June 20, 2009
We often praise God for His faithfulness in times of joy. In this study of 1 Peter, we discover that God reveals His faithfulness in our suffering and disappointment as well. Alistair Begg describes the biblical reality of suffering in the Christian life and examines what can be said with certainty about God’s purposes during times of suffering. Affliction can produce bitterness, or it can produce a deeper relationship with God if it is combined with faith and a willingness to be trained by the trial.
Sermon Transcript: Print
I’d like you to turn with me to 1 Peter and to chapter 4. And our subject this morning, which I’m going to deal with topically as I have been doing, is the faithfulness of God in the matter of affliction. There are a number of portions of Scripture to which we might turn by means of introduction, and I turned here simply because we ended here last night.
First Peter 4:12:
“Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name. For it is time for judgment to begin with the family of God; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And,
‘If it is hard for the righteous to be saved,
what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?’
“So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.”
Father, we pray that, with our Bibles open on our laps, that the Spirit of God will teach us. We come from a variety of backgrounds; we are facing all kinds of different circumstances, many of which are not known to the people immediately around us. And we want to understand your faithfulness to us, even in the experience of affliction, and so we pray that you would bless these moments now. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
In addressing the book which I’ve just recommended, I alluded to what I think is a true statement concerning our contemporary environment in relationship to the matter of Christianity, and suffering in particular—namely, that we live in a framework in which, somehow or another, we have been tempted to believe in a triumphalistic approach to everything we do, and that if all is not well, if trouble is in our way, if we are facing difficulty and illness and despair, then we’re tempted to find ourselves far more akin to the counselors of Job, who gave some pretty poor advice to the servant of God in the midst of an experience of genuine trial.
There is, I think, a pressing need at this time for someone somewhere to write a decent theology of suffering, so that Christian people may be able to face life, live life, deal with bereavement, children that are impaired both mentally and physically, circumstances of deteriorating health and diminishing powers, and yet at the same time bless God for his faithfulness in and through it all. And our time this morning hopefully will at least be a step in the direction towards biblical sanity.
It is very possible for us to try and deal with the whole question of suffering by trying to talk it out of existence, as it were—and there is a great deal of that going on. Others, by searching for an instant cure. And others, by living in the realm of illusion and mythology, by pretending that, in some measure at least, suffering doesn’t exist—the sort of Christian Scientist approach to things, which is part and parcel of some contemporary Christian thinking too, just with a different face. You know the little doggerel about the Christian Scientist: “There once was Christian Scientist called Deal, who said that pain isn’t real. But if you sit on a pin and the point enters in, you’ll dislike what you fancy you feel.”
The great danger in speaking about affliction, especially if one is not in an immediate afflicted condition oneself, is that one may be very theoretical and quite unhelpful to those who are going through deep days. And I trust this morning that I will not fall foul of that, because there are a number of pitfalls to avoid in addressing this issue. One is philosophical rambling that is devoid of any kind of theological foundation—the kind of talk which stimulates the mind but never settles the heart. Just essentially a lot of hot air. And if you are in the middle of suffering, you know that of all the things you don’t need, just a lot of philosophical twaddle is one of them.
Another pitfall is that of adopting a simplistic approach which hurts people rather than heals in any sense at all. And I’m referring there, without turning to it, to the kind of offerings of help that were given by Eliphaz and by Bildad and by Zophar. These characters were quick on the draw, they were ready with an answer, and most of it was distinctly unhelpful. Some of us somehow think, in seeking to be of help to others in affirming the faithfulness of God in the experience of suffering, that if we can bang out one or two proof texts—a quick burst on the Romans 8:28 scenario—then surely people will take that to heart and they will get on with their lives.
It’s probably that we’ve never truly been broken ourselves enough to realize the importance of eloquent silence. In the experience of suffering, silence in the offerings of those who are concerned to give counsel is often far greater in its help than a lot of talk. And I can’t keep mentioning Job without turning to it, so I’m just going to quote you from Job 2:13: “When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was.” That’s good.
