Saturday, December 19, 2009

Unanticipated Benefits of Sufferings

Part 3: Preparations for Sufferings

"We must tell people what we have learned. . . that no darkness can keep out God's marvelous light. They will believe us, because we've been here."
- Betsie ten Boom[1]

"It is one of the greatest wonders in the world, how the church subsists under such fierce and frequent assaults as are made upon it by its enemies."
- John Flavel[2]*

We live in a day when many Christian Right political leaders are telling people how to survive the difficult times that are coming. One recent evangelical presidential candidate, in a recent column, remarked that "we are on the precipice of some potentially catastrophic--or at the very least, challenging--days." His practical solutions for preparation include "moving to a more rural location," stocking up on provisions, getting in shape physically, and preparing for self-defense with firearms. After many paragraphs describing various weapons, he concludes with a brief nod to faith: "I strongly suggest that you seek to possess a personal relationship with God's only begotten Son."[3]

If we could choose for ourselves, we would escape trials and tribulations. This is not always God's will for us, however. Despite our best-laid plans for survival and sustenance, God can override us. We may find ourselves in a situation of persecution so fierce and unrelenting that there is no escape. So what could be the possible benefit to us - and to others - should the Lord require this of us? John Flavel, whose writing on this topic[4] we have been examining in this current series of posts, describes the many benefits of persecution. These are tangible benefits that may not seem so clear in the middle of a trial, but only become evident as time goes on.

Purifying the Saints
The first point Flavel makes is probably the most difficult for modern evangelicals to grasp. Our easy-believism doctrine just simply doesn't accommodate this. Yet, it is from Scripture. Titus 2:14 says that the Lord intends to purify us: "Who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works." James 4:8b also calls us to purify ourselves: "Cleanse your hands, ye sinners; and purify your hearts, ye double minded." Flavel notes that it is trials that will purify believers:

Hereby the most wise God doth illustrate the glory of His own name, clearing up the righteousness of His ways by the sufferings of His own people.... He will not indulge or patronize their sins....

For God's Glory
God also seeks His own glory, another difficult doctrine for ear-tickling lovers. Flavel explains that

Moreover, by exposing His people to such grievous sufferings, He gives a fit opportunity to manifest the glory of His power in their support, and of His wisdom, in the marvellous ways of their escape and deliverance.

This raises an immediate question, especially in light the increasing militia rhetoric of the Christian Right: If we take matters into our own hands to wreak our own vengeance upon our enemies, are we thwarting God's more perfect way, which may be for His glory by our deliverance? Might not others be saved by observing God's provident deliverance? Flavel reminds us of the biblical example of deliverance found in Esther, chapter 6, which story begins with the most amazing happening: "On that night could not the king sleep, and he commanded to bring the book of records of the chronicles; and they were read before the king."

God delights in causing the Devil's plots to backfire. Flavel notes,

Now, you may see the most wise God going beyond a malicious and subtle devil, overturning in a moment the deep laid designs and contrivances of many years, and that at the very birth and point of execution,... snaring the wicked in the works of their own hands; making their own tongues to fall upon them; working out such marvellous salvations with His own hand, as fills them with astonishment and wonder....

Mortifying the Heart
Flavel observes what happens to believers under persecution and trials. He suggests that the purpose of these occasions is for "mortifying the corruptions that are in their hearts" by comparing these corruptions to "rank weeds springing up in the best soil." To our modern era church, which has eschewed the doctrine of biblical separation, this may seem like a totally foreign concept. But, a church under persecution must reconsider its focus and priorities. "If," says Flavel,

we reckon humility, heavenly mindedness, contempt of the world, and longing desires after heaven, to be the real interest and advantage of the church; then it is evident, nothing so much promotes their interest, as a suffering condition doth....

And he concludes by stating this fact, "Adversity kills those corruptions which prosperity bred." In other words, a necessary component of suffering is dying to self, and dying to worldliness.

