240 years ago, John Newton penned a collection of letters to “A Christian Friend.” This friend of Newton was addressed as “My dear Madam,” so we cannot be for sure to who Newton wrote. What we do know for certain is that the most powerful component of John Newton’s ministry was his letter-writing. Thousands of letters penned to men and women over his lifetime, all pointing ordinary folks like you and I to Jesus. Today, they live on, continuing to offer the Church a great deal of wisdom and becoming a balm for our souls.
One of the things Newton wrote much about was suffering in the Christian life:
The many exercises of my poor afflicted people, and the sympathy the Lord has given me with them in their troubles–has made “the benefits of affliction” a frequent and favorite topic of my ministry among them.
The woman who wrote Newton in this brief exchange of letters clearly was dealing with some sort of difficult circumstance. It may have been medical, or family-related, or spiritual warfare, but whatever it was, Newton sought to comfort her hurts by writing a brief, but powerful letter on the benefits of affliction for the Christian. These wise words not only certainly brought comfort to this hurting woman, but brings us encouragement and hope for our struggles even today. Below are some of the benefits of afflictions that we face, how they actually help us in the Christian life, and some brief nuggets of wisdom from John himself.
Afflictions Quicken us to Prayer.
How often do we pray and implore the power and wisdom of God in our lives when life seems to be perfect and peachy? In my own experience, this is not my norm. It is far too easy to have a splendid week and to totally forget that I am dependent on the Lord’s strength at every moment. Blessings are evidences of God’s grace, but if not met with human gratitude, they can make us “cold and formal in our secret worship.” Afflictions can be God’s stark way of reminding us to lean on Him, as we should all of our days.
Afflictions Remind us of the Vanity of the World.
Newton says that afflictions are “in a degree necessary, to keep alive in us– a conviction of the vanity and unsatisfying nature of the present world, and all its enjoyments.” Though we enjoy God’s temporal, common-grace blessings in the present, the only enduring rest, hope, and blessing we have is one that is eternal, and thus, one that is not in this world. Newton points to how Moses invited Israel to Canaan, and how the Israelites received this invitation with gladness, because of their current devastating difficult circumstances in Egypt. In the same way, the Lord “weakens our attachment to this world, and makes the thought of leaving it, more easy and more desirable.”
Afflictions Acquaint us With Knowing His Word.
In Philippians 1:29, Paul says that it has been granted to us believers that our beliefs are not merely theoretical arguments to be held, but truths to be clung to and rested on when suffering comes. In the same way, Newton says that we must go beyond believing Scripture by knowing Scripture’s “sweetness, power, and suitableness.” It is in the midst of hard circumstances where our faith gets put on the chopping block and truly tested. Newton wants us to become Christians who say, “I not only believe this promise upon the authority of the speaker–but I can set my seal to it!”
Afflictions Manifest the Reality of Grace to Ourselves and Others.
The doctrine of the grace of God is one of the most critical of all to the gospel, and it is at its core counter-cultural. In other words, it is hard by worldly standards to comprehend what grace is; it is other-worldly to pour out unmerited favor on one who doesn’t deserve it. Afflictions have a way of making grace real, not only to ourselves, but to others as well. How so? Newton says that it is when we “exercise some measure of that patience and submission, and receive some measure of these supports and supplies” that confirms to our soul that we do not “follow cunningly devised fables.” There is an elevated sense of God’s provision when we feel incapable in our need, after all. This grace, when understood in our lives, helps us with the “daily exertion” of demonstrating grace to others around us.
Afflictions Advance Our Conformity to Jesus.
I will include Newton’s entire commentary on this point here:
Methinks, if we might go to heaven without suffering, we would be unwilling to desire it. Why should we ever wish to go by any other path to heaven–than that which Jesus has consecrated and endeared, by his own example? Especially as his people’s sufferings are not penal–there is no wrath in them. The cup he puts in their hands is very different from that which he drank for their sakes, and is only medicinal to promote their chief good.
Newton’s point is that Jesus was the true Man of Sorrows, acquainted with grief for our sakes, who bore the ultimate affliction of our sin that we might be united with Him. He serves as our example in His suffering.
Our afflictions do sting when they come. Everything from a flat tire to a family tragedy brings us to a moment of “Why, Lord?” in our hearts. Reminding ourselves of these wise words from John Newton will help us remember God’s good purpose in bringing us difficult trials. Newton summarizes his thoughts with one phrase:
The advantages of afflictions, when the Lord is pleased to employ them for the good of his people, are many and great.
All quotations from “The Works of John Newton” (Banner of Truth, 2015), Vol. 1, pp. 534-536.