In the previous article we looked at the various reasons children of God are afflicted. We also noticed how we should view God’s affliction of others. Now we hope to see how God deals mercifully with His children in affliction and how we benefit spiritually from God’s chastening.
That God sovereignly controls our afflictions is the foundation for understanding how God deals mercifully with us and how we grow spiritually from afflictions. If we do not acknowledge the Lord in all of our ways, then in our trials we will have no comfort, we will not experience God’s mercy, and we will not experience God directing our paths (Proverbs 3:6). That is why it is important for us to know and believe sound doctrine. Only those who confess God’s sovereignty, especially over every aspect of their salvation, have comfort in affliction. We confess this in the first Q & A of the Heidelberg Catechism when we say, “that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must be subservient to my salvation.” Just as God works all of our salvation, from beginning to end, so does He cause every event which takes place in our lives to serve the purpose of our salvation.
That God always deals with His children in mercy, even in the way of affliction, is found in many places in God’s Word. In Psalm 103:8, 10, we read “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy. He hath not dealt with us after our sins; nor rewarded us according to our iniquities.” Apart from Christ, we would rightfully be the objects of God’s fierce anger because of our sinfulness. There is nothing that we have of ourselves that merits any favor with God. We have no right to any spiritual, much less physical gifts from God. Of ourselves, we are the deserving objects of His wrath only.
Yet, in Christ, God deals with us in mercy. The price of our sins has been paid. No longer are we the objects of God’s anger. Rather, we are the objects of His love and mercy. Because of this, God mercifully uses even the evils of this life to further our salvation. The prayer of David in Psalm 25 illustrates this. God had put David in great affliction. Said David, “The troubles of my heart are enlarged: O bring thou me out of my distresses. Look upon mine affliction and my pain” (vs. 17, 18a). His enemies were many and they hated him. David’s way was very dark. Yet, the chief concern of David in all of his trials was not the difficulty of his way, but his sins. It was not the pain that he suffered or the hatred that he endured, but his sins which disturbed him the most.
“Remember not the sins of my youth, nor my transgressions” (vs. 7). “Look upon mine affliction and my pain; and forgive all my sins” (vs. 18). To David, his sins were more unbearable than his pain. To know that his sins were forgiven was more important to him than any physical relief he may receive from his afflictions. Recognizing our sins, repenting of them, and experiencing God’s forgiveness ought to be our chief concern when we are afflicted also.
Our Catechism teaches us that in order for us to “live and die happily”, we first must know how great our sins and miseries are (Q & A 2). Secondly, we must know how we are delivered from our sins. God mercifully teaches us how great our sins and miseries are through the way of affliction. As we discussed earlier, our afflictions are a result of our sinfulness. Because of our sins, we experience pain, sorrow, distress, and difficulty. When we are afflicted, God shows us clearly the fruit of our sins. However, our consideration does not stop with only knowing our sins. We desire to turn from our sins and to experience God’s forgiving of them.
That God uses affliction to bring us to repentance is clear from Psalm 119:67, where we read, “Before I was afflicted I went astray: but now have I kept thy word.”
And as David in affliction prayed “forgive all my sins,” so do we (Psalm 25:18). That our chief concern in affliction is our sins does not mean that we may not desire to be delivered from the physical circumstances of our affliction. The believer is not one who desires to live in a state of misery in order only to dwell upon his sins. Rather, we are to use the occasion of God’s affliction to examine our lives while we pray “Thy will be done” concerning the physical circumstances of that affliction. God, in His time, when His will is accomplished, delivers us out of our affliction.
Because God uses affliction to teach and correct us, we spiritually benefit from the Lord’s chastening. This is the idea found in Hebrews 12:1-11. In a previous article we noticed from this passage how the believer experiences God’s chastening as a child from a loving Father. We know that we are the children of God because of the fact that we are disciplined and corrected. We profit spiritually from that chastening by being made “partakers of His holiness” (vs. 10). While chastening is never a pleasant experience for our flesh, yet God’s Word tells us that “nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby” (vs. 11). Calvin calls that fruit of righteousness “the fear of the Lord and a godly and holy life” (Vol. XXII, p. 320).
The godly and holy life that God produces through chastening is the positive fruit of affliction. Not only does God work a sorrow for sin and a mortification of our old man of sin, but He also works the quickening of the new man in Christ. We produce the fruit of an obedient life. Sinful thoughts and desires are put away and replaced with holy thoughts and desires. Instead of speaking sinful and vain words, our conversation becomes more edifying and builds up the brother. Instead of using our time to carry out our own selfish plans, our time is more willingly used in the service of God.
The figure found in John 15 of a vine and branches also illustrates how God uses affliction to purge us, or prune us. Just as a husbandman must cut away the parts of the branches that are dead and the parts which are fruitless, so must our Father deal with us as branches in the vine of Christ. Often our Father uses the pruning hook of affliction to cut away the dead and unfruitful areas of our spiritual life. If we are ignoring or misusing a spiritual gift He has given us, God may bring about a particular affliction in our life that causes us to use that gift for the good of His people and to the glory of His name. Perhaps God brings an affliction upon our family or upon others in the church which gives us the opportunity to use our time and resources in the service of others rather than ourselves. Always our Father is pruning us so that we produce more fruit.
When enduring afflictions, we must remember that they are “light” and “but for a moment” when compared to the glory which awaits us (II Cor. 4:17). By them our heavenly Father prepares us for the enjoyment of heaven. They are His means to conform us to the image of His Son. This is part of our comfort in affliction. Not only do we know that God sovereignly sends us various afflictions, but He also causes those afflictions to serve our salvation.
God is praised when we endure, by His grace, the afflictions He sends upon us. The faith which He gives is proved to be a genuine faith. Only that faith which is from God enables the believer to endure affliction. And that faith is strengthened by God in affliction. On the last day, our proved faith will be “found unto praise and honour and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ” (I Peter 1:7). It is all God’s work. Let us thank our Father for His sovereign use of affliction for our profit.