"Behold, blessed is the one whom God reproves; therefore despise not the discipline of the Almighty!" (Job 5:17)
"Before I was afflicted I went astray—but now I keep Your word. It is good for me that I was afflicted—that I might learn Your statutes. I know, O Lord, that Your judgments are righteous—and that in faithfulness You have afflicted me." (Psalm 119:67, 71, 75)
"And you have forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons: My son, do not take the Lord's discipline lightly, or faint when you are reproved by Him; for the Lord disciplines the one He loves, and punishes every son whom He receives. Endure it as discipline: God is dealing with you as sons. For what son is there whom a father does not discipline? But if you are without discipline—which all receive—then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Furthermore, we had natural fathers discipline us, and we respected them. Shouldn't we submit even more to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time based on what seemed good to them, but He does it for our benefit, so that we can share His holiness. No discipline seems enjoyable at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it yields the fruit of peace and righteousness to those who have been trained by it." (Hebrews 12:5-11)
Our subject is peculiarly appropriate to many. Few are the travelers to heaven who do not pass through the land of 'Bochim' (the place of weeping– Judges 2:5), and the valley of tears, in their way. Blessed are they, and more blessed will they be, who, being chastened by the hand of their heavenly Father—are thereby made partakers of his holiness. The afflictions and consolations of ministers are often made subservient to the good of their people. The apostle has beautifully expressed this, 2 Cor. 1:3-7. I would not be a sterile thorn in the garden of the Lord, but a fruitful vine, and bearing the more fruit for the 'pruning of his severe but infallible kindness'; and "I desire fruit that may abound to your account." May it be granted me to teach you by example as well as precept—not only the 'active virtues', but the 'passive graces' of our holy religion; and both by what I suffer and enjoy, may I be made more effectually the comforter as well as instructor of the sorrowing portion of God's chosen family.
I. The proof of a sanctified affliction begins to show itself while the trouble lasts.Though it be very true that it is "afterwards," when it is gone by, that it yields "the peaceable fruits of righteousness" in their maturity; yet as there can be no fruits where there have been no blossoms, so in this case the 'buds of spiritual improvement' must be seen during the season of affliction, or there will be no ripe fruits afterwards. A right frame of mind rarely comes on when the trial is over—if it does not commence while it lasts. The seeds of improvement, like some grain—must be sown while the showers are falling and the ground is wet, or they will not germinate and yield a crop. While the tear is yet in the eye, the earnest desire after sanctification must be in the heart. Let not the sufferers, therefore, put by the wish, and suspend the effort to get good, until the visitation of the Almighty has passed away. A child who is not brought to reflection, and to begin, at least, an appropriate disposition, while under chastisement—is rarely brought to it when the rod is laid aside, and he is restored to his fellows, in all the joyousness of boyish hilarity. The reason why trials are so generally unproductive of spiritual effect, is because the sufferer postpones his attempts to render them beneficial until days of prosperity return—and then he is too busy and too happy in the enjoyment of his altered circumstances, to call to remembrance the wormwood and the gall.
Hence, a striking proof of sanctified affliction is a deep concern, a studious effort, and much earnest prayer—that it might be blessed for the good of the soul. The only solicitude of a worldly man and of a 'worldly-minded professor of religion', is to get out of trouble as fast as he can, and in any way he can. But the concern of a consistent, spiritual, and growing Christian—is to get out of it only in God's time, by righteous means, and with holy fruits. When there is a real inward desire, and not the mere profession of such a wish, that the trial might be sanctified, and that it might not be removed until it is; when there is a willingness to remain in the furnace, however long the time and fierce the fire, until the dross is separated, and the gold refined; when there is a disposition to say, "Lord, smite me until the folly is beaten out of your wayward child. Do not stop until you have restored me to yourself, since the sorest word you could say to me, would be, 'Why should you be stricken any more?' and my chief blessing, not to have it said of me, 'Let him alone'"—this is sanctification. If the soul is in that state, it has received good, and is getting it still. Here is God's end in afflicting accomplished, which is—that we might be partakers of his holiness.
But just look at a more detailed description of the state of mind of those who are really benefiting by affliction.
