Affliction, Purpose, and Mercy (Bruce)

 I’m enjoying this book of Robert Bruce’s sermons on Isaiah 38 (Hezekiah’s sickness and recovery).  In his first sermon, Bruce explained how the suffering of God’s people is not exactly the same as the suffering of those who are not God’s people.  Here’s what he wrote:

[Hezekiah’s story] teaches us not to measure the favor or displeasure of God by any external event here on earth.  For if we consider some visitation of God upon his child, if we dwell on the nature of the plague or affliction, both its quality and quantity, if we look to the lengthy duration of the plague, in the opinion of onlookers and of the person who is afflicted, after some time he will begin to think he is in a worse case than any of the reprobate.

But however it may be regarded in the heart and judgment of man, it is far otherwise in the judgment and heart of God.  For hidden in the heart of God concerning those who are his children is one purpose, but a very different purpose concerning the reprobate.  I will explain: when the affliction is common to us and to them, the cause for the affliction is by no means the same, neither is God’s purpose the same.  As to the godly, our affliction flows from the favor, love, and mercy of God in Christ Jesus and is directed towards our great profit and advantage, that is, that we being corrected here may not perish in eternity along with the wicked of this world.

On the other hand, the affliction visited on the reprobate flows from the burning wrath and indignation of God, as from the righteous judge; for he is initiating the punishment in this life that will continue for all eternity.

Therefore, as affliction to the ungodly is the harbinger of divine judgment, for those who love him it is a merciful correction.

Robert Bruce, The Way to True Peace and Rest, p.3-4.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

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Suffering and One Foot In Front of the Other

 For those of you who know what it means to go through a very hard trial, you probably understand sayings like this: “One day at a time,” and “I’m just putting one foot in front of the other.”  Trials and suffering are the mud and muck of life that slow you down, trip you up, and clog up your daily activities.  Everything slows down and you just have to focus on taking one more step ahead.

Maybe you could set a state record for hospital visits in one month; maybe you have a pounding headache from trying to sort out medical bills, or maybe you’re praying that God would keep your husband’s suffering down (if it’s His will).  Perhaps you’re dreading the next IV or worrying that your recent blood test will have bad results.  Sometimes you’re simply praying for a few hours of sleep and relief.  It’s just one day at a time!  I like how Tim Keller speaks of walking with God through trials:

“Walking with God through suffering means treating God as God and as there, as present.  Walking is something non-dramatic, rhythmic – it consists of steady, repeated actions you can keep up in a sustained way for a long time.  God did not tell Abraham in Genesis 17:1 to ‘somersault before me’ or even ‘run before me’ because no one can keep such behavior up day in and day out.  There are many people who think of spiritual growth as something like high diving.  They say, ‘I am going to give my life to the Lord! I am going to change all these terrible habits, and I am really going to transform! Give me another six months, and I am going to be a new man or new woman.’ That is not what a walk is.  A walk is day in and day out obeying, talking to Christian friends, and going to corporate worship, committing yourself to and fully participating in the life of the church.  It is rhythmic, on and on and on.  To walk with God is a metaphor that symbolizes slow and steady progress.

…Walking with God through suffering means that, in general, you will not experience some kind of instant deliverance from your questions, your sorrow, your fears.  There can be, as we shall see, times in which you receive a surprising, in explicable ‘peace that passes understanding.’  There will be days in which some new insight comes to you like a ray of light in a dark room.  There will certainly be progress – that is part of the metaphor of walking – but in general it will be slow and steady progress that comes only if you stick to the regular, daily activities of the walking itself.  ‘The path of the righteous is like the [earliest] morning sun, shining ever brighter till the light of full day’ (Prov. 4:18).

Timothy Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, p. 236-7.

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

To Christians Who Suffer

Some Christians suffer more than others.  God, in his mysterious sovereignty, has given some of his children a more difficult lot and heavier load than others.  Depression, chronic illness, handicaps, intense family conflict, mental illness, and other trials are the hard lot of some Christians.

Abraham Kuyper reminds us that St. Paul had a very difficult lot as well.  The apostle called it a “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor 12:7).  Kuyper says it was a trial that felt “as though a demon assaulted [Paul] and beat him with fists.” The thorn was given to Paul so that he might stay humble and also experience the sweetness of God’s grace.  Kuyper notes that Christians who suffer should remember from Paul’s experience that God’s fatherly plan for us in suffering is a gracious one.  This way we won’t despair when our prayers for relief are not answered in the affirmative.

Kuyper also writes that sometimes suffering is long, intense, and doesn’t let up.  It seems like suffering is our permanent state of existence.  To the sufferer,

“Every morning the affliction is new, and every evening he pours out again his complaint before his God.  Ineradicably the sense that we were not created to suffer continues to struggle against the pain that restlessly accompanies him upon his pathway through life.”

Often what happens at this point is that the sufferer looks around at others who are happy and healthy.  Then who can stop this “sad complaint” from arising: “O, My God, why am I not as they?”  On top of this Satan comes and tempts the sufferer to grumble: “If you are a child of God, where is your heavenly Father to help you?”  Satan mocks: “Where is your God?”  The suffering continues, and some believers at this point seriously backslide in the faith.

