The blessedness of affliction
These days are sober days for all of us as we ‘shelter at home,’ wondering how long we will live in relative seclusion. Does God have some purpose in such circumstances? Does He design such frightful situations? Whether someone is a Baptist or a Buddhist, life has many profoundly troubling turns. To be sure, God has multiplied differing purposes in the COVID-19 pandemic, but certainly one of God’s purposes in this global trial is that He might test and strengthen the faith of His saints. As believers, let us be certain of this, that God deliberately leads His own through deep waters for their everlasting blessing.
In our Bible study we tend to quickly pass over passages like John 15:2 – “Every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it that it may bear more fruit” … or Psalm 119:71 – “It was good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn Thy statutes” … or Hebrews 12:6 – “For those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, and He scourges every son whom He receives” (italics added).
One of the ways … perhaps the main way … that the Lord produces godliness in His people is through suffering. If we believe that God “works all things after the counsel of His will” (Eph 1:11), then His plan must include pain as well as pleasure. We call this weaving together of all events in our lives the ‘providence’ of God. John Murray, in his excellent booklet Behind a Frowning Providence, defines providence as follows: Providence is that marvelous working of God by which all the events and happenings in His universe accomplish the purpose He has in mind (Murray, Behind a Frowning Providence, 9).
Within God’s overall plan there are wondrous providences, like the walls of Jericho falling down at the sound of the trumpet or the first stone from David’s sling hitting its mark. There are delightful providences, like marriage of Boaz and Ruth or the help of Rahab given to the Israelite spies. And there are dark providences, like Joseph being sold into slavery by his jealous brothers or unimaginable heartache experienced by Job.
I am especially aware these days of the dark providences of a loving Father … that all things come into our life by divine design … that there is nothing that is without purpose … that everything has been ordered and assigned by God our Creator and Redeemer. Certainly God has not revealed many things to us. Deuteronomy 29:29 says, “The secret things belong to God; the things He has revealed belong to us.” But He has revealed enough of His sovereignty and holiness that we can trust His hand even when the purpose is not clear to us. Again, quoting Murray, “One of the most difficult things to do when the road is rough or when the billows are passing over us is to feel that God still loves us. It is the last thing we can accept. But we are not called to feel; we are called to believe. In his book, In All Their Afflictions, Murdoch Campbell tells of a minister in the North of Scotland who suddenly lost his spiritually-minded wife. As he prayed that night in the presence of his friends he said, ‘If an angel from heaven told me that this would work for my good, I would not believe him, but because Thy Word says it, I must believe it.’” (Murray, Behind a Frowning Providence, 21)
The ultimate goal of all our affliction is to draw us into a greater nearness to God … in greater faith and adoration and delight and hope. This is more crucial to our hearts than any understanding of the specifics of why we experience painful things. This is exactly Job’s response to his enormous losses, “Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head, and he fell to the ground and worshipped” (Job 1:20). The outcome of God’s purposes for His people will always be filled with mercy, whether on the earth or in heaven. “Behold, we count those blessed who endured. You heard of the endurance of Job and have seen the outcome of the Lord’s dealings, that the Lord is full of compassion and merciful” (James 5:11).
John Newton (1725-1807), who wrote “Amazing Grace,” also wrote a hymn entitled “Prayer Answered by Crosses.” The following stanzas are from that insightful hymn.
I asked the Lord that I might grow, in faith and love and every grace, Might more of His salvation know, and seek more earnestly His face.
‘Twas He who taught me thus to pray; and He, I trust, has answered prayer; But it has been in such a way, as almost drove me to despair.
I hoped that, in some favored hour, at once He’d answer my request, And by His love’s constraining power, subdue my sins, and give me rest.
Instead of this, He made me feel the hidden evils of my heart, And let the angry powers of hell, assault my soul in every part.
Yea, more, with His own hand he seemed, intent to aggravate my woe, Crossed all the fair designs I schemed, blasted my gourds, and laid me low.
Lord, why is this? I trembling, cried; wilt Thou pursue this worm to death? This is the way, the Lord replied, I answer prayer for grace and faith. These inward trials I now employ, from self and pride to set thee free, And break thy schemes of earthly joy, that thou may’st seek thy all in me.
“All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness” (Heb 12:11).
Beloved, let us thankfully humble ourselves before our Father because He is producing, in us, the “peaceable fruit of righteousness.” Let us passionately draw near to our God (prayer, Bible reading and meditation, singing) during this temporary ordeal and we will find, in Him, every grace necessary for these days … and for all the days of our lives.
Resting on God in trouble,