In a general sense, Christians do not know how to suffer trials well—but that is most likely due to the fact that we live in an odd time in history. Those who live in Western democracies have the most personal freedom and wealth compared to any society in history. The wars of the last 100 years contrast this freedom with a death toll of more than all the prior wars combined. Yet, advancements in medical, industrial, and agricultural fields have drastically extended life expectancy and general health. This combination of experienced freedom, hatred of war, and extended life expectancy is summarized by the accepted sentiment that suffering is not normal. That is wrong, of course, but it has been grafted into our collective thinking.
What happens when our idea that suffering is abnormal collides with the Bible’s teaching on trials and persecution in the Christian life? I think C.S. Lewis was correct in his observation of how Christians ask God to make them holy and mature, only to beg for freedom from the trial given to them for that purpose. We want holiness and maturity, but only if it fits into our lives of ease and comfort. How should we react instead when trials and suffering happen to believers?
The biblical answer is simple: contentment and patience. To state this truth is quite different from living it out, but thankfully many who have gone on before us have modelled this for us.
The Puritans wrote extensively on the presence of suffering in this life, and, in Puritan fashion, wrote just as extensively about virtuously enduring it. They experienced suffering unlike us: infant mortality was high (John Owen lost ten of his eleven children in childhood); and persecution was common, particularly under the rule of Mary, Queen of Scots.
How did the Puritans understand Christian suffering?
Thomas Brooks (1608-1680) preached a sermon entitled, "Mute Christian under the Smarting Rod," from Psalm 39:9 ("I have become mute, I do not open my mouth, Because it is You who have done it"). In his preface to the publication of this sermon in book form, he noted Seneca's observation of Egyptian farmers who, in drought, did not look to the sky for rain, but to the Nile for flooding. Brooks, in a sense, summarized his entire sermon in connecting the Egyptian farmers with the way Christians often are: they are quick to look around for different remedies while failing to look to God who ordains the droughts and the rains.
In like manner to the rest of the puritans, Brooks emphasized the biblical teaching of suffering. So, every time suffering was addressed, contentment in God's providence and wisdom followed.
We often think of Puritans as being morose killjoys, but nothing could be further from the truth. Their great interest was their happiness (in the old sense of the word), but they did not settle for a fleeting, superfluous happiness. They were after eternal happiness. Essentially, this meant their focus was on Christ and Him crucified, for they understood Him to be the source of all God’s richest blessings (Eph. 1:3).
Because their focus rested on Christ, they also understood that rays of happiness blessed their sufferings. They saw how joy and suffering were intertwined in the death of Christ (Heb. 12:2). They saw how joy was intertwined in Christian suffering because suffering matured the believer (Rom. 5:3-5). Therefore, they could endure trials and suffering with great patience and contentment.
The Puritan experience can be ours today, all we need is the same mentality as them. First, we must know that suffering is a result of the fall, and is common and natural to sinful man. Second, the sovereignty of God in ordaining all things must saturate our perspective of suffering. Third, we must be reminded that the joy of suffering is not to overcome it but to be matured by it. Finally, heaven must be our end goal, for everything on this earth will pass away—even suffering!
Let us learn from the Puritans and suffer virtuously to the glory of God.