But Kuyper said it can be otherwise.  Sometimes the suffering child of God realizes that the Lord can use the suffering to “reveal in him the majesty of His grace.”  Prayers for deliverance continue, but the soul becomes convinced “that in such suffering God intends something different with us.”

“That such suffering does not come upon us by chance, but comes to us from Him, and that He chose us to bear this suffering, that in this our suffering it might become evident, even with suffering most prolonged and bitter, what sacred medicine of soul grace is.”

“And if the eye might but open to this, O, then each day brings experience of new grace; till finally the spirit made willing in us begins to cooperate with grace, to triumph over this suffering and to show Satan and the world, that the happiness God’s child enjoys, is too rich and too abounding to be shadowed even by severest suffering.”

“And so at times sufferers have been seen, who were so gloriously disciplined by grace and in grace, that at the last it seemed, as though they had become insensible to their trouble, yea, that they took pleasure in it, with a heavenly smile upon their face to mock their suffering.”

If you are suffering, I pray God gives you the eyes of faith to see that his grace is sufficient for you in your weakness even right now.  As Paul said in his trial, “When I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10).  Suffering is so hard; it is a heavy, heavy burden.  But God’s grace lightens the load, shines light on the path, and makes it possibly for us to joyfully make it through suffering.  And remember, your trial will not last.  When Jesus returns, he’ll renew your body and you will no longer have any pain, sorrow, trials, or tears (Phil. 3:21; Rev. 21:4).

The above quotes and thoughts are found in Abraham Kuyper’s 23rd meditation of In the Shadow of Death (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 1929).

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

 

 

 

God’s Sovereignty, Our Suffering (Bridges)

Is God Really in Control?: Trusting God in a World of Terrorism, Tsunamis, and Personal Tragedy This is one of the better books I’ve read on suffering and the sovereignty of God: Is God Really in Control by Jerry Bridges.  This book is outstanding because it is very biblical, pastoral, and practical.  You won’t find a detailed philosophical discussion of theodicy in these pages, but you will find hope, comfort, and encouragement in the sovereignty of God’s love in Christ.  As always, Bridges writes in a straightforward manner that most Christians can understand.  You can give this book to a 60-year-old Christian going through a trial or a newly married husband and wife grieving over a miscarriage.  This is truly a book for the church.

Here are a couple of highlights from the book:

“In order to trust God, we must always view our adverse circumstances through the eyes of faith, not of sense.  …We must shape our vision of God by the Bible, not by our experiences” (p. 19 & 35).

“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” (p. 65).

“We must depend upon God to do for us to do what we cannot do for ourselves.  We must, to the same degree, depend on him to enable us to do what we must do for ourselves” (p. 75).

“The good that God works for us in our lives is conformity to the likeness of his Son (Rom. 8:28-30).  So, his good is not necessarily our present comfort or happiness but rather conformity to Christ in ever-increasing measure for eternity” (p. 85).

“In adversity we tend to doubt God’s fatherly care, but in prosperity we tend to forget it.  If we are to trust God, we must acknowledge our dependence upon him at all times, good times as well as bad times” (p. 131).

We all face trials and suffering in life at one point or another.  When the dark valleys in life come, this book will help you keep your eyes on the Lord and strengthen your trust in his Word.

Jerry Bridges, Is God Really In Control?  Trusting God in a World of Hurt (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2006).

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

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

Christ’s Passion, God’s Patience, Our Portion

In a sermon on Lamentations 1:12 called “No Sorrow Like Messiah’s Sorrow” John Newton explained how our sorrow and suffering is always mingled with God’s mercy and patience.  Christ’s suffering on the cross, however, included no mercy or mitigation.

“Did ever any other sufferer experience in an equal degree the day of God’s fierce anger?”

“In the greatest of our sufferings, in those which bear the strongest marks of the Lord’s displeasure, there is always some mitigation, some mixture of mercy.  At the worst, we still have reason to acknowledge that ‘he hath not dealt with us after our sins, or according to the full desert of our iniquities.’”

“If we are in pain, we do not feel every kind of pain at once, yet we can give no sufficient reason why we should not.”

“If we are exercised with poverty and losses, yet something worth the keeping, and more than we can justly claim, is still left to us; at least our lives are spared, though forfeited by sin.”

“If we are in distress of soul, tossed with tempest and not comforted, we are not quite out of the reach of hope.  Even if sickness, pain, loss, and despair should overtake us in the same moment, all is still less than we deserve.”

“Our proper desert is hell, an exclusion from God, and confinement with Satan and his angels, ‘where the worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched.’  Everything short of this is a mercy.”

“But Jesus, though he had no sin of his own, bore the sins of many.  His sufferings were indeed temporary, limited in their duration, but otherwise extreme.  Witness the effects, his heaviness unto death, his consternation, his bloody sweat, his eclipse upon the cross, when deprived of that presence [of the Father] which was his only and exceeding joy.  On these accounts, no sorrow was like unto his sorrow!”

“The unknown sorrows of the Redeemer are a continual source of support and consolation to his believing people.  In his sufferings they contemplate his atonement, his love, and his example and they are animated by the bright and glorious issue [topic].  For he has passed from death to life, from suffering to glory.”

John Newton, Sermon #23, The Works of John Newton, Vol 4.

shane lems
hammond wi