Personal Peace With God
There is another blessing to persecution which may not be anticipated. Flavel claims that by these trials a believer's

sincerity is cleared, to the joy and satisfaction of their own hearts; many a doubt and fear, which had long entangled them, is removed and answered.

This is a personal joy found in peace with God.

Where Did All the Hypocrites Go?
An interesting unanticipated consequence of persecution is that it frees the church of "the abundance of hypocrites, which were its reproach as well as burden." Flavel explains that

Affliction is a furnace to separate the dross from the more pure and noble gold. Multitudes of hypocrites, like flies in a hot summer, are generated by the church's prosperity; but this winter weather kills them: Many gaudy professors [of the faith] grow within the inclosure of the church, like beautiful flowers in the field, where they stand during its peace and prosperity, in the pride and bravery of their gifts and professions; but the wind passeth over them, and they are gone, and their places shall know them no more; to allude to that in Psalm 103:16.[5] Thunder and lightning is a very terrible weather, but exceeding useful to purify and cleanse the air.

True Reconciliation
Another unanticipated outcome of sufferings is that it will "endear" one believer to another. Flavel states that

Times of common sufferings, are times of reconciliation, and greater endearments among the people of God; never more endeared, than when most persecuted; never more united, than when most scattered, Mal. 3:16-17[6]: "Then they that feared the LORD spake often one to another."

There is another side to this newfound fellowship. According to Flavel, persecution also results in "discoveries... of the sincerity of our hearts" one to another. What was before "entertained with jealousy" may be humbled by "reproofs of the rod," and what was before "wantonness and bitterness in their spirits to each other" can be "made to cry, in the sense of these transgressions, as Psalm 79:8: "O remember not against us former iniquities."[7]

Deeper Prayer
Flavel concludes this chapter by noting that believers reap benefits to persecution such as being

awakened to their duties, and taught to pray more frequently, spiritually, and fervently. Ah! what drowsiness and formality is apt to creep in upon the best hearts, in the time of prosperity; but when the storm rises, and the sea grows turbulent and raging, now they cry as the disciples to Christ, Lord, save us, we perish....[8] I am sure the sweetest melody of prayer is upon the deep waters of affliction.

The Truth:

"And our hope of you is stedfast, knowing, that as ye are partakers of the sufferings, so shall ye be also of the consolation." (2 Corinthians 1:7)

1. Betsie ten Boom's words of hope, said to her sister Corrie ten Boom shortly before Betsie died in the Ravensbruck concentration camp and Corrie was released. Cited on page 72 of Corrie: The Lives She's Touched by Joan Winmill Brown (Worldwide Pictures, 1979).
2. Works of John Flavel (6 vol set), Banner of Truth Trust (1820, 1968), ISBN 0-85151-060-4. Flavel's dissertation titled "Preparations for Suffering, or The Best Work in the Worst Times" appears in Volume 6, pages 3-83.
3. Pastor Chuck Baldwin, "A Suggested Survival List," December 15, 2009, published here: and archived at:
4. Flavel, Ibid, and all subsequent quotations.
5. Psalm 103:15-18 states: "As for man, his days are as grass: as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth. For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone; and the place thereof shall know it no more. But the mercy of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting upon them that fear him, and his righteousness unto children's children; To such as keep his covenant, and to those that remember his commandments to do them."
6. Flavel actually quotes from verse 17 of Malachi chapter 3. However, verse 17 is such a beautiful verse it is here quoted: "And they shall be mine, saith the LORD of hosts, in that day when I make up my jewels; and I will spare them, as a man spareth his own son that serveth him."
7. Flavel's text incorrectly identifies this verse as Psalm 70:8. We have corrected this error in our quotation.
8. Flavel is quoting from Matthew 8:25 which was the occasion of the disciples being in "a great tempest in the sea, insomuch that the ship was covered with the waves" (verse 24), an apt analogy of persecution.

*ED. NOTE: We have taken minor liberties to reformat some of the published text by altering some of the punctuation, Roman numerals, and other obsolete forms.