I desire to write you about something with which you are well acquainted: affliction. Much has been written on affliction by our forebears. A good part of it you have known for a long time. For example, you know that all affliction is ultimately traceable to our tragic fall in Adam. You know, too, the grievousness of affliction. After all, who enjoys suffering?
Yet you also know that all affliction is sent by a wise, fatherly God. Perhaps you even know–as the whole book of Job and the Puritans never tire of teaching us–that the important thing is not the amount of affliction we receive, but how we respond to that affliction.
Isn’t it just here that your deepest questions about affliction and trial lie? For you want to respond to affliction in a God-glorifying manner, but you feel you often fall inexcusably short. You desire that your entire life may serve God’s praise (Isa. 43:21), but somehow when you enter the heat and heart of affliction you find yourself losing grip on your firm intention. To respond rightly to affliction before it comes is hard; to look back on it gratefully after it is over is harder; but to live Christianly in affliction is hardest. Hence you ask yourself again and again: how may I live through affliction more Christianly–in a way that is more like Christ? How may I grow in grace while–yes, while–suffering affliction?
You are not alone in such wrestlings. Countless times God’s children have been there, begging to be made conformable to the image of Christ through the furnace of affliction. The prayer is simple (“Lord, grant me grace to live through this affliction Christianly”) the wrestlings, often agonizing.
Through years of encountering affliction (including times of running from wrestling with, resolving against, and–by grace–submitting to and bowing under it), I have gleaned a few thoughts on how to live Christianly through affliction. These I wish to share with you. But as you allow me to provide several practical hints on this eminently practical subject, please bear in mind that we are always dependent on the sanctification of the Holy Spirit at every juncture for real spiritual benefit under affliction. Without the Spirit’s gracious influences, affliction may readily lead us away from rather than toward God.
I wish to focus my suggestions to you around one major theme that, sad to say, took me many years to learn even in small measure: The most effective means for living Christianly in affliction is to consider Christ, the fountainhead of all vital Christianity (Heb. 3:1). To live Christianly in any sphere or aspect of life necessitates Spirit-worked faith to look to Him, to feast on Him, to depend on Him–yes, to find both our life in Him (on Calvary’s cross) and our death in Him (as exalted Lord, to whom we belong).
Consider Christ–that’s the crux of the whole matter of affliction. But how, you ask? In what ways must I consider Him?
First and foremost, consider the afflictions of Christ. What greater source of strength for living through and profiting from affliction can be had than frequent meditation on the sufferings of the Lord Jesus? Think much on these things: If Jesus suffered so much on behalf of His people, shouldn’t I be able to endure in His strength the daily afflictions I must bear? What are my afflictions compared to His? Besides, was He not the Sufferer par excellence while wholly innocent, and am I not , at best, a sufferer in His footsteps while wholly guilty?
Moreover (and this may be most encouraging), is there one affliction that I must endure that He has not already endured? Is He not the Breaker to go before His flock both in opening all our paths (Micah 2:13) and in being tempted in all points as we are, yet without sin (Heb. 4:15)? All paths, all points. Jesus not only knows your affliction, He has identified himself with it. He has borne it. And He will sanctify it. “There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it” (1 Cor. 10:13).
Second, consider the power of Christ. Being infinite God-man, Jesus received power on earth to bear infinite sufferings on your behalf. And through the merit of these sufferings, He now receives royal power in heaven from His Father to rule and strengthen you in your sufferings (Matt. 28:18). Translated practically relative to affliction, His heaven-earth power reads like this: If He desires to weigh you down with affliction–yes, heavy, seemingly staggering affliction–do not be alarmed, but look to Him for strength.
Nor should you be ashamed. When I worked for my father in early youth, I was advised to carry only half-bundles of shingles up the ladder to the roof, but I anticipated the day of greater maturity and strength when my shoulders could bear full, unsplit bundles as my older brothers could. Similarly, afflicted believer, Jesus Christ tailors your afflictions to you. He has promised to fit your afflictions to your shoulders (1 Cor. 10:13). Neither be proud of slender shoulders nor ask for more affliction, but beg for broader shoulders exercised in the weight-room of Jesus’ providential leadings.
As you and I realize by grace that the bearing of heavy burdens Christianly is testimony of spiritual maturity and honors the Christ whom we love, our groaning under affliction’s “heaviness” will be happily bruised. Isn’t this the encouragement that Puritan George Downame intended to convey when he aptly penned: “The Lord does not measure out our afflictions according to our faults, but according to our strength, and looks not at what we have deserved, but at what we are able to bear”?
Oh, how great it is when we may look to the strength of Jesus Christ in all our weakness and apprehend our strength in Him (2 Cor. 12:9)! Then the power of the humiliated and exalted Jesus enables us to sing at times (would to God more heartily and frequently!) in “inner prison” depths with Paul and Silas (Acts 16:25)–yes, to rejoice that we are counted worthy to suffer for the name and sake of the Lord Jesus Christ (cf. 2 Cor. 6 and 12).
Third, consider the presence of Christ. He is at no time absent from you, even when your faith lacks active exercise to grasp Him. Even in your thickest hours of Egyptian darkness, He is close beside you. Only of Him can it be declared, “The darkness and the light are both alike to Thee” (Ps. 139:12).
How comforting this is! In all your dark afflictions, your High Priest retains you in His high-priestly eye, preserves you in His high-priestly heart, bears you on His high-priestly shoulders, removes you not from the engravings on His high-priestly hands, and never ceases to remember you in His high-priestly intercessions. “He ever liveth to make intercession for them” (Heb. 7:25).
Oh, what tender love! You are never forgotten by Jesus Christ, despite your negligence toward Him. Your unbrotherliness to Christ never unbrothers this precious Elder Brother from you. From His perspective, He ever remains a friend that sticks “closer than a brother” (Prov. 18:24), even when you cannot see or feel it. Even then He is whispering to you in midnight seasons, “What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter” (John 13:7).
Take heart. The Jesus who never failed you in yesterday’s afflictions (did He not rather give you extra tokens of His care!) is still present to give you today’s strength (Matt. 6:34). Just as waves are cut down to melodious whimpers at shore’s reality, so He will break down your waves of tomorrow’s impossibilities as (not before!) they break in on the beachheads of your life. Wait on your ever-present Savior. He will not let you down. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb. 13:8).
Excerpts from Consider Christ in Affliction: An Open Letter to True Believers by Pastor Joel Beeke