Why Does God Ordain Suffering? A Puritan’s Response

Not only does Christ know and understand the affliction of the elect, the elect can—in a mystical sense—commune with Christ because he suffered for them. Christ, [Flavel] explains, “looks down from heaven upon all my afflictions, and understands them more fully that I that feel them.”

The Church today needs a robust and refreshingly biblical theology of suffering and it would behoove us to consider the voices of the past—in particular, the Puritans. They not only tasted some of the most bitter afflictions to befall humanity, but also carefully applied the balm of gospel promise to those who would receive it by faith.[1]

One of the most significant Puritan expositors of a theology of suffering was John Flavel (c.1630-1691) of Dartmouth.[2] Flavel experienced severe suffering within his own lifetime with the loss of three wives, children, his parents, ejection from the church in England, and the continual persecution from state officials. Because many of his writings deal directly with the theme of suffering and sovereignty and because of his own experience with it, Flavel is a significant resource for understanding a puritan theology of human suffering and divine sovereignty. While we are not exploring the questions pertaining to the origin, nature, or responses to suffering,[3] the following simply presents eight reasons (from Flavel) in answer to the question: Why does God sovereignly ordain suffering for Christians?

1. To Reveal, Deter, and Mortify Sin

When afflictions press against a believer, he or she may see his or her true inclinations, which are often full of sin. He writes, “I heartily wish that these searching afflictions may make the more satisfying discoveries; that you may now see more of the evil of sin, the vanity of the creature, and the fulness of Christ, than ever you yet saw.[4] These “searching afflictions” are meant to reveal sin to the sinner so that it might both deter the sinner from sinning further and so that it might mortify that sin exposed. God will lay “some strong afflictions on the body, to prevent a worse evil.”[5] Flavel contends, too, that God ordains suffering to mortify sin. He explains, “The design and aim of these afflictive providences, is to purge and cleanse them from that pollution into which temptations have plunged them.”[6]

2. To Produce Godliness and Spiritual Fruit

Not only does sin need to be removed, but it also needs to be replaced  by those things that are pleasing to God. When believers please God by faith-filled works, they are filled with happiness and bring glory to God. Suffering is the ground from which God brings forth fruit from his people. He explains,“The power of godliness did never thrive better than in affliction.”[7]

Suffering, then, is the breeding ground of spiritual fruit so that God, as it were, plants the believer into the soil of suffering to produce godliness.

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