.  And if he be for us, none can be against us to harm us.  In all these things we shall be more than conquerors through him that loved us. Afflictions, though not in themselves joyous, but grievious, yet, when sanctified, are among our choice mercies.  In due time they shall yield the peaceful fruits of righteousness, and even at present they shall surely be attended with seasonable and sufficient supports.”

“One great desire of the believer is to understand the great word of God more and more; and one principal means by which we advance in this knowledge is the improvement we are enabled to make of our daily trials.  The promises are generally made to an afflicted state, and we could not taste their sweetness, nor experience their truth, if we were not sometimes brought into the circumstances to which they relate.  It is said, ‘I will be with them in trouble’; but how could we know what a mercy is contained in these words unless trouble was sometimes our lot?  It is said to be the believer’s privilege to glory in tribulation.  But we never could know that this is possible unless we had tribulation to glory in.”

“However, this is a matter of joy and glory indeed, to find peace and comfort within when things are disagreeable and troublesome without.  Then we are enabled to set our seal that God is true, then we learn how happy it is to have a refuge that cannot be taken from us, a support that is able to bear all the weight we can lay upon it, a spring of joy that cannot be stopped by any outward events.”

“A great part of the little we know of our God – his faithfulness, compassion, his readiness to hear and answer our prayers, his wisdom in delivering and providing when all our contrivances fail, and his goodness in overruling everything to our soul’s good – I say, much of what we know of these things we learned in our trials, and have therefore reason to say, ‘It was good for us to be afflicted’ (Ps. 119:71).”

And, as the Lord has brought us safe through thus far, we have good ground to trust him to the end.  We know not what is before us.  Perhaps we may meet greater difficulties by and by than we have ever yet seen.  But if we keep in mind who has delivered us from the lion and the bear, we may face the Philistine also without terror.  God will be with us, and strengthen us with strength in our souls.  It is our wisdom to keep close to him, that, when the evil day comes, we may have confidence before him in all our troubles.”

John Newton, Works Volume 6, p. 35-6.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

No Reason to Complain (Brooks)

When we face trials and afflictions, sometimes we complain.  We grumble why such and such is happening to us, we complain that other people deserve the trial, or we murmur at the pain and hardship of it all.  Even mature Christians sometimes grumble when trials come.  If the trial is really difficult, it’s hard not to complain!  Thomas Brooks (d. 1680) talked about this in the middle of his book written to those suffering trials and affliction (The Mute Christian under the Smarting Rod):

“[Dear Christian], of all men in the world, you have least cause, yea, no cause to be murmuring and muttering under and dispensation that you meet with in this world.  Is not God your portion?  Chrysostom asks this question, ‘Was Job miserable when he had lost all that God had given him?’ and gives this answer, ‘No, he still had the God that gave him all.’  Is not Christ thy treasure?  Is not heaven your inheritance – and will you murmur?  …Has not God given you a changed heart, a renewed nature, and a sanctified soul, and will you murmur?  Has not God given himself to you to satisfy you?  Has not he given his Son to save you, his Spirit to lead you, his grace to adorn you, his covenant to assure you, his mercy to pardon you, his righteousness to clothe you, and will you murmur?”

“Has not God often turned your water into wine, your brass into silver, your silver into gold?  When you were dead in sin, did he not quicken you?  When you were lost, did he not seek you?  When you were wounded, did he not heal you?  And when you were falling, did he not support you?  And when you were down, did he not raise you up?  And when you were staggering, did he not strengthen you?  And when you were erring, did he not correct you?  When you were tempted, did he not help you?  And when you were in danger, did he not deliver you? And will you murmur?

It may seem a bit harsh to rebuke someone for complaining while they are going through a difficult trial.  But we have to remember that grumbling is a serious sin (Num. 14).  Furthermore, even through trials Christians should want to avoid sin and do what is right in God’s sight.  The rhetorical questions Brooks asked are good ones to go through as we aim to suffer without grumbling.  Trials are miserable and more difficult than some people realize.  But the Christian need not grumble because the promises of Scripture are true: God is with us and loves us, Jesus died to save us, and the Spirit is at work in us (etc. etc.)!

The edited quote above is found in volume 1 of Brooks’ Works, page. 340.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

Wasted Pain? Pointless Suffering?

Is God Really in Control?: Trusting God in a World of Terrorism, Tsunamis, and Personal Tragedy Suffering and pain are realities in life.  Despite what Buddhists or New Age cults say about suffering, it is real, it hurts, and it can even shake the Christian’s faith.  Thankfully Scripture gives us a helpful angle on suffering in light of God’s sovereignty.   We see it on the cross and we see it in God’s fatherly love.  In God’s sovereignty, suffering is productive: Christ’s suffering resulted in salvation for sinners, and the Christian’s suffering produces endurance, character, and so on (see Rom. 5:4-5).

Lamentations 3:32-33 says this of God: Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love. For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to anyone (NIV).  Jerry Bridges wrote some helpful reflections on this truth.

