In the previous article we examined God’s sovereign control over affliction and the difference between His judgment of the wicked and of the righteous. We saw that God’s people experience various afflictions as chastisements from a loving heavenly Father who is faithful to His covenant and who will not allow His people to walk in ways of sin.
Before we examine the question: “Why are we afflicted?” let us remember that suffering, pain, sorrow, distress, and death are a reality in this world because of sin, our sin. Because we are in the world, these evils come upon all of us. Yet, we acknowledge God’s hand in control of these evils. We know that they do not come upon us by chance, so that every once in a while we are randomly plagued by evil. Rather, we confess that our heavenly Father so controls our afflictions, that He rules when, how, and why we are afflicted.
Our Father demonstrates His faithfulness to us in the way of affliction. We confess in Psalm 119:75: “I know, O Lord, that thy judgments are right, and that thou in faithfulness hast afflicted me.” This is true because God’s afflictions of us are chastisements. One who is chastened is corrected. He is restrained from falling deeper into sin and restored to obedience. Spiritually, we are like sheep, always going astray. Yet, our faithful Shepherd always keeps us in His care. Further, the Lord’s faithfulness is demonstrated when, after enduring the Lord’s chastening, we emerge spiritually refined and purified.
When we are chastened by the Lord and when we endure His chastening, we know that God loves us as His sons (Hebrews 12:5-11). Just as an earthly father must discipline and correct the son he loves, so does our heavenly father correct us in the way of chastening us through affliction. What a terrible thing it would be if our heavenly Father allowed us to walk in the ways of sin without correcting us in love. How miserable our life would be without the assurance that all of the evils which come upon us are from our covenant Father who deals with us as His dear children.
Our Father chastens us for a number of reasons. First of all, we may be chastened as God’s direct response to a specific sin we were walking in or presently walk in. David, after he confessed his sins of murdering Uriah and committing adultery with Bathsheba, was chastened by God with the death of his son. We read in II Samuel 12:14, “Howbeit, because by this deed thou hast given great occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme, the child also that is born unto thee shall surely die.” David knew this act of God to be the direct result of his sins.
That God answers our disobedience with His rod of correction is the language of Psalm 89:30-32. Speaking of His covenant faithfulness, God says to the seed of David, “If his children forsake my law, and walk not in my judgments; If they break my statutes, and keep not my commandments; Then will I visit their transgression with the rod, and their iniquity with stripes” (Psalm 89:30-32). When the Lord sent fiery serpents among His people in the wilderness it was because of their sin of speaking against the Lord (Numbers 21:5-9). After the serpents bit and killed many of them, the people confessed, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord, and against thee [Moses]” (vs. 7).
Our affliction ought always to be a cause for self-examination. We know that when we are walking in a particular sin, we can expect a certain punishment from God for that sin. Take, for example, the young man who persists in the sin of being drunken. When that young man loses control of his car late at night, smashes into a tree, and ends up in the hospital, he had better understand that God is speaking loudly to him about his sin of drunkenness. God often chastens us with judgments appropriate to our sins. To close our ears to this clear speech of God is a great evil.
Secondly, we are chastened to spur our spiritual growth. While we may not be presently walking in any sin, yet it is the case that our sinfulness stunts our spiritual growth. We never walk in God’s ways as we should. Our faith becomes weak and our light becomes dim. We so easily become lazy and distracted by this world. We waste our time and do not make full use of our abilities. God then sends affliction upon us to bring us to His Word and draw us out of the world and away from our own selfish pursuits. Perhaps, God sends the evil of family strife into our life. This affliction causes us to examine ourselves and brings us to a renewed study of His Word in order that we may know His will and have wisdom and patience to endure the affliction. Perhaps the affliction He sends us causes us to better use our time and eliminate from our lives that which is unprofitable. It may be that the affliction God sends causes us to use a God-given gift which we had neglected. Then we confess, “It is good for me that I have been afflicted; that I might learn thy statutes” (Psalm 119:71).
Thirdly, we may experience affliction as the direct result of our obedience. “Take, by brethren, the prophets, who have spoken in the name of the Lord, for an example of suffering affliction, and of patience” (James 5:10). The prophets experienced the afflictions of poverty, hunger, pain, loneliness, sorrow, and persecution because of their obedience to God. This is our experience in life also. It is often the case that confessing the truth about Christ will cause us much difficulty in this life. We will be mocked. We will have to endure the hatred of many, even close family members. The way of the believer in this world is never an easy way. Yet, our heavenly Father uses also these afflictions to draw us closer to Him and remind us that we are His sons.
While our afflictions must always be the occasion for self-examination, we must be careful in how we judge God’s affliction of others. It is easy for us to view the afflictions of others as God’s punishment of them for their sins. How we view God’s dealings with others ought to be restrained by the lessons taught in John 9:1-3. There we read:
And as Jesus passed by, he saw a man which was blind from his birth. And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind? Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.
In his commentary on this passage, John Calvin writes that one of the lessons to be taken from it is that we “learn to be quick in discerning our own evils rather than those of others” (Vol. 17, p. 364). Later in his commentary on this passage Calvin writes, that God has sometimes another object in view than to punish the sins of men, when he sends afflictions to them. Consequently, when the causes of affliction are concealed, we ought to restrain curiosity, that we may neither dishonour God nor be malicious towards our brethren.
Therefore, when observing the afflictions of fellow believers, our main concern ought not to be why God deals with them in the way He does. Rather, we ought to see the glorious works of God in strengthening them in their afflictions and in delivering them from their afflictions. Just as the sickness and death of Lazarus was “for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby,” so does God use all of the afflictions of His people for the glory of His name in Christ (John 11:4).
Knowing that our afflictions serve the purpose of the glory of God, we are able to endure them. We know that they come from His hand. We know that He sends them in love to chasten us. We also know that the purpose of God in those afflictions is good. Our confession is that of James 5:11, “Behold, we count them happy which endure. Ye have heard of the patience of Job, and have seen the end of the Lord; that the Lord is very pitiful, and of tender mercy.
Next time, Lord willing, we hope to focus more on how God deals mercifully with us in our afflictions and how we benefit from them to the glory of His name.