Perhaps what makes affliction particularly painful and trying is the sense of being alone in it. Others may sympathise but they do not at all experience what we are going through. For Joseph affliction was literally a foreign country in which he was utterly alone: he called it “land of my affliction”. In the dark and silent moments of trial we seem to journey alone. Yet it was not a solitary experience for “the Lord was with Joseph”. And then he could even say that God had caused him to be “fruitful in the land” of his affliction (Genesis 41:52). “An afflicted life looks very like the way that leads to the kingdom” – said Samuel Rutherford. Why? Because, when we respond aright, affliction draws us closer to God, His Word and spiritual realities and further from sin and the world.
What makes otherwise unbearable afflictions bearable is God’s presence and help in the midst of them. “In all their affliction he was afflicted, and the angel of His presence saved them” (Isaiah 63:9). Rutherford notes that there is no exception. “In all their afflictions He was afflicted” . “The God of all comfort”, comforts us in all our “tribulations” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4). Rutherford also says: “He who is afflicted in all your afflictions, looks not on you in your sad hours with an insensible [unfeeling] heart or dry eyes”. Therefore “all the comforts, promises, and mercies God offereth to the afflicted, they are as so many love-letters written to you”. No doubt we all know fellow believers who are going through affliction at present, perhaps this article might be of comfort if you share it with them.
Donald Cargill (1627–1681) knew about affliction, he suffered hardship and deprivation moving from place to place and being hunted by government troops. In one of his sermons, Cargill said, “Consider, that though you be under many crosses or afflictions, yet, if believers, you shall be freed from them all by Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ shall make up all your hardships. You shall shortly arrive at rest, and rest unto them that are weary, oh, how sweet is it! and a sweet rest it is for those who are seeking after Him.” At his execution his last words were: “farewell reading and preaching, praying and believing, wanderings, reproaches, sufferings. Welcome joy unspeakable and full of glory. Welcome Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Into Thy hands I commend my spirit.” The following updated extract comes from one of his sermons preached in the fields during the times of persecution. This sermon preached on Isaiah 63:9 has only been published in an older lesser known volume by W H Carslaw. The sermons are marked by their brevity and abrupt ending sometimes which may well indicate that they are interrupted by the approach of soldiers.
The heart of God is strangely knit to some. It goes through all with them. It is said of a friend that he loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity, but where can this friend be found? Surely God is this Friend. But with whom is He well pleased? It is with those who are in Christ Jesus, that is, not only those who are in the eternal purpose of God, but such as are actually ingrafted into Christ. He loves them, not with the love of benevolence or the love of election, but with the love of complacency. But though He loves them He does not, as some might expect, give them the fulness of the world or make them free of the cross. On the contrary, no sooner is He reconciled to them than he puts them under the yoke and removes from them those superfluities that might keep them from delights in Himself. For that delight is mutual: the more you delight in God, the more He will delight in you. Do not expect, then, that you will escape affliction, but rejoice in what the text says: “In all their affliction He was afflicted.”
1. God’s active love to His people in all their afflictions
This love shows itself in the following acts or outgoings.
(a) Tender sympathy with them in their afflictions.
(b) Saving them by the angel of His presence.
It would be counted wonderful kindness for a king to send his own doctor to cure some person at a great distance. How great, then, the kindness and condescension of God in sending the Son of His love.
(c) Redeeming them. Redemption and salvation differ in this, that salvation is merely the deliverance of a person oppressed or detained, whether justly or unjustly. Redemption is the payment of a ransom in order to procure his deliverance.
(d) Bearing and carrying them all their days. They have no feet. They would never go to heaven unless He carried them. O, how long has He thus borne the church of God! When He has set down one generation in heaven He takes up another on the earth, and so the work goes on. Now, are you carried by God or the devil? The end is two-fold. The devil carries all his and throws them into the pit of destruction. God carries all His to glory.
2. God’s wise love to His people in all their afflictions
He could keep them from these altogether if He pleased, but sympathizing with them in their projects and bringing them out of them is His glory.
(a) God’s love is not a foolish love. We must not expect the Lord’s love to be a foolish love that will not suffer a breath of cold air to blow on us. That, you know, is but a mother-like folly and there is no wisdom in it. But there is the greatest of wisdom here and the greatest of love, although the wisdom is sometimes so great that it overshadows His love.
(b) They will not only have afflictions, but many of them. We could say something here that you would wonder at. We do not know if there have been any more afflicted on the earth than the people of God. It is true that souls of the wicked and reprobate have been greatly troubled, but we are persuaded that some of the afflictions of God’s people are greater than what any of the ungodly ever suffer on the earth.
Still, in all these afflictions there are two sources of comfort at least—
- They are for their good. It may have been long since He has laid aside their sin, but He is pursuing them with affliction; and why it is for their good. Our earthly parents sometimes corrected us for their pleasure, but He for our profit to make us partakers of His holiness.
- He sympathises with them in all their troubles.
3. God’s affliction with His people in all their afflictions
But we confess before you all we cannot well understand the Lord’s sympathy with His people in their afflictions. We cannot understand how He can be afflicted, yet there are some things we can guess and only guess at a little.
(a) His glory suffers with us. Sometimes it is trampled under foot or given to another. As it is said: “He delivered His glory into the enemy’s hand.”
(b) The sufferings of His people go near to His heart. As the sickness of a child goes near the mother’s heart, so is it with God. It’s true God cannot properly suffer. Sorrow and suffering have somewhat of weakness in them, and He is above all this. But speaking after the manner of men, the sufferings of His people go near His heart. It may be some think that the Lord does not regard them; let others say so, but not us.
(c) Jesus Christ has a man’s heart within Him. His nature was in all points like our own, but without sin; and the more excellent the nature the more true the love and sympathy.
(d) The sympathy of Christ extends to all our afflictions. O the greatness and constancy of His love! He was tempted in all points like as we are, yet without sin.
In conclusion, rejoice, and again I say rejoice. Are they afflicting you? Then they are afflicting God also. Be assured, then, that God will avenge you. Are our sufferings great, are they painful sufferings? His glory will be more conspicuous in redeeming us from them. We should submit to God, then, who has marked out for us this path to walk in, namely, through the deep waters of affliction, in order that His glory may appear in bringing us through, when the world has been thinking we were past all hope and saying, “look no more after them, for they can never extricate themselves.” Now saving and redeeming is the great thing the Church must look for, and not for being kept free from persecutions and afflictions. Especially when the waters have come up unto our very souls, and deep calls unto deep, and all God’s billows pass over us, then it is the time for Him to intervene. His love will never suffer us to remain always in the state of affliction if it is in His power to deliver us. And as we know that it is in His power, we may feel assured we shall be saved and redeemed.