“The advantages of afflictions, when the Lord is pleased to employ them for the good of his people, are many and great.” —John Newton
John Newton wrote, “The advantages of afflictions, when the Lord is pleased to employ them for the good of his people, are many and great.”1
This is just one of the seemingly many paradoxes in the Christian life: God has purposes for our afflictions.
One of the Scripture’s greatest examples of this is when Israel wandered in the wilderness for forty years as punishment for their unbelief. When the time for finally entering the Promised Land was drawing near, Moses strongly warned Israel in Deuteronomy 8 against forgetting the Lord while enjoying the blessings and prosperity that would come, and reminded them of some of the reasons God would purposefully lead His people through adversity. Moses wrote in Deuteronomy 8:2–3,
And you shall remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.
Through affliction, God humbled His people and tested them to see the true state of their hearts. The purpose of their physical poverty and hunger was not torture, but rather to cause them to rely more fully on God and His Word.
Easier Said Than Done
During times of affliction, I want to press the “easy” button and get back to my comfortable life. If I were to do that, I would miss amazing benefits and growth that can only be forged in the furnace of affliction. Deuteronomy 8:5 urges us to, “Know then in your heart that, as a man disciplines his son, the Lord your God disciplines you.” And like any good father’s discipline, God’s discipline and allowance of trials is so that He may do good to us in the end (Deuteronomy 8:16).
Last spring as I watched my mother succumb to her battle with cancer, I tasted more deeply than ever the blessings of affliction and how believers can be “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10). My mom’s whole journey exemplified embracing affliction for God’s glory and power through weakness, and our family experienced the Lord’s strengthening grace even as the tears flowed.
Unfortunately, not every trial is so “easy.” Not every difficult situation has visible signs of God’s grace all the way through. Some situations are the exact opposite—presenting a compounding difficulty with long-term pain that seems hopeless.
Whether the cause be our sin, the sin of others, or effects of living in a sinful world, “we know that for those who love God all things work together for good” (Romans 8:28), and even if we don’t taste a morsel of the benefits of our affliction, we can trust God is at work as we seek Him.
We Can Trust Him
When confronted with a great challenge, even a deadly illness, we can—and must—trust our Sovereign Father’s gracious hand. As we do, the testimony we leave in suffering might far outshine the impact we have for Him during the good days. We must plead constantly for our desires to conform to the desires of God, and beware of self-pity, jealousy, or ungrateful hearts. We must realize God can and will use our afflictions are, as John Newton says, “honorable, as they advance our conformity to Jesus Christ our Lord, who was a man of sorrows for our sake.”2
In my life, I’m trying to prayerfully embrace afflictions and challenges the Lord permits. But more than anything, I need to keep my eyes on Jesus.
“Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted” (Hebrews 12:3).
I’ve found echoing the prayer of trust in weakness found in 2 Chronicles 20:12 comforting, “We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.”
Sometimes that’s all we can pray. But as Hebrews reminded us, it is enough to help us press on to embrace our afflictions and eagerly wait for God to work for His glory and our good.
1 John Newton, “The Benefits of Affliction,” The Letters of John Newton.