They recognize the hand of God in it, whether it comes direct from him—or through the medium of second causes. "It is the Lord!" they exclaim. "It comes from God! Is there evil in the city, and the Lord has not done it? I am silent, and open not my mouth, because you, O God, have done it!" Yes, they do not wander about amidst the briars, torn and lacerated, seeking after second causes—but go and lie down at once on "the soft green" of the doctrine of providence.
Then, as they recognize the hand that smites, they are equally forward to acknowledge His DESIGN in their affliction. "This is for my good, I know, because I am told that all things work together for my good. I do not see how, but that is not my business—all I know is, it will be so, for God has said it. He intends to make me holier by this affliction. He is bent upon my improvement. He thinks me, shall I say, worth and worthy of being chastised? Yes, I receive it as a message from God to me, saying, 'See how important holiness is in my people, since I call you to suffer so much in order to promote it.'"
Nor does the Christian's recognition of God stop here, for it goes on to the PRINCIPLE from which the dispensation proceeds. "This, yes, even this is love!" says the believer, whose affliction is sanctified. "Even through the cloud I so clearly perceive the smile, not only of peace, but of affectionate, tender love, on the countenance of that Father who holds the rod—as to be constrained to run into those very arms which chastise me. I resolve all into love. I know that in faithfulness he has afflicted me. Love cannot act unlike itself. I could sooner believe a mother would torment her child, than that God would his."
Notwithstanding these views, still the sufferer has his SINS brought to remembrance. "I have endured my punishment; I will no longer act wickedly. Teach me what I cannot see; if I have done wrong, I won't do it again." Job 34:31, 32. This is his language; and in answer to his prayers, God shows him his sins, his defects, his rebellions, his backslidings, and he is deeply abased and humbled before God. Confession, purposes of amendment, plans of improvement follow. Oh! it is a blessed sign of good, when the sufferer is taken up with a sense of SIN; when not only the past life is reviewed with a more searching scrutiny, and a more rigid exaction, so that sins passed over on former occasions come out more distinctly and impressively to view—but when the chambers of imagery in the heart are laid open, and the soul grows in accurate and humbling acquaintance with itself. All this is quite compatible with our recognition of God's love. Yes, the more we are assured of God's love—the more clearly do we see our sins.
Connected with all this, and in some measure implied in it, is deep SUBMISSION to the will of God. A quiet bowing down, and lying still at the feet of God; a giving up of ourselves to his disposal, willing that he should determine for us; a patient endurance of lengthened visitation; a grateful recollection of what still remains, controlling a mournful calculation of what is lost; a quiet consciousness that God has exacted of us less than our iniquities deserve—in short, such a disposition under the rod, as seems to say, "Anything from your hand; anything with your smile; anything but your frown."
A readiness to dwell upon our mercies, especially our spiritual blessings—is a fine evidence of a holy state of mind. It is delightful to hear the sorrowful believer talking of his mercies, and thus setting one thing over against another.
Such is the proof of a sanctified affliction, which is
furnished by the conduct of the sufferer while his trouble lasts. If,
on the contrary, the mind is wholly absorbed with a sense of sorrow;
thinking only how it may be removed, and caring nothing about improvement;
if there is no remembrance of SIN, no desire after holiness; if God, as the
source and sender of the affliction, is forgotten, and the mind dwells
exclusively with peevishness and reproachfulness on second causes; if there
is, though not words of complaint, murmuring, and rebellion, and
thoughts and feelings that imply something like a sense of unmerited
hardship in the painful visitation—there can, in such a case, be no benefit
derived from the affliction. It is merely the bitterness of the medicine
without its beneficial effect—the pain of the chastisement, without the
compensatory result in the improvement of the conduct.
II. I now go on to set before you those proofs of a sanctified affliction which are furnished by the conduct, AFTER the trial is removed.