You go to chapter 13 and to verse 5—still in Job. And Job is now speaking; he says, “You, however, smear me with lies; you are worthless physicians, all of you!” He’s obviously not impressed with their counsel. They did far better with seven days and seven nights of silence; would that we might learn. “You[’re] [all] worthless physicians, all of you! If only you would be altogether silent! For you, that would be wisdom.”
You say, “Well, maybe we should just sit in silence for the next forty minutes.” Well, no, because I’ve been asked to do what I’ve been asked to do. But one of the missing links in evangelicalism is silence. One of the missing dimensions in many of our lives is silence, contemplation, meditation: take the earphones out of our ears, turn the tape off, turn the radio off, sit down, and shut up. And we may make far more progress in that silent, contemplative dimension than any of us ever realize. Job certainly had that to say.
But since we’re not going to opt for the silent option, let me proceed. What, then, is the perspective that we are to adopt in relationship to this matter of God’s faithfulness displayed in suffering? Because his faithfulness is displayed even in the suffering of his servants. Scripture is replete with that.
Well, first of all, we need to live in the realm of reality rather than the realm of illusion, and the first thing that we can say, quite straightforwardly, is this: that suffering does exist and it does hurt. Suffering does exist and it does hurt. Affliction is a reality in everyone’s life at one time or another. That’s why Peter writes to his friends and he says, “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as [if] something strange were happening to you.” Isn’t that the most interesting thing, that even as Christians, when you tell somebody about another believer, you say, “Oh, you won’t believe what happened, you know: they were diagnosed with such and such”? So what’s surprising about that? God does not suspend the laws of human nature and physical existence simply because we are redeemed. If you’re not looking where you’re going when you’re walking along the road and you bang into a pole, you just banged into a pole, ya silly thing! Why didn’t you look where you were going? Don’t be praying when you should be looking!
Don’t be surprised; suffering does exist, and it is real. First Peter is full of it; life is full of it. No one has pastored for any length of time without understanding that. And I don’t want to tell you a lot of stories this morning, but out of twenty-two years of pastoral ministry—as with others who are here—I’ve lived through the reality of that truth: that suffering is there, it does exist, and it is jolly painful.
Secondly, that suffering comes in all kinds of different ways. First Peter 1:6: “In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.” “Manifold trials,” I think the King James Version has it. Manifold grace for manifold trials in all different kinds of ways.
And the grief which is referred to here in 1 Peter 1:6 is that which is expressive of the mental impact of enduring hardship. The trials that were coming were buffeting their minds and were crushing their spirits. And he says, “For a little while you may have had to suffer grief.” You see, the “little while” for us needs to be understood in the light of eternity—so that even a lifetime is a little while in light of eternity. To suffer over a protracted period of time with whatever it is—matter of years in our lives—is still, in the economy of God and in the framework of God’s plan and purpose for his children, a little while. That’s not to say that it feels like a little while—especially those who suffer mental anguish. To suffer mental anguish, a minute can seem like a day, and a day can seem like a year, and a year can seem like it’s never coming to an end. The trials that come are manifold trials.
Suffering is real and it hurts. Suffering comes in manifold ways. Thirdly, suffering is inevitably limited in its timeframe. You go to the doctor, and you have to have some kind of local anesthetic, and he comes at you with that big needle. I remember on one occasion he said to me, “If you can make it through the next forty seconds, we’ll be fine.” Sounded very ominous, and it was ominous, and it was jolly painful. And I’m glad it only lasted forty seconds—four separate injections, ten seconds each. You’ve been there. Some of you do that to people.
You think of it in relationship to Paul’s life, in 2 Corinthians 4:15: “All this,” he says, “is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God. Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.” Now notice: “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” J. B. Phillips paraphrases that, “This is the reason why we never collapse.”
Also, we’re able to say with confidence that in the pain of suffering there is the presence of God—not exclusively, but certainly. That God is there in the reality of suffering. For example, in the book of Exodus 2:24, we read as follows: “The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God. God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob. So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them.” That’s what people say to us all the time, is it not? “So where is God in the midst of all of this? Did your God leave you? Did your God desert?” The answer is, no, he’s here all along. He heard their groaning, he remembered his covenant, and he was concerned about them.
In the book of Isaiah 63:9 you find a similar expression. In the day of God’s vengeance and redemption, it says,
In all their distress he too was distressed,
and the angel of his presence saved them.
