God is sovereign and good, and yet life is hard. It is filled with bruises and brokenness, trials and hardships, sorrows and tears. Yet, in Christ, nothing we walk through is wasted or worthless. For the believer, no tear is wastefully shed, no cry is worthlessly expressed, and no pain is futilely suffered. God is always working in our affliction. Always.
The past twelve years have been an extended season of trials and sorrows for my family and me. I never imagined my college years would include helping care for my ailing mother, and then sitting at her bedside as God took her home.
“I never imagined that life would so constantly bring me to the end of my own strength and resources.”
I never imagined my wife and I would celebrate our first anniversary in the hospital at the bedside of our son who was born prematurely with Down syndrome and complex heart disease. I never imagined caring for a son who walked through over twenty surgeries including five open-heart procedures. I never imagined I could feel so much sorrow and pain as a father watching my precious son struggle on a ventilator, struggle with a trach, struggle to be around people, struggle to communicate, struggle to eat, struggle to play, struggle to sleep, and struggle to process the world around him.
I never imagined that life as a husband and now a father of four would so constantly bring me to the end of my own strength and resources. I never imagined that the Lord would bring so many tears.
Yet I also never imagined that life could be this beautiful, this full, this filled with joy, and this blessed. Grace lavishes (Ephesians 1:7–8). Hope abounds (Romans 15:13). My refuge and salvation are sure (Psalm 18:2), for mine is “the Father of mercies and God of all comfort” (2 Corinthians 1:3). God truly is faithful.
Why Do God’s Children Suffer?
As Job asks, “shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 2:10). Ultimately, God ordains and brings affliction into a believer’s life (Ruth 1:20–21). He is sovereign over all our suffering, though he uses means to accomplish his purposes (Luke 23:25; Galatians 1:4). Each affliction always flows from a good God working for his good purposes (Psalm 119:67–68; Romans 8:28). God ordains bitter suffering in order to bring about sweet redemption, just as he did at the cross (Acts 4:27–28). Ultimately, God causes what grieves him for greater purposes that glorify his name and strengthen his people (John 12:27–28).
Richard Baxter, a 17th century Puritan, wrote a magnificent book entitled The Saints’ Everlasting Rest, Or a Treatise of the Blessed State of the Saints, in Their Enjoyment of God in Glory. At one point he asks, “Why do the people of God suffer so much in this life?”
I dare not pretend to know the depths of God’s purposes and reasons for afflicting his children. Nevertheless, we can conclude some purposes on this side of final redemption. Here are five Baxter-inspired reasons that God graciously afflicts his saints.
1. To prepare us to fully enjoy rest.
Life is a vapor (James 4:14). It is here today and gone today. The day is coming for every believer when God will call us to depart from this sin-soaked world into the ravishing delights of a paradise with him (Psalm 16:11). But until we see him face to face, this everlasting rest is built upon the foundation of earthly suffering and affliction (Acts 14:22).
“For the believer, no tear is wastefully shed, no cry is worthlessly expressed, and no pain is futilely suffered.”
Laying a head on the pillow after a hard day of work, reaching asylum away from the ravages of war, finally sitting down after a lengthened day of corralling kids — these are all foretastes of heavenly rest after worldly weariness. It will be in heaven as it is on earth. Our weariness will one day give way to unthinkable refreshment precisely because this life is filled with such deep suffering and pain.
As it is now, our weariness readies us for a deeper enjoyment of eternal rest (2 Corinthians 4:17).
2. To keep us from mistaking earth for heaven.
Life is nomadic (1 Peter 2:11). We are all sojourners on our way home — but we are not home yet (Hebrews 13:14). When an earthly journey grows weary and treacherous, a traveler unmistakably feels his absence from home. The hardship often kindles his desire to return to his home. He longs for it, dreams of it, and anticipates the moment of arrival. As Baxter says, “The most dangerous mistake that our souls are capable of is, to take the creature for God, and earth for heaven.”
It would have been ludicrous for an Israelite to stake his claim on a portion of land in the wandering wasteland. It is similarly foolish to build bigger barns — to place our affections primarily on things of this earth (Luke 12:18). It is a misstep in our affections, attentions, and energies. This earthly land is not our heavenly dwelling. Affliction focuses our gaze beyond this earthly horizon and helps us see that this land is not our ultimate end.
3. To draw us nearer to God.
Life is a battle (Ephesians 6:10–18; Romans 8:13). A believer’s affliction can at times reveal the idols of the heart. It forces us to see the lackluster shimmer of the priorities and possessions we strap to our back as we try to journey through this life. Concerns weigh us down rather than quicken our pace onward toward him.
“God ordains bitter suffering in order to bring about sweet redemption, just as he did at the cross.”
Yet like a shot of adrenaline to the soldier on the front lines who begins to doze but then hears the snap of a twig, so affliction seizes our hearts with such effect that we startle awake to see God and then fly to him. Baxter contends, “If our dear Lord did not put those thorns into our bed, we should sleep out our lives, and lose our glory” (156).
While the devil and earth lull us away from Christ, affliction courses through our soul, making us feel more alive than ever, and then pushes us back to the straight and narrow in order to find life in the fountain of life itself.
4. To quicken our pace toward God.
Life is labor (Colossians 3:1–2). How true it is that we have a tendency to grow lethargic in our responsibilities, callings, and heavenly pursuits. That which we begin with haste and zeal easily downshifts to a slothful crawl and, many times, an altogether abandonment. Even the Christian, whom God promises to keep as his child and bring safely into his heavenly kingdom, can slow his pace in pursuit of God.
Many good, God-given gifts in life can become impediments that slow pursuit and zap our energy and zeal. But there are some realities that simply make you run faster at the end of a grueling race. Sometimes it’s a dog at your heels; other times it’s a cleared vision of the prize beyond the finish line.
We are all in need of supernatural gusts in the winds of our affections and desires and efforts (2 Thessalonians 3:5). Affliction thrusts us onward more quickly as we long to be free from its clutches and burst forth into perfected newness of life.
5. To give us sweeter tastes of him.
Life is a feast (Psalm 34:8). Cool water tastes most refreshing after long hours of hard work in the scorching heat. Delicious food tastes most satisfying after a period of going without. When much of life leaves a bitter taste in our mouth, affliction warms the tongue and readies the taste buds to find true satisfaction in God alone (2 Corinthians 1:5–10).
“The deeper your affliction, the more desperate your craving and the more satisfying your fellowship with God.”
As Baxter says, “He keeps his most precious cordials for the time of our greatest faintings and dangers.” Though it cannot be proven, I have seen it among the saints and experienced it myself: the deeper your affliction, the more desperate your craving and the more satisfying your fellowship with God (Psalm 119:67).
It is a pattern of the human heart and life. God has a way of delighting the soul when all else is stripped away and the mountaintop sunshine turns into the shadow of the valley of death. It is the moments of deepest need and desperation in which God provides himself as healing balm. Affliction is the dark backdrop from which the saints most clearly see and savor the gleaming glory of God which satisfies the heart and warms the soul.
Affliction will come. Evil is truly evil. Our world is truly broken. Yet God is truly sovereign, wise, and good. And in God’s gracious providence the afflictions of the saints are not a means of death but rather a path to more satisfaction in God alone. Trust the giver of your afflictions to woo you closer to himself in the midst of your sufferings (1 Peter 4:19).