The English Puritans and their Scottish counterparts, the Covenanters, experienced intense suffering. Along with their contemporaries, they faced the normal hardships of the seventeenth-century world: plagues, illnesses, and the deaths of infants, children, and women in childbirth. In addition to these, however, many of the Puritans endured deep and persistent persecution.
The Stuart monarchs (1603–1685) — James I, Charles I, and Charles II — viewed the Puritans as threats to and seditious rebels of the English Commonwealth due to their refusal to conform to the Church of England and their attempts to bring “further reformation” to the Church. As a result, the magistrates fined, dismembered, and incarcerated Puritans for not adhering to the Book of Common Prayer and the various ceremonies of the Church of England. In spite of the cruel, abusive mistreatment that they received at the hand of their tormentors, these Puritans demonstrated courageous resolve and Christian perseverance as they remained steadfast in their devotion to their Lord Jesus Christ.
Though our own hardships may not be the same, we can learn and apply three valuable lessons about suffering from the Puritans’ thoroughly biblical reflections on the trials they endured. Applying these lessons to our own circumstances helps us to recognize them as purifying fires meant to prove the genuineness of our faith and increase our affection for Christ.
A More Precious Christ
The Puritans teach us, first, that suffering can be a catalyst to understanding and experiencing the inestimable value of Christ, which in turn leads to an active, perpetual treasuring of Christ above all else. In the midst of his suffering, the Covenanter Samuel Rutherford was able to see and embrace Christ as his “Pearl.” Christ was so precious to him that he refused to “exchange the joy of my bonds and imprisonment for Christ with all the joy of this dirty and foul-skinned world.”1
For the Puritans, suffering was a purifying agent to “aggravate sinne” so that “sinne bee the sowrest, and Christ the sweetest, of all things.”2 Richard Sibbes asserts that suffering yields a “bruising” that enables a Christian to “prize Christ above all.”3 When all is prosperous, it is more difficult to see the treasure that Christ is, but when trials come, “nothing comforts [the soul] like the riches of Christ. . . . Nothing makes a Christian sing care away, like the riches of Christ.”4 Even as suffering batters the body or the mind of Christ’s disciple, the soul can become more enamored with the beauty of Christ.
Second, the Puritans reinforce the truth that God is the divine Author over suffering. Nothing in this life, including suffering, eludes the sovereign will of God. Therefore, Christians are to “question not but there is a favourable design in [suffering] towards you.”5 God uses suffering for his divine purposes, which include the good and growth of his children, thus displaying at one and the same time his sovereignty and covenant love. In the Lord’s sovereign hands, suffering becomes a divine, gracious means of sanctification, by which “God is but killing your lusts.”6
“Nothing in this life, including suffering, eludes the sovereign will of God.”
God’s love permeates the suffering of his elect. Every trial that his elect encounter discloses the warmth, sweetness, and affection of the Father. He does not intend to hurt or destroy. Rather, “afflictions to the Godly are medicinable,” given to cleanse, to purify his children.7 Therefore, suffering is a “sure signe of his love. . . . It is a signe, he meanes to dwell with us, and delight in us.”8 As we comprehend the love of God for us in our suffering, we learn contentment not in our circumstances or in ourselves, but in God alone. Jeremiah Burroughs observes,
Not only in good things does a Christian have the dew of God’s blessing, and find them very sweet to him, but in all the afflictions, all the evils that befall him, he can see love, and can enjoy the sweetness of love in his afflictions as well as in his mercies. The truth is that the afflictions of God’s people come from the same eternal love that Jesus Christ came from. . . . Grace enables men to see Love in the very frown of God’s face, and so comes to receive contentment.9
The recognition of God’s love in designing trials can produce a supernatural, indescribable “joy and comfort in God.”10 While acknowledging a category for godly tears, godly grief, and godly lamentation, the Puritans maintained that the overarching ethos of the Christian is one of joy. Reflecting on his own experience of surpassing joy in the midst of a trial, Rutherford writes,
Neither need we fear crosses, or sigh or be sad for anything that is on this side of heaven, if we have Christ. Our crosses will never draw blood of the joy of the Holy Ghost and peace of conscience. Our joy is laid up in such a high place that temptations cannot climb up to take it down.11
Suffering in the lives of the godly produces a sweet submission to God’s providence. By grace, God’s elect need not merely put up with or resign themselves to suffering. Rather, knowing and adoring the fact that “his sovereignty which he exerciseth over you . . . is lustred with mercy,”12 they cast away all “fretting thoughts of the holy dispensation of God.”13
Strangers and Exiles
Third and finally, suffering underscores the reality that we are strangers and pilgrims on this earth who eagerly anticipate our eternal heavenly residence. The Puritans lived the proposition of Hebrews 11:13: “[They] acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.” This pilgrim mindset tempered their expectations of life on this earth. Thomas Brooks argues that afflictions “elevate and raise a Saint’s affections to Heaven and heavenly things.”14 Suffering reminds us that this sin-cursed, sin-ruined world is not our eternal residence, for “our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3:20). This temporary “world is a hard, ill-made bed; no rest is in it for your soul.”15 Therefore, God uses suffering to “wean your hearts from a vain world, preventing temptations, and exciting your desires after heaven.”16
“As God uses afflictions to draw us away from the vanity of the world, he spiritually transports us closer to himself.”
As God uses afflictions to draw us away from the vanity of the world, he spiritually transports us closer to himself. Brooks asserts,
That times of affliction have been the times, wherein you have seen the face of God, and heard the voice of God, and sucked sweetness from the brests of God, and fed upon the delicates [delicacies] of God, and drunk deep of the consolations of God, and have been most satisfied and delighted with the presence and in-comes of God.17
If afflictions yield this kind of satisfaction and delight in God, if they teach us to spurn the temptation to be satiated with the empty pleasures of the present world, then we can embrace the severe mercies that prevent us from falling away from the living God.
Sweet, Submissive Resilience
The Puritans’ responses to afflictions provide for us a model of sweet, submissive resilience in our suffering. Burroughs contends that a resilient Christian is one whose “gracious sweete and holy temper” remains unaltered by afflictions, because that Christian “submit[s] to the dispose [disposal] of God in every condition.”18 In a world where sickness and death are ubiquitous, Christ appears more precious, and the loving providence of God more sweet.
These lessons instruct and remind us that our sufferings do not have the final word. Neither do they give us excuses for breaking fellowship with the Lord or being less godly. Rather, suffering is God’s gateway to fresh outpourings of his infinite sustaining grace as we increasingly find Christ to be all-sufficient.
Even if our tribulations now may seem particularly challenging, they “are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18). Christian, the compass of suffering points true north to God’s eternal dwelling place. Therefore, “build not your nest here,” but seek and “desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Hebrews 11:16).19 Your Lord will graciously sustain and bear you through your pain and suffering in this life, and in his timing, usher you into his presence, where there will be no more death, mourning, crying, or pain (Revelation 21:4).