On January 31, 1649, John Owen preached before the British Parliament. In the midst of the English Civil War, Parliamentary forces had captured the hated king of England, Charles I, and had tried him for and convicted him of treason. He was executed the day before Owen’s sermon.
We might expect Owen to have struck a triumphalist note. After all, his side had emerged victorious. But no—without so much as mentioning the events of the day before, Owen instead preached on suffering.
Suffering, Owen said, is part of what it means to be a follower of Christ. He said:
The return which God’s labourers meet withal in this generation is in the number of those things whereof there is none new under the sun. Men that, under God, deliver a kingdom, may have the kingdom’s curses for their pains. . . . Men every way blameless, and to be embraced in their own ways, are oftentimes abhorred and laden with curses for following the Lord in his ways.
This was no time for triumphalism. It was a time to reflect somberly on the travails of life on earth between the advents of Christ, a time during which Christians will be hated simply for the sake of the One whose name they bear.
The text for Owen’s sermon was Jeremiah 15:19–20, but his point can also be drawn from James 1:2–4:
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
In this passage, James refers to “joy.” Joy is not the same as happiness. Joy is an apprehension of and a settled confidence in the providence of our great God. It is a realization of and a trust in His promises.
Owen made reference to “men that, under God, deliver a kingdom.” We as Christians are looking forward to the full unveiling of Christ’s kingdom on earth, where every knee will bow and every tongue confess that He is Lord (Phil. 2:10–11). In the meantime, when those same knees fall on our necks and those same tongues curse us, we rejoice. We know that the Lord works out all things for our good and His glory (Rom. 8:28). And we know from the promise of Christ Himself that when we suffer for His sake, we are blessed, “because [our] reward is great in heaven” (Matt. 5:11–12). We are to count it joy when we meet trials that test our faith, because they give us the opportunity to have our faith strengthened and to have the fidelity of our God vindicated before the watching world.
Note also James’ reference to “trials of various kinds” (James 1:2). We might think this is a reference to the kinds of ordinary difficulties we endure in a fallen world, but James likely has something else in mind.