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Good books

Tested By Fire
Author: John Piper
Publisher: Inter-Varsity Press (2001), 176pp
Review by Rev Ng Seng Chuan

This is not just a good book. It is a wonderful book, at least for me. It may not be the kind of book Christians in affluent societies would particularly enjoy. But it is exactly the book that would put steel into our souls, and we do need that, living as we still do in times which, despite our technological sophistication, render us vulnerable to misfortunes that range from tsunamis and epidemics to stock market crashes and acts of terrorism.

John Piper sketches the stories of three well-known victims of suffering. What is amazing of course is that they are well-known for their contribution, and almost unknown for the depth of suffering under which they lived. Who might they be?

First, there is John Bunyan, he of The Pilgrim’s Progress fame. That classic of Christian pilgrimage was written from prison. Of the trials or barrenness that sometimes afflict God’s people, Bunyan’s own remarks are telling (and chilling for us living in sunny climes: “It is said that in some countries trees will grow, but will bear no fruit, because there is no winter there.” (p.72) No masochist himself, he encourages those who can to “fly” (i.e., escape) if they would, but adds that “the scales are in God’s hands” (p.73)  – meaning, there’s no predicting if we would be the better for not having suffered!

What is the fruit, then, of Bunyan’s suffering? John Piper sums it up as follows.

  1. Bunyan’s suffering confirmed him in his calling as a writer, especially for the afflicted church (p.60). If we should find this disturbing or unpleasant, savour the exact texture of Piper’s analysis (p.61-62):

The smell of affliction was on most of what Bunyan wrote.  In fact, I suspect that one of the reasons the Puritans are still being today with so much profit is that their entire experience, unlike ours, was one of persecution and suffering.  To our chipper culture this may seem somber at times, but the day you hear that you have cancer, or that your child is blind, or that a mob is coming, you turn away from the light books to the weighty ones that were written on the precipice of eternity where the fragrance of heaven and the stench of hell are both in the air.

  1. Bunyan’s suffering deepened his love for his flock and gave his pastoral labour the fragrance of eternity (p.62). Again, listen to the explanation in Piper’s own words (p.63):

If all is well and this world is all that matters, a pastor may become jealous of prosperous people who spend their time in leisure.  But suffering abounds, and if prosperity is a cloak for the true condition of frisky, fun-loving perishing Americans (and, we might add, Singaporeans), then being a pastor may be the most important and glorious of all work.  Bunyan thought it was….

  1. Bunyan’s suffering opened his understanding to the truth that the Christian life is hard and that following means having the wind in your face (p.4). Piper gives an account of Bunyan’s analysis of the effects of conversion.  Again, this runs counter to the cheap grace that Bonhoeffer speaks of in much of our modern preaching of the gospel.  “Come to Christ and have all your problems solved and hurts soothed.” To Bunyan, the Christian pilgrimage is incredibly hard, and the sooner we reckon with this, the better it would be for our souls. 
     

  2. Bunyan’s suffering strengthened his assurance that God is sovereign over all the afflictions of his people and will bring them safely home (p.67). He speaks of how suffering saints are sprinkled on the earth to keep it from stinking (p.69), and how we ought to pity those who knew no suffering (p.71)!
     

  3. Bunyan’s suffering deepened in him confidence in the Bible as the Word of God and a passion for biblical exposition as the key to perseverance (p.74). Spurgeon’s analysis of Bunyan’s teaching led Spurgeon to this conclusion about Bunyan: “His blood is Bibline!” (p.77). Might we conclude that if modern Christians are less passionate about suffering in Christ’s name (as the early martyrs did), than we are about success, that the possibility exists of our blood being “mammonine”?

Food enough for thought? Ah, but there are two more to go! The second giant on the stage of suffering Piper introduces us to is William Cowper. Well-known as a poet and hymn-writer, what is astounding is the fact that he suffered a nervous breakdown at the age of 21, and was to be afflicted by deep depression and thoughts of suicide for the rest of his life. He fell in love with his cousin Theodora, and had a courtship of some seven years before his prospective father-in-law, presumably aware of Cowper’s condition, withdrew his blessings for matrimony. And yet it is from the pen of this tortured personality that we get some of Christendom’s most magnificent hymns: “There’s a Fountain Filled With Blood”; “O For a Closer Walk with God”; and “God Moves in a Mysterious Way”. 

John Piper sums up six lessons we need to learn from the trauma of Cowper’s life (pp.109-119), before moving to the final figure – that of David Brainerd. Otherwise unknown except for his biography written up by Jonathan Edwards from his diary, his was “a biography that has inspired more missionary service, perhaps, than any other book outside the Bible” (p.13). Those on whom David Brainerd’s biography had an impact are all names on the “Who’s Who?” of world missions – John Wesley, Henry Martyn, William Carey, Robert Morrison, Robert McCheyne, John Mills, Fredrerick Schwartz, David Livingstone, Andrew Murray, Jim Elliot, and the list goes on.

Very little is known of David Brainerd. He had an academic bent, and would have been marked out for an illustrious career in ministry or academia. But he was thrown out of Yale University, and his failed attempts to regain entrance to Yale, Harvard or any European university, were to doom his prospects of a meaningful existence. His only recourse was to turn to missions, and work amongst the American Indians in the 1740s. He died at the age of 29, having been a Christian for only eight years, and his last four years spent as a missionary.

Brainerd’s slate of problems includes constant sickness (p.133), recurring depression (p.134), loneliness (p.138), external hardship (p.139), a bleak outlook on life (p.140), difficulty learning to love the people to whom he was missionary (p.144), and exercising a ministry true to his calling (p.145).

What, then, sustained Brainerd? He had a passion to finish well (p.146), accepted his suffering as a kind of “pleasing pain”, i.e., suffering to please God (p.148), long and frequent periods of prayer (p.148), fasting (having no cake or food on his 25th birthday!), and studying and writing to clear his mind (pp.151-152). The impact of his brief life has been described as “a pebble dropped in the sea of history” (p.155).

So, there you have it. Profoundly moving stories that cannot help but make me, the reader, ashamed of my presumed achievements or my grouses about my less than fortuitous circumstances. All three stories proclaim one clear message: God can and does use the weak, the sick, the discouraged! And John Piper’s own response? “Life is too precious to squander on trivial things.” And hard though it might be, I learn to say, “Amen”.

CHAPEL NOTES

At Chapel on Sept 8, Dr Ng Peh Cheng shared on the lessons she learned from her sabbatical leave at Regent College from Jan-June, 2006.

Chapel speaker on Sept 20 will be Clive Lim. He will be sharing on the topic of “My Journey as a Christian Entrepreneur”.

BGST GENERAL FUND UPDATE

Operating expenses for Sept 2006

$  57,090

Balance in General Fund as at 1st Sept 2006

$    6,635

Funds received to-date (5th Sept)

$  16,030

Balance to raise for Sept 2006

$  34,425

Total Budgetted Operating Expenses
for Oct to Dec 2006

$198,570

Balance to raise for the rest of 2006

$232,995

A Blessed Birthday to ... 

Mr Chan Wan Yhim  21/9

Dr Oswald Goh  22/9

Mrs Susan Foo  23/9

Dr Richard Hui  23/9

Mr Goh Hong Heng  23/9

Mr Thomas Ong  24/9

Mr Chan Kai Mun  18/9

Ms Lindy Tan  19/9

Mr Loh Mun Fei  19/9

Mr Francis Soh  19/9

Mrs Irene Tay  19/9

Dr Philip Satterthwaite  20/9

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