[And] in his love and mercy he redeemed them;
[and] he lifted them up and carried them
all the days of old.
“‘Surely they are my … sons who will not be false to me’ …. In all their distress he too was distressed.”
What does Jesus say when he meets the arrogant Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus? “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” How could he say that? Because of his solidarity with his church. It is one thing that we might share the fellowship of his sufferings. It is quite another that he would share the fellowship of ours.
Isn’t that the wonder of what we find in Hebrews: that we have in the Lord Jesus a Great High Priest who is touched with the feelings of our infirmities? That, as the song writer says, there’s “no throb nor throe that our hearts can know, but he feels it above”? That when we’re tempted to believe that somehow or another, “nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen,” that there’s not another living soul who understands where we’ve been or what we’re going through—as well there may not be! We may be confident in this: that in the pain of our suffering is the presence of a faithful God. John Stott, in The Cross of Christ, says, “We are not to envisage [God] on a deck chair, but on a cross.” And surely that is part of the significance of the fact of the incarnation itself, that his name is Immanuel, which will be interpreted—which means—“God with us.”
Fifthly, suffering in and of itself does not lead a person into a deeper relationship with God. Suffering in and of itself does not lead a person into a deeper relationship with God. Hebrews 12:11: “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace [by] those who have been trained by it.” “By those who have been trained by it.” It’s similar to what he says earlier in Hebrews, where he talks about the Word of God being of no value to those who heard it because they did not combine it with faith. So they listened to the Word of God, but it was like rain falling on a hardened surface: it was impervious; they were impervious to the truth. They did not take it to themselves; it was not combined with faith. And in the same way, just the experience of suffering need not draw a person closer to God. It may embitter us. It may make us useless. It may sideline us for a period of time, because our hearts become antagonistic towards God rather than sympathetic and open.
We need to ask ourselves the question when we go through it all, in the midst of heartache, “Is this making me brittle, or is this making me gentle?” One lady loses a son, and she becomes hardened and cold and cynical. Another lady, you meet her at the market, and you’re struck by the tenderness of her eyes. She’s got crow’s feet, you know, but she just has kind eyes. And you see her on a subsequent day, and of all the things you’re struck by, you’re struck by her eyes. And you ask someone, “Where did Mrs. So-and-So get those tender eyes?” And the answer is, “When she lost her boy in whatever year it was, God broke her heart and gave her a spirit of dependence upon him that is quite unique. And she has become,” says the person, “one of the best and most careful, helpful, biblical counselors in our church. Because in the experience of suffering, she drew close rather than stood at a distance.”
Suffering does not necessarily bring us close to God, but it may. I remember in the ’70s in Scotland, as we sent out one of the young missionaries from our church, Colleen. She went out to the African country next to the Ivory Coast. It’s gone from me for a moment; it’ll come back, and by that time you won’t care. It is frustrating, though. Senegal! Of course, you all had got that, hadn’t you? You folks are so good at geography, I know. You’re always coming up to me and saying, “Excuse me, is there water between Scotland and England?” The answer is, yes, it’s called the River Tweed. But anyway…
We sent her off as a missionary to Senegal; she had been out there a couple of years. She had written back to say that she’d been feeling unwell; she came home with abdominal pains that they were unable to tackle in Senegal. And within a matter of days they had diagnosed her with a large carcinoma in the very central area of her lower abdomen. And within a matter of weeks rather than months, she had gone home to glory. And some people came over to her mother and father’s home on the evening that we had conducted the funeral, and they let them know that their daughter need not have died—because it was apparent to them, at least, that we simply did not have enough faith when we were praying for her healing.
Now, let’s assume that these were well-meaning souls and just dreadfully misguided. But you see, they were on the wrong side of what we were dealing with last night. And they were the very antithesis of help. And they felt somehow or another that God was only glorified if Colleen was raised up from her bed in which she was stuck with cancer. They didn’t have a theology which said God is also glorified in taking to himself Colleen and leaving behind a legacy of those who will revere her memory, and recollect on her faithfulness, and tell others of the way she faced death with fortitude and with faith and with anticipation—so that twenty years later, in Pittsburgh, her pastor may tell others not a triumphal story about she how got up and danced around her bed but a sad story of how a twenty-four-year-old girl was removed from apparent usefulness in a realm of missionary endeavor, and in it all and through it all, God never violated his faithfulness.
