The Christian church today has all but abandoned a robust and refreshingly biblical theology of suffering.
This is why it behoves us to consider those in the past — in particular, the Puritans — who not only tasted some of the bitterest afflictions to befall humanity, but also skilfully applied the balm of gospel promises to those who would receive them 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, two sons and his parents, as well as 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 sovereignty and because of his own experience, Flavel is a significant resource for understanding a puritan theology of human suffering and divine sovereignty.
While we are not exploring questions pertaining to the origin and nature of suffering or our responses to suffering, this article presents Flavel’s eight reasons for suffering in answer to the question, ‘Why does God sovereignly ordain suffering for Christians?’
Flavel teaches us that suffering for the believer serves to:
Reveal, deter and mortify sin
When afflictions press against a believer, he or she may see his or her true inclinations, which are often full of sin.
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’ (all Flavel quotations in this article are from The works of John Flavel, 6 vols, Banner of Truth, 1968; this quotation from vol. 5, pp.605-6).
These ‘searching afflictions’ are meant to reveal sin to the sinner, so that it might both deter the sinner from sinning further and mortify that sin exposed. God will lay ‘some strong afflictions on the body, to prevent a worse evil’ (4:400).
Flavel contends too that God ordains suffering to mortify sin.He explains: ‘The design and aim of these afflictive providences, is to purge and cleanse them from that pollution into which temptations have plunged them’ (4:407).
Produce godliness and spiritual fruit
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’ (5:448). Suffering, then, is the breeding ground of spiritual fruit, so that God, as it were, plants the believer into the soil of suffering to produce godliness.
Reveal more of the character of God
Flavel understood that one of the reasons God ordains 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’ (6:9). God’s glory, Flavel maintains, is displayed or illustrated by suffering.
‘By exposing his people to such grievous sufferings, he gives a fit opportunity to manifest the glory of his power … and of his wisdom’ (6:9-10). Suffering reveals the glory of God’s manifold attributes, which is viewed by faith individually through particular afflictions.
Relinquish the temporal for the eternal
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’ (4:429-30).
God has ‘blessed crosses to mortify corruption … and to wean us from the world!’ (4:442). Similarly, ‘Sanctified afflictions discover the emptiness and vanity of the creature’ (5:251).
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’ (5:443).
Produce a sincere faith, devoid of hypocrisy
God ordains 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’ (5:463).
Encourage fellowship with God through the Word, prayer and the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper
Flavel believed that it is the Christian’s duty to 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’ (5:252). Turning to the Word 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’ (4:482).
Suffering also ‘awakens’ the believer to ‘pray more frequently, spiritually, and fervently’ (4:482). Flavel understood prayer to be the ‘best way’ for the Christian ‘to ease his heart when surcharged with sorrow’ (6:64). He adds: ‘I am sure the sweetest melody of prayer is upon the deep waters of affliction’ (6:11).
God also ordains suffering so as to encourage the believer in Christ to cultivate greater fellowship with himself 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.
Bear witness to the world
In the seventh reason that God ordains suffering — to bear witness to a watching world — Flavel understands a two-fold interrelated witness.
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’ (5:583).
In a section entitled, ‘The design of God in the trial of his people’ (5:579-83), 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’ (5:583).
Second, it also bears witness against those who remain in their unbelief. As those ‘frequent trials of grace’ proved 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’ (5:583). By this, Flavel understands that judgement remains upon the unbeliever.
Cultivate communion with Christ, the greatest sufferer
Finally, God ordains suffering for the Christian so that he or she may commune with Christ, the greatest sufferer, who suffered on his or her 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’ (2:46). 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’ (2:46).
Brian H. Cosby
The author is pastor of Wayside Presbyterian Church on Signal Mountain, TN, and author of Suffering and sovereignty: John Flavel and the Puritans on afflictive providence (Reformation Heritage Books, 2012).