Tested By Fire
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.
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.
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….
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”.
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