Rev. Kleyn is pastor of First Protestant Reformed Church in Edgerton, Minnesota.
Every child of God experiences afflictions. Not just a little, but usually much of it. The amount does indeed vary from time to time. The severity also varies. But if one adds up all the afflictions experienced in a lifetime, there are many. As David said in Psalm 34, “Many are the afflictions of the righteous.”
The believer confesses that these afflictions come from the hand of God. Jehovah sends them. They do not happen by chance. Nor do they come from the devil. They come from God. His hand is behind them. He is the One who eternally ordained them, and who sends them. It is unbiblical and it is unbelief to say God sends the good things, but has little or no control over the evil things. God is sovereign over all, including the evils and troubles that befall us. “Shall there be evil in the city, and the Lord hath not done it?” (Amos 3:6).
However, the believer also confesses that God sends these afflictions in faithfulness. We say with David (Ps. 119:75): “I know, O Lord, that thy judgments are right, and that thou in faithfulness hast afflicted me.”
This is quite a startling confession to make. Quite often we are inclined to say that troubles demonstrate that God is being unfaithful. When things do not go well we feel that God has forgotten to be kind. But the opposite is actually the case. Afflictions are themselves evidence of God’s faithfulness. They demonstrate that God loves us. If God did not afflict us, He would be unfaithful and unloving. But when He afflicts, that very affliction is proof of His steadfast and unfailing love for us in Christ.
That is true of afflictions because of who God is. He is Jehovah. He is the unchangeable God in Himself. He cannot and does not change.
God is therefore unchanging in His attitude toward His elect children. That attitude is always love. He loves them when He sends them good things in life—He also loves them when He sends evil things. He loves them when He gives them joys—He also loves them when He sends sorrows. He loves them when He makes their way easy—He also loves them when He makes their lives difficult. Because we are His in Christ, never is God’s attitude that of hatred. Not even when we sin. Always He loves us. And afflictions are always a proof of that love.
Afflictions demonstrate God’s love because He uses them for our good. The believer confesses this when he says (Ps. 119:71), “It is good for me that I have been afflicted.” Or as we sing in Psalter number 329, “Affliction has been for my profit.” Afflictions do not harm us. It may seem to us that they do. At times, due to our limited, earthly perspective and understanding of things, we feel that the troubles God sends are not doing us any good at all. They overwhelm us and lead us to despair. At times they seem to drive us away from God. They appear to make our faith weaker. That is because afflictions are also trials, and quite often we initially fail the test. But ultimately God works even in these things for our salvation and uses the afflictions for our spiritual benefit. He has promised to save and to glorify His people. He will certainly do that. He will do it and is doing it through absolutely everything that occurs in the world and in our lives. He is carrying out a glorious work in us. All afflictions are for the good of our souls.
Why is affliction good? Why is it proof of God’s love? How is affliction for our profit? Because affliction is also chastisement. God uses it to correct His people and to turn them from sin. Whom Jehovah loves He chastens.
God is not like Eli. Eli was a permissive parent. He knew that his sons were sinning seriously in their office as priests, but he did nothing about it. It is true that he spoke to them. But his speech was weak. It could hardly be called admonition or rebuke. God is not like that. God is not a Father whose so-called love allows His children to continue in sin without correction. His love is so great that He corrects us. That is true love. For what kind of love is it that allows someone to continue on the road that leads to eternal destruction?
God sees our sins. He sees every one of them, including the sins within—our sinful thoughts, lusts, desires. God also sees that we are by nature blind to our sins and need to be shown them. So He afflicts. He sends troubles in our lives in order to stop us in our tracks. He humbles us. He brings us low. He does so in order that we might see how much we are in need of Him and His grace. He afflicts us in order to lead us to Christ, through whom we receive pardon and peace and joy.
Afflictions are therefore messengers of God. God speaks to us through them. He uses them to show us our sins and to turn us from those sins.
Remember, though, that afflictions are not God’s way of punishing us for our sins, in the sense that they are payment for our sins. That is never the case. We have to distinguish between punishment and chastisement. God punishes the wicked for their sins. But God never punishes the righteous, the elect. All of the punishment and payment for their sins was taken care of by Christ. Therefore afflictions are chastisements. They are sent in love, with the purpose of correction.
It is also important to note that if you are suffering many afflictions, that does not mean you have committed many more sins than most other people of God. An individual believer may think this way because it seems to him that his afflictions are much more in number and much more severe than those of other saints. But that is not necessarily so. All of God’s people have afflictions. Many are the afflictions of the righteous—that is, of every one of them. Some of those afflictions are obvious and easily seen. But other saints suffer silently. All God’s people suffer. And that they do is proof of God’s love for them. If you are suffering many afflictions, then remember this—it demonstrates the greatness of God’s love for you.
Since afflictions are God’s messengers to us, we must ask the question, “What is God showing me? What sins and weaknesses does He purpose that I see?”
The sins might not be such terrible or gross sins as David committed and was for a time blind to, namely the sins of adultery and murder. But each of us still has plenty of them.
Perhaps it is worldliness. Perhaps you place too much trust in earthly riches and pleasures. And so God makes you sick in order to wean you away from the things of this life. He reminds you that all is vanity without Him. He makes you see again that earthly things cannot satisfy the soul.
Perhaps it is pride. Perhaps you consider yourself self-sufficient. You are inclined to trust in yourself. And so God places troubles in your life to make you realize how weak and frail you are. He leads you to acknowledge that without Him you can do nothing. You see clearly how dependent you are on your heavenly Father.
Perhaps you have forgotten God. You have failed to read the Scriptures. You have not prayed. You have neglected the means of grace. Your spiritual life is shallow. That’s often how we can be when all is going well in our lives. Quite often we drift away from God and the things of His kingdom. And so God must send heavy burdens and adversities in order to turn us back to Him—so that we think of Him, pray to Him, and place our trust in Him once again.
In all these ways our faithful covenant God is doing His glorious work of sanctifying and saving us. We might not see right away that He is doing so, or how He is doing so. Often when the afflictions first come we are greatly troubled by them. We do not immediately see the benefit and good of the affliction.
But later, we realize that God did use it for good. We needed that affliction. We needed it spiritually. Our hearts needed humbling so that we would sincerely seek Christ and His mercy. We look back and see that the times in our lives when we were afflicted were the times when our faith was strongest. We were closer to God then. We were much more spiritual. Our prayers were much more meaningful. Yes, we know from experience that afflictions are indeed for our good.
God is faithful. In faithfulness He afflicts us. It is good and necessary for us that He does. Let us remember that in all the troubles He sends us in this valley of tears. May our faithful Father use those afflictions to draw us nearer to Himself.
“In my affliction this I found,
That human help deceived,
But ever faithful was the Lord
In Whom my soul believed.”
(Psalter # 312, stanza 6)