John Owen was born in 1616. He was probably the greatest pastor-theologian among the Puritans. As J. I. Packer would say, he was the tallest among the Puritan redwoods. His twenty-three thick volumes are still in print, shaping and feeding today’s shepherds (like me).
He was a man of incredible activity—politically (as Oliver Cromwell’s’ chaplain and frequent speaker to Parliament), “denominationally” (as the point man for all the controversies between Congregational and Presbyterian Puritans), theologically (as the foremost Puritan defender of Calvinistic truth), academically (as dean and vice chancellor in the University of Oxford), pastorally (serving churches in and around London almost all his adult life, even when it was illegal to gather), and personally (with a family of 11 children, 10 of whom died while young, followed by the 11th when she was a young adult).
What amazed me about this man is that in the midst of all this activity his passion was not public performance, but personal holiness. He said,
My heart’s desire unto God, and the chief design of my life … are that … universal holiness may be promoted in my own and in the hearts and ways of others.
I need heroes like this. Not many leaders today state the goals of their lives in terms of holiness. And more and more leaders openly confess that their personal holiness is of no significance to their public performance. For example, the President of the United States communicated very clearly that he did not think his personal purity was a significant factor in his leadership of this nation. Similarly we read recently: “Prince Charles has reportedly just ended a long-standing adulterous affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles in order to remove any obstacle to his succession to the throne.” So on both side of the Atlantic our statesmen say with their lives: personal holiness is no big deal—public performance and personal purity are not related.
Not so Owen. The wonder and the power and the beauty of his public life was the constancy of his personal communion with God in purity and joy. One of his biographers described it like this:
Amid the din of theological controversy, the engrossing and perplexing activities of a high public station, and the chilling damps of a university, he was yet living near God, and like Jacob amid the stones of the wilderness, [he was] maintaining secret intercourse with the eternal and invisible.
In his own words he gave the secret to his personal holiness amid all the pressures and pains of life:
What better preparation can there be for [our future enjoyment of the glory of Christ] than in a constant previous contemplation of that glory in the revelation that is made in the Gospel.
There’s the key to purity and holiness, and the key to lasting effectiveness in all of life:constant contemplation of the glory of Christ.
12 Benefits of Afflictions
God doesn’t afflict us or allow us to be afflicted for no reason.
He has wonderful purposes for all he does in us. God is the great artist who produces the ultimate masterpieces – sons and daughters in the likeness of his Son Jesus Christ. So he makes every stroke of the Master’s brush, every tap of the Sculptor’s chisel count.
So in God’s plan, afflictions have great benefit to us, as painful as they are at times. If we keep these benefits in mind when we suffer, they can help us endure joyfully.
Afflictions deliver us from pride. Paul said God gave him his grievous thorn “to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations” 2 Corinthians 12:7
Afflictions make us sympathetic, merciful and slower to judge. If you’ve suffered the fury of depression, you won’t assume that others who are depressed are in sin. If you’ve been grieved by a rebellious teen, you’ll be quick to sympathize with other struggling parents.
Afflictions remind us of the brevity of this life and make us long for heaven where our true treasure is. ”When things go on much to our wish, our hearts are too prone to say, ‘It is good to be here!’” John Newton.
Afflictions stir us to pray and keep us dependent on God. Too many days of continuous sunshine and we can forget how much we need the Lord. But as thunderstorms make us run for shelter, so afflictions make us to run to our Refuge and Strength, and cry out like David, “Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted.” Psalm 25:16
Afflictions are opportunities for Christ to display his power in us. As long as we can handle things in our own strength, we won’t see God’s power. It’s when the burden gets too massive for us to bear that Christ comes along and says, “Hey, let me take that from you” and reveals his universe-sustaining strength. ”But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’” 2 Corinthians 12:9.
Afflictions drive us to God’s word. “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes.” Ps 119:71. A life preserver doesn’t mean much to someone lounging in a deck chair reading a novel. But when the ship is sinking and one is adrift in the ocean that life preserver is everything. When we are sinking in affliction, we grab onto God’s promises and they uphold us.
Afflictions yield supernatural comfort. ”Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction” 2 Corinthians 1:3-4.
