Consider Christ in Affliction: An Open Letter to True Believers

Article by   June 2009
Dear believer,
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? In these seven ways:

The afflictions of Christ

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).

The power of Christ

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).

The presence of Christ
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).

The patience and perseverance of Christ
Fourth, consider the patience and perseverance of Christ. As you know, the form of "Chinese torture" that drips one drop of water at regular intervals on the forehead of a prisoner strapped beneath a faucet gets all its power from the duration of the trial, not from the first one or two hundred drops. Insanity is usually the end result.
 
And so matters might end with you, were it not for Jesus. I know very well that what makes affliction so severe for you is its duration. You often wonder if there will ever be an end and, if so, how you will hang on to the end.

But it is Christ who provides you the strength to bear one more drop, take one more step, live one more day, in the severest of tortures and persecutions. He has earned that provision by enduring His sufferings to their end. Gethsemane, Gabbatha, Golgotha--in each place, He confirmed: "Jesus ... having loved His own ... He loved them unto the end" (John 13:1). Blood drop by blood drop, for six long hours He poured out His life. And never flinched. Never answered His mockers a word. Never yielded to their taunts: If Thou be the Christ ..."

It's through Jesus' strength that you too have endured. Look back at the heaviest of your afflictions. How did you bear them through those long nights, months, and years? How did you retain your silence when persecuted? How did you continue on when many challenged, "If you are a Christian ..."?

Must you not say: Only through the perseverance of Christ have I by grace persevered? Oh, the depth of Paul's confession: "By the grace of God, I am what I am" (1 Cor. 15:10a)!

Despite your fears of perishing at the hands of "Sauls" through sixteen long years of persecutions as David did, you will not perish. Jesus has done too much, persevered too long (He is still persevering in intercession!) to let you slip through His fingers. "I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand" (John 10:28).

Look more to Christ. Trust more in His promise. Rest more in His perseverance, for your perseverance rests in His. Seek grace to imitate His patience under affliction. Your trials may alarm you, but they will not destroy you. Your crosses are God's way to royal crowning (Rev. 7:14).

The prayers of Christ

Fifth, consider the prayers of Christ. How often He set time apart on earth to pray to His Father, especially in hours of need! How continually He prays in heaven for all His church! How effectual all His prayers are!

You, too, ought to make more use of prayer, especially in combating spiritual depression under afflictions. Bring all your needs steadily to your praying High Priest. Be assured He hears your every whisper.

And when you grow drowsy or sloppy in prayer, pray aloud. Or write down your prayers. Or find a quiet place to walk in the fresh air to pray. Just don't stop praying. Conversation with God through Christ is the antidote that wards off spiritual depression in the thick of affliction.

A prayerless affliction is like an open sore, ripe for infection; a prayerful affliction is like an open sore, ripe for the balm of Gilead--the healing ointment of Jesus' blood. "Pray without ceasing" (1 Thess. 5:17).

The goals of Christ
Sixth, consider the goals of Christ. He lived to do His Father's will, to be sanctified through suffering, to merit salvation for His own, to present His church without spot or wrinkle to His Father. In a word, His life was God centered.
 
His God-centered goals are numerous for you, too, in sanctified affliction: Sanctified affliction humbles you (Deut. 8:2), teaches you what sin is (Zeph. 1:12), and causes you to seek God (Hos. 5:15). Affliction vacuums away the fuel that feeds your pride. Bell-like, the harder you are hit, the better you sound. You learn more under the rod that strikes you than through the staff that comforts you. You discover the truth of Robert Leighton's words: "Affliction is the diamond dust that heaven polishes its jewels with."

Sanctified affliction serves to keep you in Christ's communion, close by His side--to conform you to Him, making you partaker of His suffering and image, righteousness and holiness (Heb. 12:10-11). Stephen-like, the stones that hit you only knock you closer to your chief cornerstone, Jesus Christ, opening heaven the wider for you. Affliction rubs the rust off your locked heart and opens your heart's gates afresh to your King's presence-chamber. Yes, the rod of affliction is God's pencil for drawing Christ's image more fully on you.

Sanctified affliction serves to wean you from the world and to cause you to walk by faith. A dog bites strangers, not homeowners. Perhaps affliction bites you so deeply because you are too little at home with the Word and ways of God, and too much at home with the world. "God," says Thomas Watson, "would have the world hang as a loose tooth which, being twitched away, does not much trouble us." In prosperity, you often talk of living by other-worldly faith, but in adversity, you live your talk.

The end of Christ

Finally, consider the end of Christ. Highly exalted, there is no name like His. At His name, every knee shall bow (Phil. 2:10). The end of all His affliction was eternal glory.

Eternal glory--not only for Himself, but also for you. He returned to His Father differently than He came. He returned with His blood-bought bride. His church, figuratively speaking, ascended into glory with Him, accepted by the Father in the Beloved (Eph. 1:6). Oh, then think more of your eternal end if you would be more submissive under affliction and learn to praise God in trial!

Your trials in this life are but for "ten days." Your life-to-come glory is forever. The "ten days" here are preparation time for glory to come. Affliction elevates your soul to heaven (Heb. 11:10); it paves your way for glory: "For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory" (2 Cor. 4:17).

Your rainy days on earth are nearly over. Don't overestimate them. Think more of your coming crown and your eternal communion with God Triune, saints and angels. "He that rides to be crowned," John Trapp wrote, "will not think much of a rainy day."

Light after darkness;
Gain after loss;
Strength after weakness;
Crown after cross;
Sweet after bitter;
Hope after fears;
Home after wandering;
Praise after tears.


Sheaves after sowing;
Sun after rain;
Sight after mystery;
Peace after pain;
Joy after sorrow;
Calm after blast;
Rest after weariness;
Sweet rest at last.


Remember, you are but renting here; your personal mansion is reserved there. Expect no heaven on earth (apart from spiritual foretastes by means of sanctified affliction!), but trust that "eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love Him" (1 Cor. 2:9).
   
Be assured: the Shepherd's rod does have honey at the end. Don't despair. Your afflictions are imposed by a fatherly hand of love in the context of grace, not (as you are too prone to think) by a punitive hand of judgment in the context of works.

Keep your eye on Christ
Consider Christ--His afflictions, power, presence, perseverance, prayers, goals, and end. Seek grace to live Christianly today through and in your afflictions, and you will soon discover with the apostle, "For me to life is Christ, and to die is gain" (Phil. 1:21).
   
"Wait on the Lord: be of good courage, and He shall strengthen thine heart: wait, I say, on the Lord" (Ps. 27:14).

Warmly, in the Master's bonds,
Pastor Joel Beeke


Joel R. Beeke is president and professor of systematic theology, church history, and homiletics at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, MI.


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