You see, God is glorified in the death of his saints. His faithfulness is so vast, it is so comprehensive, that it embraces not only our successes but also our disappointments, that his providence orders all things—the good days and the bad days. We don’t somehow or another need to dress up the Deity and make him acceptable to the minds of pagan men and women who only have a notion of some triumphal god. Our God is a God who manifested the essence of his faithfulness with a cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Was that an expression of faithlessness? It was the very apex of his faithfulness!
Alas! and did my Savior bleed,
And did my Sovereign die?
Would he devote that sacred head
For such a worm as I,
and in that declare his faithfulness?
When you go back into the Puritan writers, you have these wonderful illustrations of the same. “And in this little book, which you’ll find in the bookst—”
One of the great stories that comes out of the Covenanting period in Scotland is that of Richard Cameron, and if you’ve read Men of the Covenant, then you’ll know this story. But Richard Cameron, one of the leaders of the Covenanters, was known as “The Lion of the Covenant.” And he was killed in a battle when he was just thirty-two years old. If you have read the story of it: they were taken out in Ayrshire; they were gathered for worship, the soldiers came around, they began to scramble, he turned around and faced them, and they killed him. His enemies cut off his head and his hands, and on their way to the Netherbow in Edinburgh—which is down at the bottom of the Royal Mile, if you’ve visited Edinburgh, down from the castle towards Holyrood—on their way to the Netherbow, which is where the prison was, where they were going to display these trophies of war—namely, to take his head and his hands and impale them on the railings outside—they took them to Richard’s father, who was being held prisoner in the Tolbooth jail. Displaying the head and hands, they asked him, “Do you know them?”
You say, “Well, we live in a very brutal generation, you know?” The heart of man is desperately wicked in every generation. Can you imagine these characters walking in, holding a head severed from its body, holding the hands of a man’s son, and holding them before his gaze, and saying, “Do you recognize this?” Languishing in a jail on trumped-up charges, confronted by the bloodied head of his son, he takes the opportunity to declare the faithfulness of God in the midst of suffering.
The hymn writer says,
Ill that he blesses is our good,
And unblest good is ill;
And all is right that seems most wrong,
If it be his sweet will!
So we need to have a biblical perspective.
Now, let me spend the rest of my time suggesting to you that we need to understand the purposes of God in this. And I have ten points for you. That’ll make you look forward to your lunch, I know. But I’m not going to spend a long time on them. They tell you when you’re preparing to preach that if you have something like ten points and the people thought you were almost finished because of the tone of your voice, if you tell them that you have ten points, it absolutely knocks the wind out of them. So why don’t you just take a deep breath, get some more wind, and let me give you the ten points. This is not an exhaustive list; it is a selective list.
What can we say with biblical certainty concerning the purposes of God and the experience of suffering?
Number one, that God chooses to use sufferings in our lives to develop perseverance. Straightforward. You know that from James chapter 1: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, [when] you face trials of many kinds”—same phraseology as Peter, interestingly—“because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.” It’s the old thing, in physical terms: “You too could have a body like mine—if you’re not careful!” All right? The poster of the big muscle guy says, “You too could have a body like mine, but it involves pain for gain. No pain, no gain.” My wife looks at me, says, “There hasn’t been a great deal of pain in your experience, obviously.” I’m prepared to acknowledge that.
Secondly, God uses sufferings and afflictions in our lives to manifest his faithfulness in bringing us to maturity. Still in James 1: “Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” Now, the staggering thing—and we can’t delay on this—is that in the book of Hebrews, which we’re studying at Parkside in these days, we discover there, in Hebrews 5:8–9, that “although [Jesus] was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.” The writer returns to it in 7:28: “Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day …. For the law appoints as high priests men who are weak; but the oath, which came after the law, appointed the Son, who has been made perfect forever.”
