Today I was reading the Scottish Puritan, Henry Scougal, in preparation for an upcoming ministry trip, where in London and Edinburgh I will be preaching on Suffering and the Gospel. He writes an essay entitled The Necessity and Advantage of Early Afflictions on the basis of Lamentations 3:27-28:
"It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth. Let him sit alone in silence when it is laid on him."
Scougal was known for his purity humility and kindness. He died at 28 from tuberculosis. He knew suffering at a young age. He speaks of a sovereign, good, wise and loving God who ultimately causes our suffering. He writes: "The crosses we meet with are not the effects of blind chance, but the results of a wise and unerring providence which knows what is best for us and loves us better than we can do ourselves."
And this, he says, is most advantageous when we learn it early in life.
I was 26 when my wife Amanda and I experienced an acute dispensation of suffering when our son Jake was born with only one hand. It was unexpected -we only had one prenatal scan in those days. I was captain of Newcastle Utd and only weeks before had been on the top of a bus going round the city with 150,000 worshipping Geordies chanting our names. Life was good. I was young. Then, it seemed as though a Job like experience hit us and left us reeling and confused. "Why?", we asked.
"Oh, a one in ten thousand fluke event" some said. We, however, believed the doctor who told us: "This is the body God has given your son. This is Jake."
There it was. Instant sovereignty of God spoken into our lives. God ultimately did this and he is in control, and he is good and all wise. Both my wife and I can say, "It was good for us to be afflicted in our youth, that we may know God in this way."
Five realities drive the message I will deliver in London and Scotland:
1. Suffering is a biblical and pastoral reality: It comes from Acts 14:21-22. Paul having just been stoned in Lystra is coming back visiting the young church with Barnabus: The text reads, “…they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch , strengthening the souls of the disciples , encouraging them to continue in the faith and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” So Paul’s way of discipling believers, to strengthen and encourage them, is to tell them, “You must suffer”.
2. Suffering is a global reality: 50,000 people contracted HIV last week alone, malaria kills a child in the world every 45 seconds, one in two people will get cancer, hundreds of thousands have been killed in earthquakes in Haiti and China, and in recent tsunamis and cyclones. And 150, 000 people die every day in this world- 60 million this year.
John Piper brings home the stark reality:
“One hundred [people] are dying each minute. If you could hear them all, you’d hear so many screams you’d go insane. Only God can hear them all and not go insane. God parcels out our awareness in small amounts lest we go under. How can you live in a world like that as a loving person and rejoice in the Lord?”
3. Suffering is a personal reality:· There is day for everyone when disaster strikes and a child is abducted (think April Jones), or a parent dies or cancer is diagnosed. If you live long enough, you will suffer a moment like this. It can be unexpected, unfathomable, and seem unjust.
Many of you reading this are experiencing real trials, real pain and real hardships at this moment and are looking for light darkness. It may be bereavement, sickness, loneliness, relational strife, depression, financial concerns …you fill in the gap. God is no respecter of persons when it comes to suffering. Everyone suffers.
4. Suffering is a missional reality: In Col. 1:24 , Paul rejoices in suffering as in his flesh he is “filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions". He doesn't mean that Christ dying and suffering on the cross was insufficient. He means that we, his church, his body, his people must suffer as a way of proclaiming and presenting to the world the one who dwells in us. We actually identify with Christ in his sufferings. The gospel spreads through suffering.
5. Suffering is a Gospel reality: And it can only be rightly understood when we see that the reason suffering exists is so that the Son of God could come and suffer to save sinners from eternal suffering. The cross is the lens through which to view all suffering. And when Christians treasure the hope of Christ in the Gospel more than what they lose through their affliction, faith is proven and Christ is raised up as most valuable and most worthy.
Our son, Jake, along with our daughter, Ava, are now teenagers who are growing in their faith. As their father I want build into them the theological steel of sovereign grace; to teach them that life is not about comfort here and now, but about knowing your sin and your knowing your Saviour and having minds set on things above; to show them with Scougal that their crosses are "... the results of a wise and unerring providence which knows what is best for us and loves us better than we can do ourselves".
So when they "bear the yoke" in whatever trial comes their way I will tell them that it is ultimately from God and it will be somehow for their good, because he has sent his Son to come and suffer to save sinners from eternal suffering.