The reality of suffering is no stranger to the Scriptures. Listen to the word of Asaph, an ancient worship leader, in a song he wrote for his people to sing together.
You hold my eyelids open;
I am so troubled that I cannot speak.
I consider the days of old,
the years long ago.
I said, “Let me remember my song in the night;
let me meditate in my heart.”
Then my spirit made a diligent search:
“Will the Lord spurn forever,
and never again be favorable?
Has his steadfast love forever ceased?
Are his promises at an end for all time?
Has God forgotten to be gracious?
Has he in anger shut up his compassion?” Selah (Psalm 77:4–9, ESV)
This is a portion of the psalm Thomas Brooks references in the opening of this third device Satan uses to keep us “sad, doubting, questioning, and uncomfortable.” In today’s language, we might voice such thoughts like this:
“How could God allow me to suffer? Why would a loving God let this happen? If there is a God, surely this wouldn’t be part of his plan.”
As long as humans have walked the earth we have said things like this. If we even entertain the possibility of a supreme being, a sovereign god, we naturally wonder what is the purpose and meaning of suffering, pain and sorrow.
But to ask these questions is to make a supposition: that the existence of an essentially good god precludes the existence of suffering. We assume that if God is generally for us he could not allow events that are evidently against us.
The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob never promises this, though. But you might not know this based on how God is marketed to the public in many of today’s churches. We gloss over hardship in favor of success, victory, and ever-increasing satisfaction in the faith of our choosing.
We forget what the Bible actually promises to those who become God’s adopted sons and daughters through Christ – suffering, struggle, doubt, rejection, loneliness, and even persecution. Sometimes Christianity can feel like trading in one set of sorrows for another.
It isn’t always this way, of course. Faith in Christ also brings hope, peace, contentment, and persevering joy. But we must remember what Job asked his wife in the midst of unspeakable suffering: “Should we only accept good from God and not adversity?” Do we dare assume God owes his children a life of ease, freedom from suffering, and avoidance of pain? Will we refuse to consider he has greater purposes in mind for the darkness that sometimes obscures his light?
Let’s listen to Thomas Brooks as he shares his remedies for overcoming these false assumptions.
Remedy 1: We don’t always want what God knows we need
What was the apostle Paul’s response to being afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down? It was to remind the believers in Corinth that “this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen” (2 Cor. 4:18)
The two examples Brooks gives with this remedy are of God working for the good of persons despite his seeming “cross actings” against them. The author is not teaching, of course, that we will always reap smiles at the end of our trials – at least not in this life. He merely encourages us to trust that God’s purposes are working in their midst.
Remedy 2: We can’t always know God’s intent from his actions
I know of no better illustration of this truth than the life of Horatio Spafford. A wealthy man, he lost much in the great Chicago fire of 1871. Not long after, he and his wife Anna lost their four year-old son to scarlet fever. Seeking respite for his family, Spafford placed Anna and their four daughters aboard a steamer for Europe, intending to follow them soon after.
A collision in the Atlantic Ocean between Anna Spafford’s ship and another led to the deaths of all four daughters. As Horatio Spafford sailed to England to join his grieving wife and passed over the site of the tragedy, it was then that it has been said he wrote the words to this famous hymn:
When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.
Horatio and Anna had three more children, one of which also died of scarlet fever. The remaining family of four went on to establish a long-successful ministry in Jerusalem, ministering to the needs of thousands. The Spafford Center still exists today.
Would the Spaffords have had the same legacy if they had not first suffered so deeply? It’s impossible to say for certain. But we can see in their instance God’s allowing such suffering in their lives was not a mark of his overall intent.
Remedy 3: God works all things together for our good, even suffering
When a friend is in the midst of suffering, speaking platitudes can often do more harm than good. Sometimes it’s better when the sufferer has the freedom to personally discover the truth of what the apostle Paul wrote to the church in Rome.
Discovering or remembering God’s love in the midst of trial can be a sweet surprise. Experiencing desirable outcomes following loss can make those fruits of God’s kindness taste even sweeter. Receiving good from God’s hand when his face has seemed to be turned against us will make us grasp that good with greater thankfulness.
Remedy 4: Our weights will become our weapons
We must remember Jesus’ encouragement to “hold fast” until he came. These are the words Thomas Brooks borrows to speak to his faithful readers.
The Spurgeon Center at Midwestern Seminary has cleared up a common misquotation of the great preacher: “I have learned to kiss the wave that throws me against the Rock of ages.” In a sermon preached in 1874, Charles Spurgeon said:
“The wave of temptation may even wash you higher up upon the Rock of ages, so that you cling to it with a firmer grip than you have ever done before, and so again where sin abounds, grace will much more abound.”
Our continual grasp upon Christ through temptation, trial, and terror will strengthen us to hold fast to him in all situations. These lessons we learn in God’s school of affliction will benefit younger believers as they learn from our example.