Afflictions in the Life of Grace
In the life of God’s children there are afflictions. Lord’s Day 9 of the Heidelberg Catechism refers to this present life as a valley of tears. Since man’s fall in Paradise, many tears are shed in this life. We do well to realize this, so that we will be more sober-minded, for it is a fact that the life of a child of God is not only spent on the heights of joy and delight, but also in the valleys of tears and darkness. To hide our eyes from this reality is only foolishness and will only aggravate the experiences of hardships and afflictions.
God’s Word teaches us in Acts 14:22, that we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God. These tribulations do not refer to the hardships that all mankind to some extent will suffer because of man’s fall, but they relate to special afflictions and tribulations that befall the children of God.
Afflictions for Christ’s Sake
There are many examples of hardships God’s children go through for the sake of Christ’s name. We must limit ourselves greatly to mention only some. We think of the afflictions of Job and the trials of Jeremiah. Isaiah, a man of God, knew in advance that the people would not receive his message and they would inflict sufferings upon him. David repeatedly speaks in his psalms of enduring spiritual darkness. Well-known is the valley of the shadow of death in Psalm 23. This does not necessarily mean that this valley is an immediate prelude to death, but it shows the severity of afflictions.
Because of the resistance of the Corinthian church, Paul writes to them in 2 Corinthians 2:4,
For out of much affliction and anguish of heart I wrote unto you with many tears.
In Acts 28:15 we read that in Italy, on his way to Rome, Paul met brethren for whom he thanked God and that he took courage from this meeting, implying that he felt dejected. We are to be aware that in spiritual life struggles and tribulations will come and we should not be surprised when hardships happen.
There can be various kinds of afflictions and different sorts of trials. We all know there is physical suffering and there are mental afflictions. But there is also spiritual suffering because of the assaults of the prince of darkness. We can be plagued with doubts, as well as with weaknesses and infirmities of the flesh, that give us much pain. Paul groaned about his old carnal nature that was resisting the life of grace.
Spiritual adversaries seek to spoil the life of faith. The world tempts and can cause the soul to be tossed to and fro. Sin and temptation can lead to spiritual darkness. The Lord can withdraw His kind presence for a season so that His child no longer experiences the loving kindness of God. Sorrows and disappointments are experienced when God leads in different ways than we had hoped. Afflictions can be many and be very diverse.
Afflictions are not without a purpose. God, in His sovereignty and wisdom, allots certain afflictions to His people. The Lord is perfectly aware of what is happening to them. Christ, the compassionate High Priest, knows from His own experience what it is to be afflicted. Therefore He carefully metes out the personal afflictions of all of His children. He shows His care by remembering mercy, also in tribulations.
It is of inestimable comfort to a child of God that in the midst of all the tribulations the Lord remains in control. Think of what Christ said to His disciples in John 16:33,
In the world ye shall have tribulation, but He added, But be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.
In Romans 8:28 we read,
And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.
The fact that God has overcome the world and is in full control of all events should encourage God’s child. Suffering and the hardship are not in vain. God has His purpose with all these things.
We may ask the question: What are these purposes the Lord has for leading His people into tribulation? Why must God’s children go through much tribulation to enter the kingdom of heaven? In his book, A Christian’s Reasonable Service (Vol. 4, p. 180), Brakel lists several benefits God’s children receive from spiritual desertions. Andrew Gray, in his book, Loving Christ and fleeing Temptation (p. 323, RHB edition) lists advantages for Christians when they meet with dark dispensations.
The first blessing of afflictions is increased self-knowledge. It caused one to become better acquainted with self. A child of God perceives more of his sinful nature and wicked actions. You become aware how abominable you are before God, angels and men. In Deuteronomy 8:2, Moses reminds the people of God’s guidance by leading them forty years through the wilderness to humble thee, and to prove thee, to know what was in thine heart, whether thou wouldest keep his commandments, or no. In afflictions you remember former iniquities. A Christian forgets many sins, but in the furnace of affliction he is reminded of them, like Joseph’s brothers in Egypt (Gen. 42: 21, 22). In these afflictions you become humble and realize that if God would deal with you according to His justice, it would be far worse. You experience your inability to restore yourself into God’s favour.