“God does not willing bring affliction or grief to us.  He does not delight in causing us to experience pain or heartache.  He always has a purpose for the grief He brings or allows to come into our lives.  Most often we do not know what that purpose is, but it is enough to know that His infinite wisdom and perfect love have determined that the particular sorrow is best for us.”

“God never wastes pain.  He always uses it to accomplish His purpose.  And His purpose is for His glory and our good.  Therefore, we can trust Him when our hearts are aching or our bodies are racked with pain.”

“Trusting God in the midst of our pain and heartache means that we accept it from  Him.  There is a vast difference between acceptance and either resignation or submission.  We can resign ourselves to a difficult situation, simply because we see no other alternative.  Many people do that all the time.  Or we can submit to the sovereignty of God in our circumstances with a certain amount of reluctance.  But to truly accept our pain and heartache has the connotation of willingness.  An aptitude of acceptance says that we trust God, that He loves us and knows what is best for us.”

Jerry Bridges, Is God Really in Control? p. 63-4.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church
Hammond, WI, 54015

When Darkness Hides His Face

calvincommentaries Sometimes life for the Christian is just plain hard.  We’re not exempt from the effects of Adam’s sin, so we face debilitating illnesses, allergies that nearly cripple us, mental anguish that makes for dark days, and other people often are like thorns in our flesh.  Sometimes we still wander and stumble into sin.  Following Jesus doesn’t mean life will be painless and easy!  I know a contemporary version of the hymn My Hope Is Built on Nothing Less says “When darkness seems to hide His face;” however, I think the original is more accurate: “When darkness veils His lovely face.”  It reminds me of Cowper’s great hymn, God Moves in a Mysterious Way, which says,

“Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust him for his grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.”

This also makes me think of the criminal on the cross, who truly repented and made the good confession.  He was loved by Christ, promised heaven, but his pain and torture didn’t immediately end.  He still suffered terribly as a convicted criminal.  Calvin comments well on this:

What is promised to the robber does not alleviate his present sufferings, nor make any abatement of his bodily punishment. This reminds us that we ought not to judge of the grace of God by the perception of the flesh; for it will often happen that those to whom God is reconciled are permitted by him to be severely afflicted. So then, if we are dreadfully tormented in body, we ought to be on our guard lest the severity of pain hinder us from tasting the goodness of God; but, on the contrary, all our afflictions ought to be mitigated and soothed by this single consolation, that as soon as God has received us into his favor, all the afflictions which we endure are aids to our salvation. This will cause our faith not only to rise victorious over all our distresses, but to enjoy calm repose amidst the endurance of sufferings. (John Calvin and William Pringle, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke, vol. 3 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 314.)

Dear Christian, if you’re suffering, facing affliction, or if your cross has recently been very hard to bear, don’t take it as a sign that God is angry with you, has stopped loving you, or has forgotten about you.  By God’s grace, our suffering is productive (Rom 5:3-4).  Our feelings are not a reliable guide in the Christian life; God’s gracious promises are.  “Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, but trust him for his grace!”

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church
Hammond, WI, 54015

Behind a Dark Providence

The Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms One big question that often comes up in the Christian life is, “Why is God letting this happen to me?”  Similarly, we ask what point trials, temptations, and tribulations have in our lives; it seems like they crush and hurt us, and when we’re in the middle of them, we struggle to stay afloat in the faith.  We surely need a biblical anchor during trials!

The Westminster Confession talks about this under the topic of God’s sovereign providence.  In 5.5 it says,

“The most wise, righteous, and gracious God doth oftentimes leave, for a season, his own children to manifold [various] temptations and the corruptions of their own hearts….”

Why?  Why would a gracious God let his children go through this?  Here are a few reason the Confession gives (edited slightly):

1) …to chastise them for their former sins,
2) or to discover unto [reveal to] them the hidden strength of corruption and deceitfulness of their hearts, that they may be humbled (2 Chr. 32:25-26, 31; Deut 8:2-3, 5; Lk 22:31-32)
3) and to raise them to a more close and constant dependence for their support upon Himself,
4) and to make them more watchful against all future occasions of sin,
5) and for sundry [various] other just and holy ends (Ps. 73:1-28, Ps. 77:1-12, Mk 14:66-72, 1 Cor. 12:7-9).

It is a great comfort to know that God, in his loving and sovereign providence, uses trials and temptations ultimately for our good.  Knowing God is sovereign in his providence towards us means, as the Heidelberg Catechism says,

“We can be patient when things go against us (Ps. 39:10), thankful when things go well (1 Thes. 5:18), and for the future we can have good confidence in our faithful God and Father that nothing will separate us from his love (Rom. 8:35-39).  All creatures are so completely in his hand that without his will they can neither move nor be moved (Prov. 21:21, Acts 17:24-28)” (Q/A 28).

shane lems
hammond wi

Not Eliminating Grief

Walking with God through Pain and Suffering How did the early Christian church differ from Greek philosophers when it came to dealing with suffering and grief?