1. If, when the hand of God is withdrawn, and prosperity again returns, the views, feelings, and purposes remain which the soul entertained in the season of darkness; if, for instance, there is the same solicitude for spiritual improvement, and, even amidst the glow of health, the tranquility and repose of altered circumstances, and the freedom from apprehension for the future; if there is a still prayerful and anxious desire not to lose the benefit of trouble, but to be made more holy and heavenly—there is every reason to believe that the visitation of God has left a blessing behind. The passing away of severe trial leaves the soul so buoyant and joyous, so prepared for the feelings of earthly delight, and possessed of such a capacity for the most vivid enjoyment, that if amidst such circumstances, there is a sobriety of mind, a seriousness of spirit, a solemnity of manner, a prayerful concern after increased spirituality—there is a sanctified affliction! Yes, when such devout aspirations after conformity to God's will and image survive the night of sorrow, and still live, and grow, and thrive, under the sunshine of prosperity—the beneficent end of the chastisement has been indeed accomplished!
2. When one of the first businesses that are attended to after the return of prosperity, is to put in execution the vows that were made, the plans laid, and the purposes formed, in trial; when defects in duty are immediately attended to; when sinful practices are discontinued; when discovered corruptions are mortified; and when languishing graces are revived—then good is certainly gained by suffering!
It is indeed a blessed sight, and a proof of growth in grace, when the soul, liberated from the prison of its distress, goes straightway and most diligently—to the work of increased sanctification. Perhaps few professors are ever greatly afflicted, without some purposes of amendment being formed, as well as convictions of the need of it being felt. How many of them forget their views, abandon the plans of their improvement, and become as lukewarm, worldly, and as careless as ever—when the Lord is pleased to terminate their severe affliction. Some few, however, there are of the mind of David, who said, "I will go into your house with burnt offerings, I will pay you my vows, which my lips have uttered when I was in trouble," Psalm 66:13, 14. There is a proper custom prevailing in all sections of the Christian church, of publicly acknowledging in the house of God any special mercy received at his hand. It is to be feared that, with many, this is nothing more than mere form; and that by others, who are really sincere, and even ardent at the time, it is regarded, or at any rate acted upon, as if it were a kind of clearance of all other obligations to increased holiness imposed upon us, even by our own declarations and promises in the hour of affliction. If, however, this religious observance is faithfully employed, as a means to fasten upon the heart and conscience the obligations of the season of sickness, and to summon the soul to the business of renewed devotedness to God—it may be truly concluded that the affliction has done its own proper work.
3. When besetting sins are mortified by trial, it is a good sign—and it is a sign frequently exhibited in God's afflicted people. Almost all of us have 'favorite pet sins'--which there is not ordinarily that concern and labor for putting them away, which there should be. They are indulged, instead of being resisted. Thus they gain strength by such indulgence, and most sadly disfigure our character and disturb our spiritual peace!
Prosperity, like sunshine upon weeds, often causes them to grow rapidly! And then God in great faithfulness, love and mercy sends adversity, like frost, to kill them. Upon a bed of sickness, and in other severe trials--they are often remembered, understood, and seen in all their sinfulness. They are then lamented, confessed, and mortified.
Nothing can be a darker sign than for a professor's conscience to be so dull and drowsy during a time of trial, as to leave him unadmonished respecting these predominant sins. It has been sometimes a blessed fruit of tribulation, that these predominant sins have been weakened, if not eradicated. It is worth any amount of suffering to secure this result. Happy the Christian who comes out of the furnace, with his dross removed by the fire! No matter what he has lost--he has gained freedom from these inward enemies of his peace and purity.
4. Increasing deadness to the world, and growing spirituality of mind, are sure results of sanctified affliction. The love of the world is the great snare of the church in every age of time, but especially in the present unmolested circumstances of the Christian profession. Worldly-mindedness is now the prevailing sin of Christians! We see them on all hands too eager to make themselves happy on earth, and seeking their enjoyments, if not in the sinful amusements of the world, yet in its innocent and home-bred comforts. They look not at unseen and eternal things, but at seen and temporal things. Theirs is too much a life of 'sense', refined it is true from its gross sinfulness, but still a life of sense, rather than a life of faith. Hence there is "a needs be for manifold trials," if not to separate them and keep them separate from specific and gross sins—yet to lift up their affections to things above, and to lead them to seek their happiness from faith, hope, and love; from God, the fountain of life; from Christ, the Redeemer of their souls; and from heaven, the object of their expectations.
