Have you ever considered the good that comes from the afflictions you’ve endured?
In the midst of suffering, hardship, and trials, many believers cling to the promise found in Romans 8:28: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” But what is that “good” Paul refers to? It’s tempting to think of that “good” in terms of physical, earthly good—a good we can point to and touch. For example, we may look at a lost job as the doorway to a better job. Or we might think of a broken friendship as an opportunity for a new and even better friendship.
While there are times in our life when we look back on a trial and see how God used it to pave the way for something better in the here and now, there are other good things that result from our afflictions. And they aren’t tangible or material things. They aren’t things we can see with the naked eye or touch with our hands. They are internal and spiritual, and therefore they have eternal significance.
The eighteenth-century pastor John Newton, best known for writing the hymn “Amazing Grace,” wrote about the spiritual good that comes from our afflictions in some of his letters to the people he pastored.
John Newton’s Pastoral Letters
John Newton was born in England in 1725. He started out his career in the British navy and then became a captain of slave ships. Like many sailors in his day, he experienced a shipwreck where he nearly lost his life. In 1748, he was on the ship Greyhound when a terrible storm arose at sea. He was fast asleep when water burst through the wall of his cabin and woke him up. He and the other sailors spent all night trying to keep the boat from sinking. During this event, he prayed, “Lord, have mercy!”1
After this event, Newton began studying the Bible. He then learned the biblical languages and became a lay preacher. He grew convicted of his part in the slave trade and became an abolitionist. Eventually, he became an Anglican priest, serving as rector at St. Mary Woolnoth in London until his death.
Newton is best known for his influence in the life of abolitionist William Wilberforce and for his hymns, including “Amazing Grace” and “Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken.” During his tenure as pastor, he also wrote a number of letters. These letters were not unlike the blogs of today; congregants passed them around and shared them with one another. In many of these letters, Newton provided pastoral wisdom and counsel to the suffering. In one letter to a congregant, Newton wrote: “Though afflictions in themselves are not joyous, but grievous, yet in due season they yield the peaceful fruits of righteousness. Various and blessed are the fruits they produce.”2
In this letter, Newton lists several spiritual fruits that grow out of our afflictions.3
Five Fruits of Affliction
- Growth in Prayer: Newton wrote: “By affliction prayer is quickened, for our prayers are very apt to grow languid and formal in a time of ease.” How true is this? When we are in a season of suffering, we are more likely to turn to the Lord in prayer than we are in times when things are going well. During times of hardship, our prayer life often deepens and flourishes as the trial reminds us how dependent we are on God’s grace.
- Growth in Understanding the Scriptures: Newton said that afflictions help us understand the Scriptures, particularly God’s promises to us. Many of God’s promises in Scripture have to do with His help to us in times of trouble, and unless we are in a season of affliction, we will not know those promises firsthand. “We cannot so well know their fullness, sweetness, and certainty, as when we have been in the situation to which they are suited, have been enabled to trust and plead them, and found them fulfilled in our own case.” Trials teach us and show us more about the God we read of in Scripture, especially His wisdom, faithfulness, and goodness.
- Growth of Strength: Newton says that some graces are only revealed through affliction, such as resignation, patience, meekness, and long-suffering. Just as the practice of lifting weights develops our muscles, affliction develops characteristics in us that can’t grow apart from suffering. As Newton wrote, “Activity and strength of grace is not ordinarily acquired by those who sit still and live at ease, but by those who frequently meet with something which requires a full exertion of what power the Lord has given them.”
- Growth in Compassion: Newton also said that affliction helps us have compassion for others who suffer. While we can have empathy for others in affliction without experiencing such suffering ourselves, our empathy is not as strong as when we have experienced suffering ourselves. Likewise, suffering helps us know more of the sufferings of Christ.
- Growth in Humility: Newton said trials and suffering help us see the true content of our hearts. Affliction awakens the sins in our hearts that we didn’t realize were there. “This discovery is indeed very distressing; yet till it is made, we are prone to think ourselves much less vile than we really are, and cannot so heartily abhor ourselves and repent in dust and ashes.” Seeing the truth about ourselves produces the fruit of humility.
God’s Word promises that good will come through our trials and afflictions. Though the trials are not good in and of themselves—far from it—God uses them for our ultimate spiritual good. When we face such afflictions, let us expect and even look for spiritual fruit to grow in our lives.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on June 20, 2020.
- Stephen J. Nichols, “The Life of John Newton,” July 3, 2018, in 5 Minutes in Church History, podcast, MP3 audio, 5:00, www.5minutesinchurchhistory.com/the-life-of-john-newton. ↩︎
- Select Letters of John Newton (Edinburgh, Scotland: Banner of Truth Trust, 2011), 220. ↩︎
- Select Letters of John Newton, 220–21. ↩︎