“For Christians, suffering was not to be dealt with primarily through the control and suppression of negative emotions with the use of reason or willpower.  Ultimate reality was known not primarily through reason and contemplation but through relationship.  Salvation was through humility, faith, and love rather than reason and control of emotions.  And therefore, Christians don’t face adversity by stoically decreasing our love for the people and things of this world so much as by increasing our love and joy in God.  [Luc] Ferry says, ‘Augustine, having conducted a radical critique of love-as-attachment in general, does not banish it when its object is divine.’”

“What he means is that, while Christianity was able to agree with pagan writers that inordinate attachment to earthly goods can lead to unnecessary pain and grief, it also taught that the answer to this was not to love things less but to love God more than anything else.  Only when our greatest love is God, a love that we cannot lose even in death, can we face all things with peace.  Grief was not to be eliminated but seasoned and buoyed up with love and hope.”

Timothy Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, p. 44.

shane lems

Resources for the Afflicted

Most Christians, at one time or another, go through trials, affliction, distress, and deep sorrow. Whether it be physical pain, spiritual anguish, grief, persecution, or a heavy cross, followers of Jesus face tribulation on their journey to the New Jerusalem.  Sometimes we can’t sleep, we can’t stop crying, and we can’t stop asking God “why?” in our feeble prayers.  We definitely need help getting through affliction in a godly way.

The first thing one should do under God’s hand of affliction is turn to God in prayer and to his Word for comfort.  The second thing one should do is lean on the body of Christ (pastors, elders, Christian friends).  Another thing to do is read solid books written for the afflicted.  To that end, I’ll give this list of books that I’ve found incredibly helpful when the rod and staff of God’s affliction weigh heavy.

 Thomas Brooks, The Mute Christian Under the Smarting Rod.  This book was originally published in 1659 and was based on sermons that Brooks had preached.  It is written, of course, in older English, but it isn’t too difficult and is only around 100 pages long.  Brooks writes in a very orderly way – I’d suggest outlining the book as you read.  I assure you, this book will teach you what it means biblically to see God’s hand in affliction, God’s help in affliction, and Christ’s hope through it.  (You can find it on Kindle for $.99).

Is God Really in Control?: Trusting God in a World of Terrorism, Tsunamis, and Personal Tragedy Jerry Bridges, Is God Really In Control?  This book was written just a few years ago, and like all of Bridges’ work, is clear, biblical, and pastoral.  It is around 150 pages long, and includes questions for further thought.  I appreciate how Bridges understands the magnitude of tragedy and tackles it head on while firmly upholding God’s sovereignty, providence and love for his people in and through suffering.

Product Details Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised.  Sittser lost his mother, wife, and little girl in a car accident.  This book is a sort of a theological and philosophical reflection on the tragedy of losing loved ones.  Even though this book is focused on a specific kind of affliction – death and loss– it does deal with grief, pain, and doubt in an excellent way.  If you’re in the middle of a season of trial and pain, this book will help you deal with it and look to the light of Christ for hope and help.

Surprised by Suffering: The Role of Pain and Death in The Christian Life R. C. Sproul, Surprised By Suffering: The Role of Pain and Death in the Christian Life.  The first part of this book focuses on suffering; the last part focuses on death.  There is also a helpful question and answer section in the appendix.  If your affliction is not “unto death,” the first few chapters will be where you’ll want to focus, as Sproul discusses suffering in a gospel centered way.

 Michael Horton, Too Good To Be True (aka A Place for Weakness).  This book specifically deals with tragedy and what it has to do with God’s plan and Christ’s cross.  Horton talks about Luther’s theology of suffering vs. the theology of glory, and talks about suffering in light of the gospel.  It’s an easier read – and not too long – so this too would be a good one to read when your cross weighs you down and you can’t read anything too long and deep.

 William Bridge, A Lifting Up For the Downcast.  This Puritan Paperback is a great resource on trials, suffering, and affliction.  Bridge takes Satan’s attacks seriously, uses the Psalms extensively, and continually focuses the reader on God’s sovereignty, love, and providence.  He also gives some excellent pastoral advice for those suffering affliction.  It isn’t short (around 300 small pages), and it is a bit tougher to read than some others on my list here, but if you’re an intermediate or advanced reader you’ll want to study through this one.

 Thomas Boston, The Crook in the Lot.  This booklet was first published in 1737.  It is a great treatise on suffering and God’s providence – how he uses affliction for the good of his people and his own glory.  It is quite difficult to read in some places, however, but it is not too long (c. 150 pages).  I appreciate how Boston calls the Christian to remember his duty during affliction and suffering – while resting in God’s sovereignty.  You can find this on Kindle for $.99.

There are other excellent books about affliction in the Christian life; feel free to make your own recommendations in the comments below.  If you haven’t yet gone through deep affliction, I recommend getting one or two of these books in preparation for it.  These books won’t take away the pain and heartache of trials, but they will help you keep your feet on the path and your eyes on Christ as you walk through the valley of the shadow of death.

shane lems
hammond, wi