When the world has been crucified to us, and we have been crucified to the world; when we have been taught its vanity and emptiness as a satisfying portion for the soul; when we have lost much of our anxiety to obtain its possessions, and of our dread of losing them; when we have been taken off from the folly of hewing out broken cisterns that can hold no water, and led more to the fountain of living waters; when we have lost our dependence on our comforts and possessions for happiness, and feel and rejoice in a glorious independence upon 'created good' for bliss; when there is really and truly a conscious elevation of soul towards God and things divine—there, there is the evidence that we are improved by our trials.
5. In some people we discover a striking and beautiful mellowness of character, as the result of God's chastening hand. The roughness, harshness, arrogance and haughtiness of their conduct, which once rendered them annoying and offensive, are scraped off—and a sweet gentleness, humility, meekness, and softness of manner, and a tenderness of spirit have come in their place. There is now a gentleness in their speech, a mildness in their look, and a kindliness and cautiousness in their manner—which tell us how the haughty spirit has been broken, and the proud loftiness of their mind has been brought down. An unusual loveliness has been spread over their character, a holy amiableness has been infused into their temper, and a stubborn self-will has yielded to a kind consideration of the wishes and feelings of others, which convince all around them, how much the Spirit of God has done in them, and for them, by the afflictions they have endured; how the plough and the harrow have broken up the hard soil, and pulverized the rough clods of their stubborn nature, and prepared it for the growth of the precious seed of the kingdom.
6. A clearer view of the glory of Christ, and a deeper sense of his inestimable preciousness, are an evidence of growth of grace in affliction. The design of all God's dealings in his providential dispensations, in the scheme of redemption, and in the work of his Holy Spirit—is to bring us to Christ, to enlighten our minds in the knowledge of him, to lead us to a more simple dependence upon him, and to endear him more and more to our hearts! If, then, amidst the 'decays of health' we have learned to feel his value more, as the Physician of souls; if amidst the 'loss of property', the worth of his unsearchable riches has been more correctly estimated; if at the 'grave of earthly friends', we have been drawn closer to him the Friend of sinners; if amidst the gloom and desolation of earthly scenes, the glory of the cross has shone forth with a new and surpassing luster; if amidst privations and losses, otherwise trying and distressing, we are brought to adopt the language of the apostle, "I have all things, and abound. All things are mine; for I am Christ's!" In this case, also, the affliction has answered its end; for that trial cannot have been in vain, which has revealed to us the glory of the Savior, and made us more Christlike, both in our sentiments, feelings and life. Clearer views of the importance of gospel truths, and a richer unction from them resting upon the heart, acquired by sorrow—are a convincing proof of benefit from God's chastening hand.
7. Less dread of future trials, with a stronger trust in God for support under them—is another evidence of sanctified trial. There is about most of us, until it is removed by God's grace, a timidity, dread, and desponding feeling about afflictions, which make us afraid to encounter them. We turn away from them with dismay, as if there were no power which could support us under them, no wisdom to guide us through them, and no grace to comfort us in the midst of them. The very shadow of an approaching affliction makes our coward hearts to tremble, and causes us to cry out in unbelief, "How can I endure it?" We thus dishonor God by our guilty fears, and show a weakness of faith exceedingly dishonorable to us. To be cured of this weakness by affliction, and to rise out of it strong in faith, and firm in trust; to feel our fears subsiding, and our confidence in God established; to see new chastisements preparing for us, to be endured as soon as the present ones have ceased; to behold storm clouds returning after the rain, and gathering to beat upon us, when those which have lately spent their fury upon us retire—and yet to be able to say, "I will trust and not be afraid—for with the Lord Jehovah is everlasting strength, and he will keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed upon him, because he trusts in him"—is a genuine mark of improvement by afflictive dispensations. God's design in chastening us—is to bring us to confide in him. He demands our trust, and is honored by it, and it is really no small part of our sanctification. And he that goes forward from one cross to another, strengthened by the past to meet with greater courage the future; who can trust himself and all he has with greater calmness to the disposal of God, with less apprehension for the result, has not been visited in vain by the afflictive hand of God.
