The Puritans are best known for their works of practical theology—works that express a profound grasp of biblical knowledge, channeled into tangible and helpful application for the believer. Foremost among the subjects of practical divinity is the relationship between human suffering and divine sovereignty.
The American church is always in danger of abandoning a robust biblical theology of suffering, and it would behoove us to consider the voices of the past—of those who not only tasted bitter afflictions, but also those who have so skillfully applied the balm of gospel promise to those who would receive it by faith.
One of the greatest Puritan expositors of a theology of suffering was John Flavel (c.1630-1691) of Dartmouth. Flavel experienced severe suffering within his own lifetime with the loss of three wives, a son, his parents, ejection from the Church of England, and continual persecution from state officials. Because many of his writings deal directly with the theme of suffering and because of his own experience with it, Flavel is a significant resource for understanding a Puritan theology of human suffering and divine sovereignty. This essay presents Flavel's eight responses to the question: "Why does God sovereignly permit the suffering of his people?"
When sufferings press against us, we may see true inclinations, which Flavel believes are often full of sin. He 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." (1) These "searching afflictions" are meant to reveal sin to the sinner so that it might both deter the sinner from sinning further and so that it might mortify that sin exposed. God will lay "some strong afflictions on the body, to prevent a worse evil." (2) Flavel also contends that God ordains suffering to mortify sin: "The design and aim of these afflictive providences, is to purge and cleanse them from that pollution into which temptations have plunged them." (3) This "discipline" comes from the hand of a loving Father to his children, not from a tyrant toward his slaves.
Not only does sin need to be removed, it also needs to be replaced by those things that are pleasing to God. When believers please God by faith-filled good works, they are filled with happiness and bring glory to God. Suffering is the ground from which God brings forth fruit from his people. Flavel explains: "The power of godliness did never thrive better than in affliction." (4) Suffering, then, is the breeding ground of spiritual fruit; so God plants the believer into the soil of suffering to produce godliness.
Flavel understands that one of the reasons why God works through suffering is to reveal his own attributes and character, not objectively, but experientially to the suffering believer.
He writes, "Hereby the most wise God doth illustrate the glory of his own name, clearing up the righteousness of his ways by the sufferings of his people." (5) God's glory, Flavel maintains, is displayed or illustrated by suffering. Consider God's response to the apostle Paul as he struggled with his thorn in the flesh: "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Cor. 12:9). Echoing Paul, Flavel writes: "By exposing his people to such grievous sufferings, he gives a fit opportunity to manifest the glory of his power...and of his wisdom." (6) Suffering reveals the glory of God's manifold attributes, which is viewed by faith individually through particular afflictions.
God ordains suffering to loosen the believer's grip on temporal and earthly things: "Be careful to...mortify your inordinate affections to earthly things." Rather, "Exercise heavenly mindedness, and keep your hearts upon things eternal, under all the providences with which the Lord exercises you in this world." (7) God has "blessed crosses to mortify corruption...and to wean us from the world!" (8) Similarly, "Sanctified afflictions discover the emptiness and vanity of the creature." (9) Or to put it another way, "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." (10)
God orders suffering to produce a sincere faith in the believer, devoid of hypocrisy. But it can also distinguish the believer from the unbeliever. The effect is seen, therefore, in how one responds to suffering, as a sort of "test." Flavel understands suffering to clear out the corruptions of the heart so as to leave it more faithful and sincere unto God. In sufferings, he explains, you have "an opportunity to discover the sincerity of your love to God." (11)
Flavel believes that a Christian may develop and cultivate a deeper and more meaningful relationship and fellowship with God, especially in times of suffering. Affliction "drives them nearer to God, makes them see the necessity of the life of faith, with multitudes of other benefits." (12) Turning to Scripture for communing with God is especially important during times of suffering. God applies his Word to the believer's soul in affliction so as to "sanctify," thus making them "sanctified afflictions." (13) Suffering also "awakens" the believer to "pray more frequently, spiritually, and fervently." (14) Flavel understands prayer to be the "best way" for the Christian "to ease his heart when surcharged with sorrow." (15)
He adds, "I am sure the sweetest melody of prayer is upon the deep waters of affliction." (16) God also ordains suffering so as to encourage the believer in Christ to cultivate greater fellowship with him through the sacrament of the Lord's Supper. Flavel sees a direct relationship between the sufferings experienced by Christ—the benefits of which are represented and sealed in the Lord's Supper to the believer by faith—and the sufferings experienced by the Christian.
In the seventh response, Flavel understands a twofold interrelated witness to follow from God's sovereignty over suffering. First, there is a witness to the reality of the gospel in the believer's life and its call to an unbelieving world to repent and believe in Christ for salvation. Flavel writes, "The frequent trials of grace...prove beyond all words or argument that religion is no fancy, but the greatest reality in the world." (17)
In a section titled "The Design of God in the Trial of His People," (18) Flavel explains the correlation between the suffering of God's people and their witness in that suffering to the watching world: "But behold the wisdom and goodness of God exhibiting to the world the undeniable testimonies of the truth of religion, as often as the sincere professors thereof are brought to the test by afflictions from the hand of God." (19)
Second, it also bears witness against those who remain in their unbelief. As those "frequent trials of grace" prove that the Christian faith is "the greatest reality in the world," so also do they "exhibit a full and living testimony against the atheism of the world." (20) By this, Flavel understands that judgment remains upon the unbeliever.
Finally, through suffering Christians may commune with Christ, the greatest Sufferer—who suffered on their account. Not only does Christ know and understand the affliction of the elect, the elect can—in a mystical sense—commune with Christ because he suffered for them. Christ, he explains, "looks down from heaven upon all my afflictions, and understands them more fully than I that feel them." (21) And one of the best expressions of the believer's union and communion with Christ comes through the experience of suffering: "In all your afflictions he is afflicted; tender sympathy cannot but flow from such intimate union." (22)
Brian H. Cosby is pastor of Wayside Presbyterian Church (PCA) on Signal Mountain, Tennessee, and author of Suffering and Sovereignty: John Flavel and the Puritans on Afflictive Providence (Reformation Heritage Books, 2012).
Issue: "WHY?" March/April 2014 Vol. 23 No. 2 Page number(s): 28-33
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