The best time to work on your theology of suffering is not when you are in it, but before the suffering comes. Spurgeon would know a lot of suffering in his adult years – gout, depression, kidney disease, opposition, and much more. But we see him developing his theology of suffering well before those years. As a young pastor in Waterbeach, Spurgeon was healthy and his ministry was thriving. But he pastored a congregation that dealt with the trials and hardships of everyday life. And so, he had to equip them with theological truths to strengthen them for the suffering ahead.
This is what Spurgeon did in sermon #290, found Lost Sermons, Vol. 6. Preaching on Psalm 11:5, “The Lord trieth the righteous…,” how did Spurgeon prepare his people, and himself, to suffer well? He did so by giving them three vital theological truths:
1) Suffering is a part of the Christian life
Spurgeon understood that there are all kinds of wrong teachings about suffering. Some Christians believe that “religious persons must never be troubled, never tremble but ever be on the mount of strong confidence.” Others teach that all Christians must “come up to a certain standard in trouble or else be no Christian.” But both ideas fall short of the truth.
Instead, Spurgeon taught his people that suffering is a part of the Christian life. “The real tendency of religion is to make us happy, but while dwelling in a fallen world we cannot but have sorrows as well as joys. As men we share in all the incidental ills of life, as Christians we surmount them and find profit in them.”
In other words, Christians do not escape suffering in this life. Like the rest of humanity, we are subject to the curse of this fallen world and therefore, this means that we will experience all the hardships and trials that everyone else experiences. However, because of their hope in God, Christians will also “find profit in them” and rejoice amid their trials.
This was the message of Psalm 11:5. It is the LORD who tries the righteous. Suffering does not come ultimately from the hand of Satan but from God’s sovereign and wise design. Spurgeon writes, “God our loving Father, sitting at the helm of the universe, could no doubt have so ordered all things that the truly good man should have no affliction, nor even the pain of death. But it is not so.” In other words, God did not choose to create a world where the righteous live pain-free lives. Therefore, in our suffering, we can submit in hope to a God who is at work for the good of his people.
But why are trials sent to the people of God? Spurgeon provides two answers:
2) “God glorifies himself by means of these troubles”
It is through our trials that God displays His power and grace. And He does so, particularly in three ways.
First, he frustrates “the designs of our foes.” The Bible is filled with examples of how God has done this. From Pharaoh to Haman, to Caesar, again and again, God displays his power by using the schemes of the Evil One to accomplish His purposes.
Second, God glorifies himself as he supports Christians under trials. “Perhaps nothing brings more glory to God than that calm peace… the saints enjoy during trouble.” Here, Spurgeon recounts the story of Mary Wilson, who refused to recant her faith and sang the Psalms and recited Romans 8 as her captors tortured and drowned her. These instances of “patience under sicknesses, losses, etc.” bring glory to God more than the Christian’s gratitude for blessings.
Finally, God glorifies himself “by happy deliverance” of the Christian from trials. This is not to say that Christians will always be delivered from their trials. But when it does happen, “the mercy seems to be great indeed. And the glory to God is great in proportion.” Once again, the Bible and church history are filled with wonderful stories of God’s power displayed in delivering his people, all for his glory.
3) “He thus confers benefit on his people”
But God’s glory is not the only purpose of trials in our lives. There are times when we can see God’s purposes are aimed at “the profit of the tried one.” This is what James reminds Christians in James 1:2-4. Once again, Spurgeon provides five ways that God brings benefit to the Christian through trials.
First, “it leads us to do our first works.” It is easy for the Christian life to grow stagnant. But through suffering, “we begin to believe afresh, to pray anew, to throw away every false ground of comfort and make our calling and election sure.”
Second, “it makes us more grateful for our mercies.” It is so easy to take everyday mercies for granted. But “none value them like losers of them. The sick man loves the fresh air, the hungry man feasts even on bitters.” Suffering helps us cultivate thankfulness to God for his abundant, undeserved blessings.
Third, “it makes us more humble, gentle and full of sympathy towards those who are tried.” Suffering prepares us to walk alongside other fellow sufferers and to offer them the comfort that we ourselves have received (2 Cor. 1:3-7).
Fourth, “it shows us more the vanity of all carnal things, makes us wish to spend our time in promoting the cause of God, and makes us esteem earthly things as trifles.” For many people, suffering is a wake-up call, warning us not to waste our lives and reminding us that life is short.
Finally, “it makes us long for heaven, removes some of the dread of death, unlooses the strings which pin us to earth, and gives us wings wherewith to soar on high.” Suffering reminds us that this world is not our home and that we have a better home awaiting us, where death and sorrow will reach us no more.
In preparing his people to suffer, Spurgeon gave them these two main ideas: God is sovereign over your suffering and God has a purpose for your suffering. The first truth is what makes the second truth possible. And if God has a purpose for your suffering, then your pain is not meaningless. God is out to glorify Himself through you and draw near to you in your pain. As an 18-year-old, Spurgeon likely did not know the truth of these doctrines as much as he would in his later years. Still, it was his grounding in these truths that prepared him to face the sufferings that would come later in life.
Are you prepared to suffer?