Suffering comes to us in many forms—sickness, death, persecution, slander, betrayal, natural disasters, and more. Some of which sovereignly rains on both the sinner and the saved. But for the saved, there is purpose in suffering (Rom. 8:28).
Puritan John Flavel (1630-1691) knew much about suffering. In his lifetime, he lost three wives, a son, and his parents. Flavel was also ejected from the Church of England for refusing to conform to unbiblical worship. He cited at least eight reasons God allows Christians to suffer.1
Reason #1: To Kill Sin
Our loving Father desires that we put away sin—for good. Paul urges us this way, “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Rom. 8:13). In a similar way, Flavel says that God will lay “some strong afflictions on the body, to prevent a worse evil.”2 He calls these afflictions “searching afflictions”3 because they seek to weed out our heart’s garden where sin still grows.
To put in other ways, God sovereignly ordains suffering to reveal sin, deter sin, and enable us to kill sin through His Spirit. “The design and aim of these afflictions’ providences, is to purge and cleanse them from that pollution into which temptations have plunged them.”4
Reason #2: To Produce Godliness
Suffering removes sin and replaces it with godliness. Flavel says, “The power of godliness did never thrive better than in affliction.”5 Suffering strips us of our own power and causes us to rely more heavily on the power of God, which in turn produces godly character where sin once dwelled.
Paul argued that “godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death” (2 Cor. 7:10). This is one elementary difference between the suffering of the unsaved and the saved. Suffering produces godliness. Brian Cosby, author of Suffering and Sovereignty: John Flavel and the Puritans on Afflictive Providence, eloquently wrote, “Suffering is the breeding ground of spiritual fruit; so God plants the believers into the soil of suffering to produce godliness.”6
Reason #3: To Reveal God
In a moment of severe suffering, Paul heard the Lord say, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). In this, we learn that God reveals His glorious power and wisdom through the experience of our suffering.
Flavel put it this way: “By exposing his people to such grievous sufferings, he gives a fit opportunity to manifest the glory of his power … and of his wisdom.”7 As Job did in his suffering, we, too, can see Him (Job 42:5).
Reason #4: To Relinquish Earthliness
This life is bound to time. It is temporal and all the things that come from it are temporal. As Christians, we loosen our grip on these earthly things in order to lay hold of that which is eternal.
Flavel worded it like this: “Exercise heavenly mindedness, and keep your hearts upon things eternal, under all the providences with which the Lord exercises you in the world.”8
Reason #5: To Produce Faith
Sincere faith is devoid of hypocrisy. It is purely Christ-like and distinguishable from the lives of unbelievers, and it is primarily seen during moments of great suffering. The world altogether reacts differently to suffering than the Christian. Flavel argued that in suffering you have “an opportunity to discover the sincerity of your love to God.”9
Reason #6: To Encourage Devotion
Our relationship with God is never more deepened than at times of suffering. Flavel maintained that affliction “drives [Christians] nearer to God, makes them see the necessity of the life of faith, with multitudes of other benefits.”10 It moves us to pray more fervently, commune more deeply, and trust more assuredly.
Reason #7: To Bear Witness
Suffering, to the Christian and the watching world, bears witness to Christ in His suffering. Flavel wrote, “The frequent trials of grace … prove beyond all words or argument that religion is no fancy, but the greatest reality in the world.”11 Each time sincere believers are brought to the test of suffering, their faithfulness to God shines light on the blessed reality of the gospel truth. Flavel continues, “behold the wisdom and goodness of God exhibiting to the world the undeniable testimonies of the truth of religion”12 in the suffering of His people.
Conversely, the suffering of God’s people, since it is temporal, is a sign to unbelievers of a future eternal suffering that awaits them if they continue in their disbelief. Therefore, Christian suffering also exhibits to the world “a full and living testimony against the atheism of the world.”13 Judgment awaits them.
Reason #8: To Cultivate Communion
Grief jolts the Christian into deeper meditations on Christ—namely, on His sufferings. For no man ever suffered as Jesus did. He is the Greatest Sufferer. He suffered most and suffered best. Flavel imagines Christ, who “looks down from heaven upon all my afflictions and understands them more fully than I that feel them.”14
This lofty reality should bring us soothing comfort during our moments of suffering. When we suffer most, we can commune most deeply with the Great Sufferer. A final word from Flavel: “In all your afflictions he is afflicted; tender sympathy cannot but flow from such intimate union.”15
God sovereignly ordains the suffering of His people for reasons of eternal good. So may we do as James tells us, “count it all joy, my brothers” (Jas. 1:2).
- Adapted from Brian H. Cosby’s article, “Why God Allows His People to Suffer (According to the Puritans)”, published in April 2014 in Modern Reformation, pages 28-33.
- Flavel, Divine Conduct, 4:400.
- Flavel, A Token for Mourners, 5:605—6.
- Flavel, Divine Conduct, 4:407.
- Favel, A Saint Indeed, 5:448.
- Cosby, Brian H. “Why God Allows His People to Suffer (According to the Puritans).” Modern Reformation. April 2014: 31.
- Flavel, Preparation for Sufferings, 6:9-10.
- Flavel, Divine Conduct, 4:429-430.
- Flavel, A Saint Indeed, 5:463.
- Flavel, Navigation Spiritualized, 5:252.
- Flavel, The Touchstone of Sincerity, 5:583.
- Flave, The Method of Grace, 2:46.