Element Church Blog

A Sanctified Affliction (Follow-Up to Ruth Week 3)

If you have been at Element the last three weeks, you know that it might seem like a bit of a downer because we are in the first chapter of the book of Ruth. This is simply because the first chapter of Ruth is depressing. It starts off at very low point: no one is following God, a man moves his family to a pagan place and dies, his sons marry women who worship foreign gods, those same sons die, and all hope seems to be lost. These scenes we read about in Ruth should give us pause to consider the whole idea of suffering and affliction in our own lives.
 
The term “sanctified affliction” has been used by Charles Spurgeon, John James, and most recently, John Piper. Sanctified affliction teaches that everything that comes into our lives can be used by God to grow us more into His likeness and image. This means not one tear we have shed is meaningless in light of God’s overarching sovereignty. As I talked about on Sunday, John Flavel, a Puritan in the 1600s, wrote extensively on this subject. He personally lost three wives, a son, his parents, and he was ejected from his church…he (understandably) asked the question, "Why does God sovereignly permit the suffering of his people?". He gives eight answers to that question (from an article by Brian H. Cosby in Modern Reformation Magazine, February 28, 2014):

1.To Reveal and Deter – Flavel writes, "I heartily wish that these searching afflictions may make the more satisfying discoveries; that you may now see more of the evil of sin, the vanity of the creature, and the fulness of Christ, than ever you yet saw."

2.To Produce Godliness and Spiritual Fruit – Flavel believed that the most fruit producing soil in our lives is the ground of suffering. "The power of godliness did never thrive better than in affliction." 

3.To Reveal More of the Character of God – God reveals his kindness (hesed) and character by how He cares for us in the midst of our suffering. Flavel writes in reference to 2 Cor 12:9 (where Jesus says to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”), “By exposing his people to such grievous sufferings, he gives a fit opportunity to manifest the glory of his power…and of his wisdom."

4. To Relinquish the Temporary for the Eternal – Too often we cling to things that have no eternal value, so God removes them from us even when it hurts. "Thy affliction is a fair class to discover [the creature's vanity]; for the vanity of the creature is never so effectually and sensibly discovered, as in our own experience of it."

5. To Produce a Sincere Faith, Devoid of Hypocrisy – Suffering reveals what we truly believe about the kind of person Jesus is. He says that in suffering we have "an opportunity to discover the sincerity of your love to God."

6. To Encourage Fellowship with God through Word and Prayer – In times of suffering, we should be drawn to the goodness of God and develop a deeper faith than we have ever known. Flavel writes this amazing line, where he says, "I am sure the sweetest melody of prayer is upon the deep waters of affliction."

7. To Bear Witness to the World – How believers live in the midst of their suffering will be a great witness of the reality of salvation and the goodness of God. Rather than hiding or running, we embrace what affliction can teach us. In The Touchstone of Sincerity he writes, "The frequent trials of grace…prove beyond all words or argument that religion is no fancy, but the greatest reality in the world."

8. To Cultivate Communion with Christ, the Greatest Sufferer – We have a God who not only walks with us through our suffering, but suffered Himself for salvation by taking our sin upon Himself. When we understand that Jesus cared enough to die the death we should have died, it should humble us and draw us into deeper relationship with Him. In The Method of Grace, Flavel writes, "In all your afflictions he is afflicted; tender sympathy cannot but flow from such intimate union."

The Puritans, as a group, were unique in their understanding of our suffering and the goodness, sovereignty, and kindness of God. Today it seems as though the American church wants to run and hide from any theology that touches near the subject of suffering and pain. We are told that God’s job is only to bless you…and “bless” is defined as whatever makes you feel happy and fulfilled. On the contrary though, we know the truth is that God does bless us many times, but that blessing comes either in the midst of, or as a result, of suffering. God isn’t too small to allow pain into our lives, and He is big enough to walk us through it to grow us in our sanctified afflictions.
 
How about one last quote from Flavel? “A Christian may develop and cultivate a deeper and more meaningful relationship and fellowship with God, especially in times of suffering."