All of us can tend to be all rather quiet about certain issues. For example, we fully expect the world to remain silent about various things – especially things the militants and radicals have told us we are not allowed to talk about. You can get away with murder – quite literally – when you push this sort of out of sight out of mind campaign.
Thus we are not supposed to talk about the sanctity of life for the unborn – resulting in millions of them being slaughtered each year. We are certainly not allowed to speak about ex-homosexuals: they too are another invisible group of people.
But sadly Christians can be like this as well. Some things you seem to hear about very rarely in contemporary Western Christianity. Things like sin and judgment to come are obvious examples. But here I wish to speak about the dreaded ‘S’ and ‘A’ words: suffering and affliction.
It is quite odd that we hear so little about these matters. After all, we all suffer. Sure, we don’t want to suffer – I certainly don’t. But such a universal experience is often swept under the carpet in too many churches and Christian circles.
But that goes against Scripture and church history where these matters have always been discussed. The Bible even has entire books devoted to these issues. Think of Job and Lamentations for example. There would be many hundreds of passages that speak to this. If God takes it so seriously, why don’t we?
And most Christians throughout church history have spoken and written on this topic extensively. So why do we not do the same today? Part of the problem is a fake gospel being pushed in the West. The idea that Christians should always be healthy and wealthy and happy and have their best life now will certainly fill churches, sell books, and make the false prophets pushing this baloney celebrity pastors and teachers.
But as I say, Scripture and most of church history give us a much different story. Both not only speak to this all the time, but affliction was even welcomed and seen as coming from the good and wise hand of God. Sure, you do not go out of your way looking for suffering, but when it comes, you should try to see just how much God is involved in it, and why he is allowing it.
The psalmist constantly spoke to this, especially emphasising the educative and remedial aspects of suffering. Just three verses from Psalm 119 can be mentioned here:
Psalm 119:67 Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word.
Psalm 119:71 It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees.
Psalm 119:75 I know, O LORD, that your laws are righteous, and in faithfulness you have afflicted me.
And the great majority of Christians over the centuries have also echoed these themes. The Puritans certainly did. I have written before about some of them in this regard. One of the classic Puritan works for example is The Bruised Reed by Richard Sibbes. I discussed that amazing book here.
Another Puritan classic worth being aware of is the 1652 A Treatise on Affliction by the English clergyman and member of the Westminster Assembly Thomas Case (1598–1682). A smaller edited version of it called When Christians Suffer was put out by Banner of Truth in 2009.
The Puritans were known as ‘doctors of the soul’ since their experiential Christianity and pastoral theology went so far and so deep. They are hard to improve upon in this area, and Case is no exception. Let me simply offer some choice quotes from this important work.
“We are great strangers to the cross, and when we suffer we either despise the chastisement of the Lord or we faint when we are rebuked by him.”
“In prosperity we are full of our own will, and usually we give God counsel when God looks for obedience. We tell God how it might have been better, and we dispute our cross when we should take it up.”
“David was sent into the school of affliction to learn the statutes of God. Through correction the people of God learn to read the word more abundantly.”
“The purest acts of faith are put forth in the dark! Faith is at its greatest strength when it cannot see, for it has nothing to stay itself upon but God. Man must first see the insufficiency of what he sees before he can believe in all sufficiency of him that is invisible.”
“We discover more of God through afflictions than by many sermons. In the word we hear of God, but in afflictions we see God.”
“There is an infinite fullness in Jesus Christ. There never was a king anointed with such power. There was never a prophet with such wisdom. There was never a priest with such grace and righteousness. God did not give his Spirit by measure to him (John 3:34). It is infinite fullness which fills Jesus Christ as mediator that we might of his fullness receive grace for grace. But we do not always have a capacity to receive or to see that fullness. The reason is that we fill ourselves so much with the world in our prosperity. We seek the pleasures and profits of the world, and have no room for Christ.”
“Affliction is a calamity of God’s making (Amos 3:6). God has so tempered the nature of it and directs it by divine skill, to make it fit and disposed to serve and promote his own gracious designs in the children of promise.”
“Affliction is God’s forge where he softens the iron heart. You cannot work with iron while it remains cold and hard. Put it into the fire, and make it red-hot there, and you may stamp upon it any figure or impression you please. Melted vessels are impressionable to any form. So it is with the heart of man. By nature it is cold and hard, and this is much increased by prosperity and the longsuffering of God towards sinners. The furnace makes the soul pliable to God’s counsel.”
“And note, though the Scriptures say that those whom the Lord loves he corrects, it does not say whoever receives correction is a son. Scripture ties chastening to sonship, but not sonship to chastening. Some are chastened, but all that are chastened are not therefore, sons.”
“It is sad when men come out of affliction the same as when they went in; when affliction leaves them as it found them; ignorant, proud, insensible to sin, uncaring about suffering brethren, worldly, impatient, unsavoury, a stranger to Christ, a stranger to their own hearts, and unconcerned about eternity.”
“Behold I show you a mystery: sin brought affliction into the world, and God makes affliction to carry sin out of the world. Persecution is but the pruning of Christ’s vine. The almond tree is said to be made fruitful by driving nails into it and letting out a noxious gum that hinders the fruitfulness. God never intended more good to his children than when he seems to deal most severely with them. God would rather fetch blood than lose a soul.”
“God does not give a blow, nor draw one drop of blood more than necessary. ‘In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials’ (1 Pet. 1:6). If there is heaviness, there is need for it. If the heaviness continues long, there I need of it.”
“It is a great mistake and folly of men that they make more haste to get their afflictions removed than sanctified. Learning our lesson is the shortest way to deliverance. That is God’s method.”
“God has consecrated your sufferings by his teaching. You have become a partaker of the divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4). Your soul now resembles God, holy as he is holy. God has changed the very nature of affliction; he has turned your water into wine; a prison, a bed of sickness, into a school, into a temple in which he has taught you that you share his image.”
These are just a few of the passages from the condensed version of his treatise as put out by Banner of Truth. So much more is said by Case on this topic. But it is hoped that you might be inspired to check out his writings further, along with some of the other great Puritans.
Bill Muehlenberg, an American-born and Australian-based commentator, is the author of a number of books and thousands of articles. You can follow him on his website CultureWatch, on YouTube and on Twitter.