No Christian would envy the trials of the apostle Paul. And yet to read him confronts us with realities that to some extent we ought to have experienced as well. The inward trials, the outward opposition, the sharp temptations, the difficult circumstances, the misunderstandings, the oppressiveness of an evil world, the weakness in which we wage war against sin. Paul’s afflictions were intense and ours may not seem as severe but we quickly learn that the life of discipleship is not cosseted but lined with crosses. Perhaps the hardest cross to bear is to witness the ravages of sin in human life and to recognize the world’s antipathy to Christ. The evidence of our revolt against God is painful and it introduces the element of melancholy into Christian spirituality. There is so much wrong as a consequence of our rift with God, and so much suffering as the outcome.
The pursuit of prosperity and pleasure, and the attempt to make life painless, is our way of sweetening the pill of earth’s bitterness, a bitterness that cannot be avoided. Without faith our efforts are futile. Every gain and gratification is so tenuous and transient, and ultimately it is taken from us. Life here is only purposeful if it is devoted to the seeking of God. Joy is only permanent if it is found in him. Wellbeing without him is an illusion and insecure.
Nonetheless, the prizes that earth offers are alluring, diverting, and are in the end distractions from the possession of eternal riches and rewards. The glossiness and glamour in which the world wraps its trinkets are attractive but deceptive. Our attachment to this temporary phase of existence can eliminate our concerns for the endless age to come.
The Christian perception on life here is one of gratitude for the gift of being, and the mercies enjoyed, but awareness also that miseries are only mitigated, not annihilated, and employed by God to turn us back to him. Satisfaction here is so superficial and the providence of God often deprives the people of God of worldly happiness that fades like morning mist. Earth’s enchantments are not enduring and we need to be prised away from them.
No one writes with greater earnestness and honesty about the vanity of life without God than Blaise Pascal. He endured physical affliction and religious opposition, winning success as a brilliant scientist and philosopher. His pride and pain were subdued through his union with Christ and his observation of human nature made his application of the gospel so penetrating: “We never keep our minds in the present moment. We remember the past, as if we wanted to slow down the passage of time. And we look forward to the future, as if we wanted time to accelerate. We wander about in times that do not belong to us, and do not think about the only time that does. We dream of times past and future, and flee from the present. The reason is that the present is usually painful. We push it out of sight because it distresses us – only on those few occasions which are truly enjoyable are we sorry to see time slip away. We try to reduce present pain with joyful hopes of the future, planning how we are going to arrange things in a period over which we have no control and which we cannot be sure of reaching. . .The past and present are our means, and the future alone is our end. Thus we never actually live, but hope to live. We are never actually happy, but are constantly planning how to be happy” (Daily Readings with Blaise Pascal, Edited by Robert Van de Weyer, Templegate Publishers, Springfield, Illinois, $4:95. Ideal for pocket or purse).
Our troubled, trying, or thwarted lives are meant to teach us of the truth of satisfaction in God alone. But seek first his kingdom, and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well (Matthew 6:33). Often, if our desires for God are weak, we are driven to him by misfortune and adversity. Our hearts cling to this world as if it were our home. We need to be spurred heavenward continually and cleansed of carnal longings that impede our progress. The journey is hard and always a struggle. We feel like Sisyphus, founder and king of Corinth, pushing his huge boulder to the top of a steep hill continually only to see it roll downwards again. But in various ways God dims our attraction to the world and enables us to see it for what it is.
Paul and Pascal were deprived of their illusions by severe grace. We are discomforted by their words as long as the world appeals. To encourage us to foster contentment here there is a false gospel abroad designed to seduce us into merely feeling good and finding satisfaction in self gratification and aggrandizement. Gospel warnings may sound dour but they are dependable as is the verdict of John Calvin: *The disciples of Christ must walk among thorns, and march to the cross amidst uninterrupted afflictions. *The best fruit of afflictions is, when we are brought to purge our minds from all arrogance, and to bend them to meekness and modesty. *Our afflictions prepare us for receiving the grace of God. *All whom the Lord has chosen and honoured with admission into the society of his saints, ought to prepare themselves for a life, hard, laborious, unquiet, and replete with numerous and various calamities. It is the will of their heavenly Father to exercise them in this manner, that we may have certain proof of those that belong to him. *All chastisements which God by his own hand inflicts upon, have this as the object – to heal our vices. *God, although he visits his children with temporary chastisements of a severe description, will ultimately crown them with joy and prosperity. (Calvin’s Wisdom, compiled by J. Graham Miller, Banner of Truth Trust 1992).
A close examination of the lives and thoughts of the Biblical saints shows that they marched to heaven through many tribulations, deprivations, and harsh experiences. What could possibly induce the modern Christian to think that they would be an exception by exemption? Jacob, chosen by God, and one of the beloved patriarchs of Israel, testified to the life typical of the people of God in these words: “The years of my pilgrimage are a hundred and thirty. My years have been few and evil” (Genesis 46:9, “difficult” is the NIV understatement). It is to be wondered if the modern western church has become inured to the facts of Christian life in an evil world cursed by sin.
And yet there is immense alleviation of affliction for the believer in the presence and promises of God. His portion, his inheritance, his wealth of joy and life in abundance is saved up for the kingdom. There are foretastes now but immeasurable fullness to come. The Christian is sorrowful, yet always rejoicing at a depth of soul that rejects glibness but is founded on the guarantees of God. Hence Calvin is able to reassure us: “There is nothing in afflictions which ought to disturb our joy”. This is a gladness and certainty that looks to the reliable word of God and the immutability of his purpose that absolutely nothing can frustrate.