8. A more entire consecration of the soul to God's service in general, and to some special service in particular, is also a proof of sanctified affliction. How delightful a spectacle is it to God, to angels, and to men—to see a Christian rising from the bed of his own sickness, or returning from the grave of a near relative, in the spirit of the hundred and sixteenth Psalm—and while the eyes are yet moistened with tears, and the heart soft with sorrow, yielding up himself afresh to the claims, the service, and the glory of God; and instead of being paralyzed with grief, or taken up with enjoyment, setting himself apart by a new dedication to God. How beautiful is the language of the Psalmist in the review of his deliverance, "I love the Lord because He has heard my appeal for mercy. Because He has turned His ear to me, I will call out to Him as long as I live. The ropes of death were wrapped around me, and the horrors of the grave overcame me; I encountered trouble and sorrow. Then I called on the name of the Lord: "Lord, save me!" The Lord is gracious and righteous; our God is compassionate. The Lord guards the simple; I was helpless, and He saved me. Return to your rest, my soul, for the Lord has been good to you. For You, Lord, rescued me from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling. I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living. I believed, even when I said, "I am severely afflicted." How can I repay the Lord all the good He has done for me? I will take the cup of salvation and worship the Lord. I will fulfill my vows to the Lord in the presence of all His people. Lord, I am indeed Your servant; I am Your servant! You have loosened my bonds. I will offer You a sacrifice of thanksgiving and will worship the Lord. I will fulfill my vows to the Lord, in the very presence of all His people, in the courts of the Lord's house. Hallelujah!"
This is the language of sanctified affliction. Then when the Christian is seen giving himself afresh to the service of God, in a more devoted attendance upon all the means of grace, private, domestic, and public; when his liberality is more diffusive, and his zeal more ardent; when he seems concerned, inventive, and laborious to show his gratitude and love by new acts of devotedness, and former measures of service will not content him—it is a convincing evidence that he has derived benefit from tribulation.
9. Increased sympathy for others in their affliction, is a proof that our own affliction has done us good. In some cases sorrow has hardened the heart, and made men selfish; it has drawn off all their attention from others, and concentrated it on themselves. This is a dark sign; nothing can be a stronger proof that trials have done us harm, instead of good—than when they have blunted our susceptibilities, hardened our hearts, and put all our tears in reserve for ourselves! Nor, on the contrary, can there be a more convincing evidence that they have benefited us, than an increase of sympathy, and a greater readiness to weep with those who weep. It is a delightful exhibition of a mind softened and sanctified by affliction, to see a person, on recovering from it, still holding in remembrance the wormwood and the gall—and instead of giving himself to selfish enjoyment, going forth with quickened sensibilities to support and comfort the distressed.
Such are the proofs, evidences and results of sanctified affliction.
May they be found in you, my dear friends; and in your pastor. Trials abound in this world—it is a valley of tears. Happy will it be for us, if we shall emerge from it at length into that blessed region, where God shall wipe away all tears from every eye. "I reckon," said the blessed Paul, "that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us!" "Our light affliction, which is but for a moment, works for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory!" "We know that all things work together for good to those who love God, and are called according to his purpose." With such internal consolations as the gospel affords, and with such a peace as passes understanding—what external tribulation may we not endure, and endure not only with all patience, but with joyfulness?
It is beautifully said by Leighton, "All outward distress to a mind thus at peace, is but as the rattling hail upon the tiles, to him who sits within the house at a sumptuous feast." Do not dread affliction—or at least dread far more being left to grow worldly and sinful, for lack of affliction; or being allowed to endure the pain of affliction without reaping the benefit of it. The losses, the pains, the disappointments, of the present state—if blessed for our spiritual good—will all fit us for the state where there shall be no more sorrow nor crying! The drops of sanctified grief—are the seeds of immortal joy! There will soon be a last tear—but never a last joy! Fix your heart upon holiness as the preparative for heaven, and be little concerned at what expense of present ease and possessions it be obtained—so that it holiness obtained.
The first look at Jesus as he is, and the first moment spent in heaven—will make ample amends for the longest and the saddest life on earth! Abound in hope—a lively hope of that inheritance which is incorruptible and undefiled, and unfading, reserved in Heaven for you! Be much in prayer for the presence and help of the Spirit of God as a Comforter. Without his aid the least trial will distress you—and with it the greatest cannot crush you! God is able to support and comfort—as well as save—to the uttermost! And none of us can tell what, in either case—the uttermost of God can do!