Afflictions prove the reality of God’s grace in our lives. How does someone endure years of sickness yet continue to be joyful? How does a wife lose her husband to cancer yet join the saints the following Sunday and lift her hands in worship? What makes a husband care for his Alzheimer – racked wife and continue to love God? God’s amazing grace! Endurance through afflictions is evidence we haven’t believed some empty philosophy or fable.
Afflictions make us thankful when God delivers us from them. “Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me” Psalm 50:15.
Afflictions produce unique fruit that doesn’t grow in other soil. Fruit like faith, patience, perseverance, gentleness, long-suffering. The only way to get them is by going through trials that require them.
Afflictions manifest God’s faithfulness and mighty sustaining power. “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8: 35, 38-39
Finally, afflictions make us like Christ. God’s ultimate goal is to conform us to his Son so that we can enjoy him forever. So ultimately, afflictions are for our eternal joy and gladness in Jesus.
The Character of God, Part 4
I remember a man from the church I grew up in – an elderly man. He had a full head of silvery grey hair and seemed as old as time. I wasn’t surprised when my mom told me he had been just as grey ever since she could remember. As a child, you begin to wonder if this guy might not have known Moses, or at least been an infantryman in the War of 1812. Although it’s unlikely he’d been around that long (although I’m still checking war records), there is one who has existed throughout all eternity.
In fact, it was he who created time.
God transcends the categories of time and space because he created them. We are bound to them because we have been created within their confines, but God stands outside them.
This characteristic of God is beautiful and is tied to his unchangeableness (immutability) in an important way. You see, not only does God remain the same, without the fickle ebbs and flows we are prone to, but he has been that way forever and ever. He will always be that way. He will always be.
That’s great news for you and me because we all need someone to be there for us. People can and do let us down, but knowing that God will never jump ship is very comforting. I don’t have to worry about him retiring, being replaced or “let go.” He does not get sick, nor his glory wane like a spent candle. He has never stopped nor ever will stop being the ruler of the universe. His eternality is why he can say he “will never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5).
Beyond that, we know that he’ll still be there on the day when the sun sets on this age and all his followers will be in his presence enjoying and sharing in his never-ending presence and glory.
God operates on a different time table than we do as humans. We know, this of course. Of course we do. We remember what Peter wrote during a day when people were arguing that because Jesus had not yet returned, that Christianity could not be believed:
“Dear friends, don’t let this one thing escape you: With the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day. The Lord does not delay His promise, as some understand delay, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish but all to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:8-9).
Don’t mistake God’s patience for His indifference. Understand that God will act when God will act, and that His time of action is going to be right. We know this of course. Of course we do. But that’s about the second coming of Jesus. The first coming of Jesus happened in a similar way. Not early, and not late, but right on time:
“When the time came to completion, God sent His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4-5).
It was 400 years between the close of Malachi and the opening of Matthew. Four hundred years of silence. Four hundred years of looking at the prophecies. Four hundred years of wondering if today was the day when God would act on behalf of His people in a dramatic way.
That 400 years mirrors another 400 years between the death of Joseph and the rise of Moses. Four hundred years of slavery. Four hundred years of oppression. Four hundred years of stories of a supposed deliverer.
In both instances, that’s one generation of fathers telling their sons to remain faithful and wait. And then that generation of fathers dying off, and another generation of fathers telling their sons the same thing. It’s a lot of waiting. A lot of hoping. And a lot of questions about the “when” of this God we’ve heard about. But we see, in hindsight, see that God was not inactive during that time, but instead knew the right “when.” We know this of course. Of course we do.
Except we don’t.
We think we do, but our impatience and frustration betrays us. In fact, I wonder today how much sin might be avoided in my life if I really believed in the perfect timing of God. Every time I think I must manufacture an opportunity I show that I don’t believe. Whenever I try and manipulate relationships to my own ends show that I don’t believe. Whenever I am discontent with what the Lord has seen fit to bring about in my life I show that I don’t believe.
But thank God His timing is not dependent on my recognition of its rightness. Thank God He is not swayed by my complaints. Thank God He is willing to press on to the right time. And thank God that He didn’t wait for me to be ready to exercise His good work in my life:
“For while we were still helpless, at the appointed moment, Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:6).