WEALTH THROUGH AFFLICTION
O bless our God, ye people, and make the voice of his praise to be heard: which holdeth our soul in life, and suffereth not our feet to be moved. For thou, O God, hast proved us: thou hast tried us, as silver is tried. Thou broughtest us into the net;
thou laidst affliction upon our loins. Thou hast caused men to ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water: but thou broughtest us out into a wealthy place.’ Psalm 66: 8-12.
It has justly been said that, when a Christian is led into the doctrines of free and sovereign grace, he experiences something of a second conversion’. The much clearer views he has been given of the origin, nature, and certainty of his redemption fill him with a sense of wonder and praise, humble him in the dust, strengthen his assurance, and lead to renewed consecration to his blessed Redeemer. But it is equally true to say that, glorious though these initial discoveries are, it is only later on, when the Christian has had both the time and the need to apply the new doctrines he has learnt, that he really appreciates how far-reaching are the consequences of the truths he has embraced.
Among the many benefits which come to him in this way is a more Biblical understanding of the perplexing problem of affliction. Like most other people, the believer finds himself faced with trials which come upon him unawares, and over which he has little or no control. Such times of trial are usually times of temptation, for the Christian’s great adversary, ever ready to give a commentary on these occasions, will try to persuade him that what he is experiencing is incompatible with a God of love, and even attempt to drive him to the conclusion that he has neither part nor lot in the matter. And if the afflicted believer should unhappily come under the influence of the wrong type of ministry at this difficult time, and thus fail to obtain the Biblical teaching he needs, his spiritual confusion will only be increased. With these thoughts in mind, then, let us turn to the passage from Psalm 66, which we have placed at the head of this article, and see what light it sheds on this perplexing matter.
1. The call to praise God.
The Psalmist begins by calling on the Lord’s people to join him in praise. ‘O bless our God, ye people, and make the voice of his praise to be heard’ (v.8). The important point to notice here is that the call
to praise comes as a result of this godly man having seen something of the sovereign grace of God behind his recent affliction. And this is the usual experience of God’s people. It is one thing for a believer to accept, when trials first rear their heads in his life, that what has befallen him has come in the Providence of God: it is quite another thing for him actually to praise God through an intelligent appreciation of the benefits the trials have brought to him. Most afflicted Christians find that it is only in retrospect, when they enjoy what we may call the ‘benefit of spiritual hindsight’, that they see more clearly their heavenly Father’s gracious purposes behind their trials, and exchange the sackcloth of mourning for the garment of praise.
2. God’s preservation during affliction.
The first reason the Psalmist gives for this new song of praise is the way the Lord has preserved him throughout his time of tribulation. ‘Which holdeth our soul in life; and suffereth not our feet to be moved’ (v.9). As he looks back over his stormy passage, when the waves often threatened to overwhelm his frail craft, he realizes that he has made harbour safely only by the mighty hand of God. This reminds us that the Lord, who is determined to glorify all those whom He has elected, called and justified (Rom. 8.30), is actively engaged in the preservation of His own. Even when the believer is reeling under the onset of heavy trials, and his faith seems to stagger and be in danger of collapsing completely, His Lord and Saviour is saying to him, as He did to Peter of old, “But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not . . .” (Luke 22.32). However, it is often only later on, when the Christian has been delivered from the net, and had time to reflect on the way the Lord has dealt with him, that he realizes that, by bringing him safely through a time of testing, his Father in heaven has been making him a glorious, personal illustration of the doctrine of the final perseverance of the saints. Who are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation ready to be revealed in the last time’ (1 Pet. 1.5).
3. God’s process in affliction.
The Psalmist next tells us what he learnt about the process God employed throughout his period of affliction. ‘For thou, O God, last proved us: thou hast tried us, as silver is tried.’ (v. 11). Here the Psalmist likens God’s use of affliction to the process used in the refining of silver. Oh, what light this sheds on the problem of the believer’s trials: Here we see that God, in His inscrutable wisdom and never-failing grace, only places His people in the crucible of affliction in order to purify and prove them. Just as the fire is not lit to destroy the precious metal, but to separate it from surrounding dross and prove its genuineness, so affliction is not sent to destroy
precious faith, but to free it from dross, and attest the genuine article. And the Divine Refiner, who controls the process from start to finish, never subjects the precious metal to too fierce a heat, nor allows it to remain in the crucible a moment longer than necessary. It is well to remember, too, that the purifying and testing process is but a means to an end. Just as no skilled silversmith would consider using unclean and untested metal, so the Lord knows it is essential for the believer to pass through a purifying and proving process before he can be fashioned into a vessel meet for the Master’s use.
