I certainly don’t know all the thoughts and feelings of other Christians as they’ve suffered hard through trial and affliction. But I do know that some Christians have remarked that God blessed them greatly during their suffering. Sometimes when we suffer we experience the comforting presence of God in an unexplicable way. Other times God’s people step up and surround us with tender love when we suffer. David said that it was good for him to be afflicted because then he learned God’s rules (Ps. 119:71). When Paul was weak under affliction, he learned more of God’s strength and grace (2 Cor. 12:9-12).
While God has spared me from many trials and hardships, I know what it’s like to plow through a hard, heartbreaking, and somewhat lengthy affliction. I can say for sure that for Christians, there is some sweetness in suffering. I don’t mean suffering itself is sweet. I mean what Paul said when he explained how suffering was productive (Rom. 5:3-5). In God’s mysterious providence, suffering is not a waste. Here’s one helpful angle on this topic written by a Christian man who lost his daughter, wife, and mother in the same car accident:
[Sorrow] enlarges the soul until the soul is capable of mourning and rejoicing simultaneously, or feeling the world’s pain and hoping for the world’s healing at the same time. However painful, sorrow is good for the soul.
Deep sorrow often has the effect of stripping life of pretense, vanity, and waste. It forces us to ask basic questions about what is most important in life. Suffering can lead to a simpler life, less cluttered with nonessentials. It is wonderfully clarifying. That is why many people who suffer sudden and severe loss often become different people. They spend more time with their children or spouses, express more affection and appreciation to their friends, show more concern for other wounded people, give more time to a worthy cause, or enjoy more of the ordinariness of life.”
These words were written by Jerry Sittser in his excellent book, A Grace Disguised. It’s a tough book to read because Sittser’s story contains such deep sorrow. But it also explains in a God-centered way how to press on through sorrow and find the sweetness God often provides in and through sorrow.
I just love the hymns and poems of William Cowper. In fact, I’d recommend a book of his hymns and poems to use as a short daily devotional. My wife and I have used this one: William Cowper’s Olney Hymns (Curiosmith, 2009). It’s not expensive but it is a great resource. Here’s a great hymn I read today that I’d like to share:
LOOKING UPWARDS IN A STORM
God of my life, to thee I call,
Afflicted at thy feet I fall; When the great water-floods prevail, Leave not my trembling heart to fail!
Friend of the friendless, and the faint! Where should I lodge my deep complaint? Where but with thee, whose open door Invites the helpless and the poor!
Did ever mourner plead with thee, And thou refuse that mourner’s plea?
Does not the word still fix’d remain,
That none shall seek thy face in vain?
That were a grief I could not bear,
Didst thou not hear and answer prayer; But a pray’r-hearing, answ’ring God, Supports me under ev’ry load.
Fair is the lot that’s cast for me! I have an advocate with thee; They whom the world caresses most,
Have no such privilege to boast.
Poor tho’ I am, despis’d, forgot,
Yet God, my God, forgets me not;
And he is safe and must succeed,
For whom the Lord vouchsafes to plead.
When it comes to the mysterious providence of God and trials that come our way in his providence, we need to submit to his will (even when it’s hard to do!). We need the faith to say, “Lord, you know best; thy will be done.” How can we do that? It’s easier said than done for sure! John Flavel (d. 1691) gave a good answer to the hard question: How can we submit to God’s will when his providence includes our suffering and pain?
It must be premised that the question does not suppose the heart or will of a Christian to be at his own command and disposal in this matter. We cannot resign it, and subject it to the will of God whenever we desire so to do. The duty indeed is ours, but the power by which alone we perform it is God’s; we act as we are acted upon by the Spirit.
…We can do this and all things else, however difficult, through Christ that strengthens us (Philippians 4:13). But without Him we can do nothing (John 15:5). He does not say, Without me ye can do but little, or without me ye can do nothing but with great difficulty, or without me ye can do nothing perfectly, but ‘without me ye can do nothing’ at all.
And every Christian has a witness in his own breast to attest this truth. For there are cases frequently occurring in the methods of Providence in which, notwithstanding all their prayers and desires, all their reasonings and strivings, they cannot quieten their hearts fully in the disposal and will of God; but on the contrary they find all their endeavours in this matter to be but as the rolling of a returning stone against the hill. Till God say to the heart, Be still, and to the will, Give up, nothing can be done.
This morning I happend to run across Zacharias Ursinus’ discussion about affliction in his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism. The entire section is helpful and worth reading. Here’s a small sample, one that I thought was especially edifying. I’ve edited a bit in light of the context to make it easier to read.
The godly are sometimes afflicted on account of sin, not for the purpose of making satisfaction to the justice of God, but that sin may be acknowledged by them, and removed [dealt with], through the cross. They are paternally chastised, that they may be led to a knowledge of their faults. These chastisements are to them sermons, and call to repentance. “When we are judged we are chastened of the Lord, that we should not be condemned with the world.” “It is good for me that I have been afflicted” (1 Cor. 11:32; Ps. 119:71). …He corrects and improves the character of the godly through the cross.
The godly are afflicted that we may be exercised and tried, that thus our faith, hope, patience, prayer, and obedience, may be strengthened and confirmed; or that we may have matter and occasion for exercising and proving ourselves, and that our faith, hope, and patience, may be made manifest both to ourselves and others. When all things go well, it is an easy thing for us to glory in regard to our faith; but in adversity, the grace or beauty of virtue becomes apparent. He that has not been tested by affliction, what knoweth he? “Experience works hope.” (Rom. 5:4.)