John Newton's Letters

The benefits of affliction

December, 1776
My dear Madam,

I have often preached to others of the benefits of affliction; but my own path for many years has been so smooth, and my trials, though I have not been without trials, comparatively so light and few—that I have seemed to myself to speak by rote upon a subject of which I had not a proper feeling. Yet the many exercises of my poor afflicted people, and the sympathy the Lord has given me with them in their troubles—has made "the benefits of affliction" a frequent and favorite topic of my ministry among them. The advantages of afflictions, when the Lord is pleased to employ them for the good of his people, are many and great. Permit me to mention a few of them; and may the Lord grant that we may all find those blessed ends answered to ourselves, by the trials he is pleased to appoint us.

Afflictions quicken us to prayer. It is a pity it should be so; but experience testifies, that a long course of ease and prosperity, without painful changes—has an unhappy tendency to make us cold and formal in our secret worship. But troubles rouse our spirits, and constrain us to call upon the Lord in good earnest—when we feel a need of that help which we only can have from his almighty arm.

Afflictions are useful, and in a degree necessary, to keep alive in us—a conviction of the vanity and unsatisfying nature of the present world, and all its enjoyments; to remind us that this world is not our rest, and to call our thoughts upwards, where our true treasure is, and where our heart ought to be. When things go on much to our wish, our hearts are too prone to say, "It is good to be here!" It is probable, that had Moses, when he came to invite Israel to Canaan, found them in prosperity—that they would have been very unwilling to move out of Egypt; but the afflictions they were in—made his message welcome. Thus the Lord, by pain, sickness, and disappointments, by breaking our cisterns and withering our gourds—weakens our attachment to this world, and makes the thought of leaving it, more easy and more desirable.

A child of God cannot but greatly desire a more enlarged and experimental acquaintance with his holy Word; and this attainment is greatly promoted by our trials. The far greater part of the promises in Scripture, are made and suited to a state of affliction; and, though we may believe they are true, we cannot so well know their sweetness, power, and suitableness, unless we ourselves are in a state to which they refer! The Lord says, "Call upon me in the day of trouble, and I will deliver you." Now, until the day of trouble comes, such a promise is like a city of refuge to an Israelite, who, not having slain a man, was in no danger of the avenger of blood. He had a privilege near him, of which he knew not the use and value—because he was not in the case for which it was provided. But some can say, I not only believe this promise upon the authority of the speaker—but I can set my seal to it! I have been in trouble; I took this course for relief, and I was not disappointed. The Lord truly heard and delivered me. Thus afflictions likewise give occasion of our knowing and noticing more of the Lord's wisdom, power, and goodness, in supporting and relieving us—than we would otherwise have known.

I have not time to take another sheet, must therefore contract my homily.

Afflictions evidence to ourselves, and manifest to others, the reality of grace. When we suffer as Christians, exercise some measure of that patience and submission, and receive some measure of these supports and supplies, which the Gospel requires and promises to believers—we are more confirmed that we have not taken up with mere notions; and others may be convinced that we do not follow cunningly devised fables.

Afflictions likewise strengthen us—by the exercise our graces. As our limbs and natural powers would be feeble if not called to daily exertion—so the graces of the Spirit would languish, without something which was provided to draw them out to use.

Lastly, afflictions are honorable, as they advance our conformity to Jesus our Lord, who was a man of sorrows for our sake. Methinks, if we might go to heaven without suffering, we would be unwilling to desire it. Why should we ever wish to go by any other path to heaven—than that which Jesus has consecrated and endeared, by his own example? Especially as his people's sufferings are not penal—there is no wrath in them. The cup he puts in their hands is very different from that which he drank for their sakes, and is only medicinal to promote their chief good. Here I must stop; but the subject is fruitful, and might be pursued through a quire of paper.

"And you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons--My son, do not make light of the Lord's discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.

Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live! Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it." Hebrews 12:5-11