Are All Afflictions Chastisements?
Are trials and afflictions necessarily chastisements for sin; in other words, are they always visitations for some particular disobedience?
Heavenly wisdom, holy caution, and spiritual experience, we feel, are deeply needed to handle these two subjects scripturally and experimentally, so as to clear God in all his dealings, not to darken counsel by words without knowledge, or advance anything inconsistent with the truth of God as revealed in the scripture, or made
known in the hearts of his people. We, therefore, crave the kind consideration of our readers if we fall short of handling them to their full satisfaction, as they are by no means so clear as most points of doctrine or experience.
1. The first point is, “How far trials and afflictions are necessarily chastisements for sin; in other words, whether they are always visitations for some particular disobedience?”
To clear up this point we offer the following considerations:
1. Would there be any trials and afflictions if there were no sin?
Were there any, could there have been any, in Paradise, in man’s primitive, unfallen state?
Then trials and afflictions imply sin, and the continuance of afflictions implies the continuance of sin.
Apply this general truth to particular cases.
1. Here is a child of God afflicted in mind, or body, or family, or circumstances, under the hidings of God’s face, assaulted and buffeted by Satan, in heavy bondage, much cast down and distressed in his soul, or tried in any of those various ways which make up tribulation’s rough and thorny path.
Now, in most cases, he will not have far to look for the cause of this rod; for in very many instances, the affliction will either so follow upon the heels of the sin, or be so specially marked by circumstances for it, that there will be almost as if there were a voice in the trial declaring what it is sent for.
In this case, therefore, the matter is plain enough that the rod is for some slip, or fall, or departure from the right ways of the Lord.
There is no difficulty here. If the rod be not heard, it is not because the rod has no voice, but because the conscience has as yet no ear.
2. But let us assume that there has been no slip, no foolish action, inconsistent conduct, unbecoming words, hastiness of temper, strife or contention, no unkindness to a brother or sister in the Lord, no indulgence in pride, worldliness, and covetousness, no secret rebellion, fretfulness, or unthankfulness; assume there has been a freedom from these things, (and how many are free or for any length of
time?) may not afflictions yet come as a rod for sins that lie deeper still?
How often, where there has been no open breach made in conscience by the guilt of the above evils, there has been perhaps for weeks or months a coldness and deadness, a lukewarmness and barrenness in the things of God, a backsliding in heart and affection, a worldliness and carelessness, an ease and a self-indulgence, which for a time conscience may not loudly testify against, but which are all very contrary to the life and spirit of vital godliness.
A man may keep up all the form of private prayer, reading the scriptures with diligence and attention, attending the preached word at every available opportunity, and even at times have a few softenings and meltings, some transient feelings of sorrow and compunction for his comness and deadness, and yet be for the most part in a very barren and unhealthy state of soul.
Now, to chastise us for this backsliding in heart, as well as to bring us out of it, the Lord often sends some trial and affliction. Why it comes we may not see at first, and that it is sent as a scourge for our carnality and carelessness; but after a time, as the medicine works and the rod produces the peaceable fruits of righteousness, we are brought, as it were, to our senses by it; and, as the blessed Spirit works more sensibly and powerfully in and by it, we are led to see and feel more clearly and deeply into what a cold, carnal, lifeless, miserable spot we had got.
This feeling softening the heart brings forth confession, humiliation, penitence, and self-reproach; and when any sense of the Lord’s mercy is manifested, godly sorrow, self loathing, earnestness, looking upon Him whom we have pierced, and, through all these working together to one aim and end, the blessed Spirit brings about a revival of faith, hope, and love, and a deliverance from the barrenness and death before experienced. In this case also we see that afflictions and trials bespeak the rod for sin, as well as instrumentally bring out of it.
3. But assume a third case, that the soul has been earnest, careful, and diligent, perhaps more favored with watchfulness and tenderness than usual, more spiritual, prayerful, and humble, and still affliction comes, and trials press more heavily than ever.
Can this be a rod now when there seems to be no cause for it?
But do we see things as God sees them?
Because matters are so far right and straight, may there still not be much underneath, much still lurking unseen?
The silver has to be “purified seven times” in the fire. (Psalm 12:
6.) The first or second time is not enough, no, nor the third, fourth, fifth, or sixth, to separate the dross and tin, so deeply are they hid, so intimately mixed with the pure ore. There may be much spiritual pride and self righteousness in the best of men, the most eminent for a godly life and conversation; nay, not only may there be, but there is sure to be, unless they have been in hot furnaces.