And the sufferings of Christ, we’re told, were the testing ground in which his obedience was manifested in its fullness. It wasn’t supplying any lack in Christ, but it was within the framework of suffering that the perfection of his humanity was made visible for all to recognize. And if suffering was the means whereby the sinless Christ became mature, so much more do we need it in the experience of our sinfulness.
“In shunning trials,” said one of the Puritan writers, “we miss blessings.” All sun, all the time, and all you have is a desert. “I beg your pardon,” said the country song, “I never promised you a rose garden.” Remember that one?
Along with the sunshine, there’s gotta be a little rain sometime.
I could promise you things like big diamond rings,
But if that’s what it takes to keep you, I’m just gonna let you go,
’Cause I want you to know, I beg your pardon.
It really is such a tyranny, such a noose, such a mythology in which to try and live under a banner of Christian testimony which somehow holds out to people “rose garden” time. I don’t know about you, but my life is not and has not been a rose garden! Great and wonderful days of encouragement, bad days. Church is like that! What is church like? Goodness gracious—church! We just heard about the church and God’s faithfulness to the church, mercifully so.
You see, you pastor a church, you get enough little encouragements to keep you from committing suicide, and you get enough of the other stuff to keep you from becoming an egomaniac. And that’s a happy tension in which to live—somewhere between uncontrollable egoism and total nerve-jangling dejection. And what helps to that end? God’s faithfulness in suffering. What did Augustine say? “Trials come to prove us and to improve us.” And many of us are tempted to run away from the very things that, in the providence of God, he has brought within the orb of our experience to fashion us according to the image of his Son. Father knows best!
Thirdly, God chooses to establish his faithfulness in the experience of suffering to assure us of our sonship. Isn’t that what he says in that glorious passage in the midst of it, in Romans chapter 8, and I think 17? Yes: “Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ.” Then comes an “if” clause. If what? “If indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.” The assurance of sonship is in the experience of suffering, in the same way that the assurance of sonship is in the experience of discipline. Every son that the Father loves, he disciplines.
You come home in the afternoon; there are a crowd of children in your yard. They decided to take big lumps of mud and throw them at the neighbor’s siding on the next-door house. They see your car come up the driveway, and all of them split, and only one gets a smack on the bottom. Why? ’Cause you love him. Because you want the best for him. Because you know he needs it. And because it’s the one thing in that moment that distinguishes him from all the other kids in the neighborhood. It is an assurance of his sonship. Your hand on his bottom assured him that he belonged. Oh, you could have given him an ice cream. But you could have given everybody else an ice cream. But you couldn’t give everybody else a cuff on the ear. It’s sonship that makes that possible.
Fourthly, to prove the genuine nature of our faith. God establishes this to prove the genuine nature of our faith. I have so many verses before me here. I’m sorry to take you all around the Bible, but Deuteronomy chapter 8:
Be careful to follow every command I am giving you today, so that you may live and increase and may enter and possess the land that the Lord promised on oath to your forefathers. Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years, to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna.
And the reminder is of this simple truth: that he was proving in that the genuine nature of their faith—the exact same thing that Peter says in this opening section of 1 Peter, verse 7: “These have come so that your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may be proved genuine and may result in praise, [and honor and glory] when [Christ Jesus] is revealed.” Abraham and Isaac—Genesis 22—recorded again, reiterated in Hebrews 11, the wonderful story: “God, why are you doing this? I waited for this boy all this time. I’ve taken him in my lap. I have watched him grow. I’ve seen him come to manhood. And now the word is to go up here and sacrifice my only son.” And you remember when the ram is caught in the thicket, and God affirms then to Abraham his awareness of his genuine faith.
Fifthly, to develop in us humility. To develop in us humility. It’s a sad thing how little humility is sought as the soil in which God’s grace flourishes. 2 Corinthians 12—you remember this? He says, “I was caught up in the body, or out of the body, I don’t know. God knows. But I know this: that I’ve been up in the third heaven,” he says. “I have heard inexpressible things that man is not permitted to tell. I’ll boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, even about my weaknesses.”