The second blessing is that you esteem grace much more highly. You start to appreciate the least crumbs of grace, while prior to that you would easily discard these same tokens of God’s love and care. Now you see how unworthy you are and how strong the corruptions are within you and you see clearly that all God’s dealings with you are tokens of His sheer mercy alone. Because of these afflictions, the least token of God’s grace becomes highly valued. You mourn and humble yourself on account of your corruptions. Manasseh humbled himself in his affliction (see 2 Chron. 33:12).
You now long for God and His grace. Because of these longings for the Lord and His presence, your prayers will increase. You experience what is stated in Psalm 42:2: My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God. His loving kindness becomes more precious to you than life. It is a fact that it is often through afflictions that a child of God will attain higher views of Christ. Under the sufferings of a cross one’s estimation of Christ will increase. In the Song of Solomon the bride’s desire for her Bridegroom is greater when He has departed because of her unfaithfulness.
In the third place, afflictions will also wean you from the world. You will not cleave to the world, much less will you love it, for you need something far better than the world can offer. You see the world exposed in all its emptiness and futility. The idols have no ears to hear, no eyes to see and they cannot save you. You loathe them, and instead, you cleave to the living God. You forsake the world, for you see clearly that only God can be your stay. You need God in your life. Therefore you are thrust upon God. He is the only One who can help and deliver you. You say with Asaph in his afflictions: Whom have I in heaven but thee? and there is none upon earth that I desire beside thee (Ps. 73:25).
Fourthly, the Lord leads into afflictions to glorify His Name. The Lord chooses some of His people to suffer hardships so that God’s grace and sustaining power are displayed in their lives. Others see the powerful grace of God at work in your life, giving you patience, perseverance and humility to bear these hardships. Faith is strengthened through these trials. In Revelation 13:10 we read of the patience and the faith of the saints.
God is glorified when His name is adored in the midst of hardships and afflictions.
It is as James 1:2, 3 says,
My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations; knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience.
The Lord can place His people under the rod so they may experience His power in delivering them. This will all redound to the glory of His name. Psalm 50:15 is fulfilled: And call upon me in the day of trouble: I will deliver thee, and thou shalt glorify me.
Andrew Gray says that it is easier for a Christian to bear his cross than to bear his enjoyments (p. 327). Under a cross, by the power of God’s grace, a Christian may experience much love, tenderness and patience, but upon the first blink of prosperity, his tenderness may be gone. How a Christian needs grace to lay his life in God’s hand! We may think that we know which cross would be suitable for us, but in reality we are least able to bear such a cross.
Christ knows exactly which cross is suitable for you. He knows much better than you how to guide you to heaven. He knows much better than you how to subdue your flesh. He knows much better than you how to nurture spiritual graces and fruit in you. Let Christ carve your cross.
Warning and Comfort
Finally, let us be very clear that not all suffering and hardships are evidence that we are one of God’s children. There are many who suffer afflictions as the consequences of sin, and they perish. This world lies in the midst of death and suffering. The afflictions we have dealt with are specifically meant for God’s children. Those who have been translated from darkness to light will go through special tribulations because of their struggles against the devil, the world and their own flesh.
The ungodly do not know these kinds of afflictions. They do not own their guilt. They are not concerned about godliness, but they live for their own pleasures. They seek to fulfill the natural desires of their heart. If you are like that, you must realize that the adversities you are now going through are only a precursor to the real sufferings that await you. As long as you neglect Christ you are under His condemnation. You may now laugh and think you are having a jolly good time, but when we live apart from Christ He says: Woe unto you that are full! for ye shall hunger. Woe unto you that laugh now! for ye shall mourn and weep (Luke 6:25).
But you who trust in the Lord, while you walk in darkness and have no light, you may think that your life is falling apart. It seems that God does not hear you. The godly ones of Judah thought that all was lost after the Babylonians had destroyed Jerusalem. There were no walls left. Then the Lord spoke to them: Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands; thy walls are continually before me (Isa. 49:16). The people saw ruins, but God sees walls. When your life seems to be broken, the Lord sees another life. He that sat upon the throne said,
Behold, I make all things new. For God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. And He that sat on the throne said unto me (John), Write: for these words are true and faithful. Revelations 21:5