4. God’s means of affliction.
In v.11 and 12, the Psalmist reminds us that it is the Lord who not only permits trials to cross the believer’s path, but determines both the type and the length of his affliction. ‘Thou broughtest us into the net; thou laidst affliction upon our loins. Thou hast caused men to ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water . .’ Sometimes a Christian’s deepest and most painful affliction comes from the same source as that experienced by the Psalmist, i.e. the cruel behaviour of other people. For example, a faithful minister, who has laboured long and diligently among a favoured people, may find trusted friends turning against him, denigrating his person, denouncing his preaching and forsaking his company. A Christian engaged in business may experience serious losses through the laziness or dishonesty of members of his staff, or the underhand methods of competitors. Another believer, hoping for a life-partnership, may find himself or herself disappointed in love. The ungodly behaviour of close relatives can cause much heartache and sorrow to many a Christian who values family ties. At other times, affliction is permitted to rise from other sources. Continued unemployment, despite many attempts to find suitable work, can be a wearying trial to a conscientious man. A sudden bereavement, striking down a loved one we had hoped to have with us for a long time yet, can be a desolating experience to another. A debilitating illness, which insists on recurring just when the believer had hoped it had cleared his system for good, can bring depression and temptation it its wake. It is the believer’s wisdom at such times, while recognizing the means God is employing, to be less taken-up with the flame under the crucible, and more concerned about the purpose of the Divine Refiner.
5. God’s purposes in affliction.
It is only when we come to the final clause in v.12 that we understand why the Psalmist is so anxious to praise the Lord. By confessing ‘. . . but thou broughtest us out into a wealthy place’, he tells us what he has learnt about God’s gracious purpose in afflicting
His people. As he reviews the way the Lord has dealt with him, and analyzes the exercises of soul through which he continues to pass, the Psalmist has to conclude that all things have indeed been working together for his good, and he has come forth from the furnace of affliction a much wealthier man spiritually. However, as it is easy to become superficial at this point, and content ourselves with the dissatisfying assertion that “God sanctifies the believer’s affliction to his good”, we must take time to trace-out some of the main ways in which the Christian is enriched by affliction:-
(a) Affliction weans the Christian’s affections from the world.
Although the believer knows from Scripture that Christ has reserved a place for all His elect people in His Father’s mansions in glory, and desires to have them where He is (John 14.2,3; John 17.24), he can so easily lose his longing for that blessed abode and glorious company, and even forget his future heavenly home completely at times. It is a danger to which the Christian living in Great Britain is particularly exposed at the present time, where so many believe that “This life is the only life”, and consequently behave as though a man’s life consists in the abundance of the things he possesses. When the child of God forgets who he is and where he is going, and becomes taken-up with career and promotion, the making of more money, the acquisition of houses, furnishings, labour-saving gadgets, motor cars, expensive foreign holidays and the like, it is time for his Father in heaven to send affliction knocking on his door. For by this unwelcome yet beneficial visitor the believer is reminded of the passing and essentially unsatisfying nature of all things below, and brought to realize in a new way the abiding and soul-satisfying nature of the precious things of Christ. And is not that spiritual wealth which brings a believer to his spiritual senses, as it were, and makes him listen with new ears to that familiar exhortation of the Apostle Paul in Colossians 3.1,2, ‘If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth.’?
(b) Affliction revitalizes the Christian’s prayer-life.
It is also sadly true that a course of more or less uninterrupted prosperity generally leads, sooner or later, to a decline in the Christian’s prayer-life. He may, and often does, continue to keep-up family worship and attend the Church prayer-meetings, but the love and fervour that once characterized his prayers have gone, and a cold, formal spirit has come in their place. Now one of the reasons why God sends affliction into such a believer’s life is to deal with this unhappy state of affairs. When trials begin to press in upon him, and all human supports give way, the ‘lazy, summer prayers’ (as Samuel Rutherford aptly called them) will no longer do, and the soul is
compelled to seek the Lord in earnest. “Lord, in trouble have they visited thee, they poured out a prayer when thy chastening was upon them” (Isa. 26.16). But a revival of the spirit of true prayer is not the only way in which the believer’s prayer-life is improved at such times. When the Christian is praying in this new, earnest manner, he also visits the throne of grace more frequently, ordering his day so that he may have regular times of communion with God. ‘As for me, I will call upon God; and the Lord shall save me. Evening, and morning, and at noon, will I pray, and cry aloud: and he shall hear my voice.’ (Psalm 55.16,17). What Christian in his right mind would complain, then, when God enriches him spiritually in this particular way by laying affliction upon his loins?
(c) Affliction enlarges the Christian’s understanding of God’s Word.
Although every true convert is taught the Divine inspiration and authority of the Scriptures, and given a real desire to learn more of them, it is often only through affliction that he enters more deeply into their meaning. When trials burden the spirit, the believer searches the pages of Holy Writ with carefulness and diligence, and finds verses and passages, perhaps already familiar to his mind, coming to him with fresh sweetness and authority. ‘Only now am I learning to understand’, wrote John Hus when in bonds at Constance, ‘the Psalter, to pray as I ought, to ponder upon the abuse of Christ and the sufferings of the martyrs. For Isaiah says, “Hardship alone gives understanding” ‘. The comforting nature of the promises; the preciousness of the passages recording the sufferings of Christ; the truthfulness of the doctrines of grace, and the relevance of the precepts, are but some of the spiritual riches discovered in the deep mines of Holy Scripture by the Christian who digs into them under a sense of real, personal need. Unpleasant though the experience of affliction may be, the believer will eventually appreciate how much of the spiritual meaning of Scripture God has been teaching him through his trials, and confess with the Psalmist, ‘It is good for me that I have been afflicted; that I might learn thy statutes. The law of thy mouth is better unto me than thousands of gold and silver.’ (Ps. 119.71,72).