Whatever happened here, he would have been on that program with that man that wears those military jackets, and his wife with that funny colored hair, and that—whatever you call that thing—with those plastic chairs that are painted like gold, and all that ugly stuff on that Christian TV thing, whatever it is. Why can’t they get decent furniture on those things? If they’re as rich as they apparently are to fly around in Learjets, why can’t somebody buy them some decent furniture? Goodness gracious! But they are ready and waiting for somebody to come out of a “third heaven” experience and get on there and hawk a book about it and talk about it. And the apostle says, “To keep me from becoming conceited because of these [surpassing] great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.” And God determined that in that experience he would develop the posture of humility which was to be vital for Paul in his usefulness in the kingdom.
Let me do the remaining five much quicker.
Sixthly, the faithfulness of God in the experience of suffering is there in order to keep us on track. Why does he allow these things into our lives? To keep us on track. Psalm 119:67: “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word.” “Before I was afflicted, I was off. But in the experience of affliction, when you manifested your faithfulness to me, then I lived a life of obedience.” The psalmist is honest enough to acknowledge the way in which God used the experience of affliction to bring him on track.
My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline
and do not resent his rebuke,
because the Lord disciplines those he loves,
as a father the son he delights in.
And by means of his discipline, he keeps his son on track. That’s why he goes on then in chapter 4 and in chapter 5 to establish the pathway of his son.
Seventhly, the faithfulness of God in the experience of affliction is in our lives in order to deepen our insight into the heart of God. If we had time, we’d go to the opening chapters of the book of Hosea, and we would do a little mini Bible study there. But we can’t, so you can do that for your homework. The amazing story of Hosea—these tragic, bizarre circumstances in relationship to the one who was his wife. It’s almost inconceivable stuff. And yet it was providing a dimension for Hosea of God’s faithfulness in the experience of affliction, and it was providing in the record that is left to us in Holy Scripture that which enables us to deepen our insight into the heart of God.
Eighthly, the faithfulness of God in the experience of affliction comes to us in order to enable us to help others in their trials. Isn’t what Paul, again, says to the Corinthians? “And now, with the comfort that you have received, you in turn will be able to comfort others.”
Do you ever wonder what it must have been like for the girl’s mother when she was carried off into exile? How they must have stayed at home and said to one another, “How could God be doing anything purposeful in the means of this?” How they waited to see if there would ever come news of her? How, eventually, with somebody who had traveled along the journey, perhaps, the news filtered back to her village and to her mother and father, and they found out that their girl was now a servant girl? She was actually the kind of immediate help to the wife of a fairly significant commander by the name of Naaman. “What a tragedy,” they must have said, “to lose our daughter, to have her carried away from us, to be taken into a strange place. I wonder how she is tonight. I wonder how she’s faring. I wonder if she remembers God’s covenant promises. I wonder if she’s trusting God.”
I think she was. In fact, I’m sure she was. If she had become embittered in her trials, then when the word went round the house that her master had leprosy, she would have said, “Nothin’ more than what he deserves.” But she didn’t. She said, “If my master would go to the man of God, I’m sure that he could help him.” Why? Because presumably, in the experience of the emotional wrench and struggle and emptiness and bereavement of physical separation, she herself had turned with frequency to the living God. And only those who have and do will be able, empathetically, to turn others to the same source for comfort. The reason that many of us should bite our tongues and keep our lips tight in seeking to minister to those who are in deep affliction: because there may be from our mouths too much of a spirit of glibness, because we never got the soft eyes that were necessary for the task.
Two more and we’re done. God expresses his faithfulness in the experience of suffering in order to reveal for us what we really love. What we really love. I was with a fellow just the other day; he told me that he’d been playing softball. He was missing every ball in the outfield. His friend said to him, “What’s wrong with you?” He said, “I don’t know. My legs feel like they’re a thousand pounds each. I feel like I’m running in water.” The follow morning, he went to the emergency room in the hospital. Within an hour he was in the office of the neurosurgeon, and within six days he was lying on a table, and they went in and took that piece off the top of his skull and removed a large brain tumor which had accumulated right in his frontal lobe. And I said to him—we were just in a grocery store, as it turns out; we were waiting for somebody who was picking up some medicine—I said, “Tell me what it did to you.” He said, “In an instant it showed me what I really love, who I really love, what I really want, and what matters most to me. And in an instant,” he said, “it rearranged my priorities.”