Do we want an instance?
Look at the case of Job. The Lord’s own testimony of him was that there was not such another upon earth as a man who feared God and avoided evil.
Why then had Job such heavy afflictions?
Was not he watchful and prayerful, godly and upright, and all that we have assumed, the Christian to be whose case we are now describing?
But because Job was all this and more, who does not see that there was that secret spiritual pride lurking and working within, hidden indeed from Job himself, but seen by that all-seeing eye which reads all the thoughts and intents of the heart?
In this eminent saint and servant of God there was a fund of self righteousness hidden in the depths of his heart which called for the rod.
And yet there is evidently another side to the question. It would seem hardly scriptural to say that all trials and afflictions are chastisements for sin. Look at the afflictions of Jacob and the afflictions of Joseph. The former were plainly rods for transgression, but we could not say so of the latter. It was not a self righteous speech of Joseph when he said, “I have done nothing that they should put me into the dungeon.”
Compare again the afflictions of David when persecuted by Saul, and his afflictions when driven from Jerusalem by Absalom. The latter were chastisements, but it would be hard to say the same of the former. Compare again the afflictions of Jonah with those of Heman (Psalm 138); or the trials of Jeremiah with those of Daniel. In Jonah and Jeremiah we can see that their backs called for strokes; but it is not so plain in the sorrows of Heman and the casting of Daniel into the den of lions.
When we come to the gospel dispensation we see this more plainly still. There is a suffering under the gospel “for Christ’s sake,” (Philippians 1:29); a “filling up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ” (Colossians 1:24); a having “fellowship with him in his sufferings,”
(Philippians 3:10); “a rejoicing in being counted worthy to suffer shame for his name,” (Acts 5:41); a “glorying in tribulation,” (Romans 5:3); a being afflicted for the consolation and salvation of our brethren. (2 Corinthians 1:6.)
When we read the long catalogue of the trials and afflictions of Paul (2 Corinthians 6:4-10, 11:23-29), and that the sufferings of Christ abounded in him (2 Corinthians 1:5); when we hear him say, “Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong,” we cannot surely call these afflictions chastisements in the strict sense of the word.
When again the Lord told the two sons of Zebedee that they “should drink of his cup and be baptized with his baptism,” (Matthew 20:23); when he said to Ananias of Paul, “I will show him how great things he must suffer for my name’s sake,” (Acts 9:16); when “the Holy Ghost witnessed in every city to the same servant of God that bonds and afflictions abode him,” (Acts 20:23); when we read of “receiving the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Ghost,” (1 Thessalonians 1:6); when Paul bids Timothy “be a partaker of the afflictions of the gospel according to the power of God” (2 Timothy 1:8); and when we read of the saints before the throne who “came out of great tribulation” (Revelation 7:14); it certainly would seem very harsh, legal, and foreign to the spirit of the gospel, to say that all these afflictions and sufferings were rods for sin.
We seem, therefore, brought to this conclusion that though many, perhaps the great majority, of our afflictions are chastening rods, yet that all are not so, and that, distinct from the chastisement which they procure for themselves, there is a path of tribulation and sorrow appointed for the children of God whereby they become conformed to the suffering image of Jesus, drink of his cup, partake of his baptism, and suffer with him here that they may be glorified with him hereafter.
II. The other question need not occupy us so long. Grace effectually excludes merit. Whatever in us is good, and as such well pleasing and acceptable to God, is his own work in our hearts, for he “worketh in us both to will and to do of his good pleasure.”
Nor indeed, though there is a connection between our disobedience and the Lord’s frown, for if we walk contrary to him he will walk contrary to us, and so also between our obedience and his smile, yet we must beware lest in avoiding Antinomianism we run headlong into Arminianism.
In all his dealings and ways he is a sovereign.
He will sometimes smile into obedience, break down the heart with love, come over all the mountains and hills of sin and shame, and by a sense of his goodness and mercy lead to repentance. Nor must we, on the other hand, think that our obedience will necessarily draw down his smile. At the best, it is but poor and imperfect, mingled with sin and infirmity, and he may have to teach us more clearly and impress it more deeply on our hearts, that all our fresh springs are in him, and that there is no hope or help for us but in the blood and obedience of the Son of his love.
By J.C. Philpot