(d) Affliction exercises and develops the Christian’s graces.
Like the muscles of the believer’s body, the Christian’s spiritual graces need regular and adequate exercise if they are to develop properly. Not that the young Christian realizes at first the weakness of his new graces or appreciates the means by which they must be strengthened. Indeed, his attitude to this discipline is often rather like that of the raw recruit confronted by the rigours of military training for the first time. The writer has never forgotten how he used to feel at times, when undergoing his formal training in the
Royal Air Force. Oh, those hours spent on the parade square, in the gymnasium, and on the athletics field! How wearying it all seemed to be, and how great was the temptation at times to devise reasons for not being present where all this physical activity was being enforced! Yet with the benefit of hindsight, one can see the necessity of young men engaged in sedentary studies, in pursuit of a military career, being made to take adequate physical exercise in a variety of forms. Never was the writer more physically fit, and probably more mentally alert, than on the day when the gates of his training unit finally closed behind him! The same rule holds true in the Christian life. In His infinite wisdom and love, the Father in heaven allows His child to be tried by affliction in order to exercise and develop his spiritual graces. Although the initial discovery of spiritual weakness can be both humiliating and depressing to the Christian, particularly if he has held rather bloated views of his spiritual strength and progress so far, the subsequent realization that exercise of soul is essential to the development of spiritual graces will soon provide a ‘lifting up for the downcast’, and replace complaining with praise. It is no small increase in a Christian’s spiritual wealth to have his graces developed in this way.
(e) Affliction weans the Christian from man, and endears Christ to him.
Even after a person has been truly converted, and brought to trust in Christ alone for salvation, he is still too apt to overvalue men and undervalue his newly-found Saviour. For a while, his Father in heaven will often provide him with considerable Christian support, rather like an earthly father does when his little child is first learning to walk. But just as the wise earthly parent knows the child must learn to walk without such supports, so our Father in heaven knows that the babe in Christ must learn to do without so many human props, and learn to depend more simply and directly on Christ. Bitter though the experience of human failings may be, especially if the people involved are Christian friends, they are very necessary if the Christian is to learn the weakness of all human support, and the folly of making too much of, and trusting too implicitly, in his fellow-men. ‘Cease ye from man, whose breath is in his nostrils: for wherein is he to be accounted of?’ (Is. 2.22). This is the verse inscribed upon so many of the let-downs and disappointments the Christian experiences within the fellowship of the Church today. But the Lord has more in store for the believer than just weaning from man. From the ruins of broken friendships and shattered hopes there often arises a new and deeper appreciation of the never-failing love of Christ, who has stood by him, supported him, and comforted him when all other supports around him have given way. When the Saviour draws near at such times, and manifests His
presence and love, the afflicted Christian begins to understand something of what the Apostle Peter meant when he wrote, ‘Unto you therefore which believe he is precious’ (IPet. 2.7); to say of the Lord, as the Psalmist did, “Thou art my portion, O Lord.” (Ps. 119.57); and to express his feelings towards his dear Lord in the language of the spouse in the Song of Solomon, “My beloved is mine, and I am his.” (Song 2.16), and speak of him in the same vein to others, “As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons. I sat down under his shadow with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste. He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love.” (Song 2.3,4). Oh, how rich, then, is the Christian who is thus weaned more from man, and led more deeply into the incomparable love of Christ!
(f) Affliction prepares the Christian to minister to his tried brethren.
A Christian’s usefulness to his brethren in the Church depends to a large extent on what he has learnt by experience in his own pilgrimage. Until the believer has himself been in the furnace, and experienced both the trials and the consolations involved, he is not really spiritually competent to help those who feel the flame. But let God, in His faultless providence bring him ‘into the net’ and ‘lay affliction on his loins’, and he will discover in due course, that the Lord has been equipping him to be a Barnabas, a son of consolation, to other afflicted members of His body. It is often in the furnace of affliction that the Christian acquires a deeper sensitivity towards his suffering brethren, a real fellow-feeling with them in their personal trials, and a greater ability and willingness to share with them some of the rich spiritual consolations the Lord has given him. Like the Apostle Paul, he will eventually be brought to praise God for experiences which, although unpleasant to flesh and blood at the time, have prepared him to minister effectively to other afflicted believers the Lord has now brought within his orbit. ‘Blessed be God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort; who comforteth us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God’ (2 Cor. 1.3,4). And let no Christian make the mistake of thinking that this final point is but a minor advantage – a kind of penny piece thrown into his spiritual purse. In days like these, when :he Lord’s people are in need of so much support, encouragement and consolation, it is no small thing to be prepared, even through affliction, to be the means of blessing to our brethren.
P. D. Johnson