Deuteronomy 13:3: “You must not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer. The Lord your God is testing you to find out whether you love him with all your heart and with all your soul.” Isn’t that the same thing that the Lord Jesus is doing, as it’s recorded for us in the Gospel records, in the Luke’s Gospel, 14:26? The large crowds were coming towards him, and he says, “If anyone comes to me and does[n’t] hate his father and [his] mother, his wife and [his] children, his brothers and [his] sisters—[and] yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple.” It matters what we love. John 12:25: “The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” “When I survey the wondrous cross on which the Prince of glory died,” in an experience—the very apex—of suffering, “my richest gain I count but loss, and pour contempt on all my pride.”
See, when your husband or your wife is diagnosed with significant illness, it doesn’t matter whether the rug is blue or white. It doesn’t matter if the car has four doors or two doors. It doesn’t matter if the tires need replaced, and it doesn’t matter if the paint is chipping off the window ledge. And yet we want the paint to be fine, the tires to be right, the car to be clean, everything to be super-duper, so that the world may look on and say, “Oh, what super-duper people! I would love to be super-duper as well.” If I might say so: if God had operated that way, then the symbol that he left to us would have been a carnival, not a cross.
And finally, the faithfulness of God in the experience of suffering is that into which we are brought in order that we might display God’s glory. This takes us to this afternoon, when we’ll think about leaving a legacy of faithfulness. You remember Joseph? Through it all, he comes to the final point where, in Genesis 50, he says to those around him, “You intended it for evil, but God intended it for good.” And really, what will help us more than anything else is a rediscovery in these things of the doctrine of providence and an understanding of the fact that God orders all things and controls all things and is present in all things for our good and for his glory.
So we don’t run out to seek sufferings. That would be strange. We’re not going to go out and buy hair shirts, get rid of our nice mattresses and get a bed of nails. We’re not going to become monastic. That externalism does nothing to transform the soul. But we are going to be honest enough to say trials are gonna come, difficulties are to be faced. I mean, the cumulative potential sadness of a group like this is staggering. If we were to go from row to row and just said, “Will you just tell me one thing that is a real dilemma to you, either in your own immediate family circle or in one circumference removed from you?”—what a litany we would have! Are we then to deny God? No, we are to bless him for his faithfulness, even in the midst of affliction.
Father, “Turn [our] eyes upon Jesus.” Help us to “look full in his wonderful face,” that “the things of earth” might “grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace.” For his name’s sake we ask it. Amen.
 Job 2:12–13 (NIV 1984).
 Job 13:4–5 (NIV 1984).
 Exodus 2:23–25 (NIV 1984).
 Isaiah 63:8–9 (NIV 1984).
 Acts 9:4 (NIV 1984).
 See Hebrews 4:14–15.
 William E. Littlewood, “There Is No Love Like the Love of Jesus” (1857).
 John R. W. Stott, The Cross of Christ (1986; repr., Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2006), 321.
 See Hebrews 4:2.
 Matthew 27:46 (NIV 1984).
 Isaac Watts, “Alas! and Did My Savior Bleed?” (1707).
 Alexander Smellie, Men of the Covenant: The Story of the Scottish Church in the Years of the Persecution (1903; repr., London: Andrew Melrose, 1905), 275.
 Frederick W. Faber, “I Worship Thee, Sweet Will of God” (1849).
 James 1:2–3 (NIV 1984).
 James 1:4 (NIV 1984).
 Hebrews 7:27–28 (NIV 1984).
 Joe South, “Rose Garden” (1971). Lyrics lightly altered.
 Augustine, The City of God 1.29. Paraphrased.
 See Romans 8:29.
 Deuteronomy 8:1–3 (NIV 1984).
 1 Peter 1:7 (NIV 1984).
 See Genesis 22:12–18.
 2 Corinthians 12:2–5 (paraphrased).
 2 Corinthians 12:7 (NIV 1984).
 2 Corinthians 1:4 (paraphrased).
 2 Kings 5:3 (paraphrased).
 Isaac Watts, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” (1707).
 Genesis 50:20 (paraphrased).
 Helen Howarth Lemmel, “Turn Your Eyes upon Jesus” (1922).
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.