Never let a "good" affliction go to waste!
In 2006, John Piper wrote a short but helpful (not to mention popular!) treatment of the spiritual value of being afflicted with cancer, provocatively entitled Don’t Waste Your Cancer1. As a cancer-survivor himself, Piper was appealing to believers to reorient their thinking regarding this atrocious epidemic striking so many loved ones in the church and world today. Instead of dwelling upon the negative, or merely praying away one’s cancer, Piper calls followers of Christ to glorify God in their affliction in concrete ways. Though Piper is dealing exclusively with the unique affliction of cancer, the same spiritual truth undergirding his point ought to be applied to every affliction believers face.
Thus, we will presently aim to point out the potential waste we experience, if we fail to pursue and receive spiritual good in our affliction. Such a goal by no means implies that affliction itself is good, just as no one should or would ever intimate that cancer itself is good. Instead, we modern Western Christians fail to avail ourselves of the full spiritual benefits available to us in our trials of many kinds. Therefore, in the vein of the Apostle Paul, James, the rest of the biblical authors, and even John Piper2, I want to propose that Christians who dwell on the negative regarding difficulty or simply wish it (or pray it) away, waste their affliction.
160 years prior to John Piper writing Don’t Waste Your Cancer, Archibald Alexander, co-founder and first professor of Princeton Theological Seminary, wrote in Thoughts on Religious Experience, lamenting the decline of believers speaking of their discouragement. For Alexander, the decrease in public-sorrow demonstrated a decline in deep, spiritual exercise, which therefore resulted in a concealment of these troubles from the view of others.3 In 1840s America, the Princeton Seminary President was concerned with the level of pretending Christians were engaging in to appear happier and less troubled! What would he have thought of our present age?!
Alexander continues by pointing out: “It can scarcely be supposed that the faith of modern Christians is so much stronger than that of believers who lived in other days, that they are enabled easily to triumph over [troubles]”, nor should one assume that the trials Christians face are somehow less frequent than previous ages: “Neither can we suppose that Satan is less busy in casting his fiery darts, and in attempts to drive the children of God to despair.”4 Alexander was well aware that Christians in every age and of every spiritual strength faced discouraging trials. The more serious problem to him was Christians pretending nothing's wrong.
A first step for Christians facing adversity of every sort, then, is to at least admit there is a problem. How else could it be adequately addressed? Like the stereotypical average-Joe who refuses to go to the hospital to seek treatment, for fear that admitting is somehow the cause, we believers don’t share our suffering with one another, for fear it somehow makes us weak. Such a response is to “waste” our affliction, in that we fail to lay hold of the many blessings available to us in the body of Christ.
If being willing to rely on the Church (and glorying in our weakness, cf. 2 Cor. 12:9-11) is a starting point of not wasting our affliction, then here are a few other thoughts to the same end:
Take your gaze off of the affliction. We are far too contemplative and introspective when we suffer. Instead, since our identity is grounded in Another, and ought especially to be so when we face trials, let us use the occasion of affliction to move away from a “woe is me” attitude, to remembering the Lord and his mercies. If we are tempted to allow circumstances to dictate our happiness or unhappiness, ensuring we are not fixated upon the troubles themselves is one way of avoiding discouragement. But mere “putting off” is not enough; we must make sure we’re “putting on” as well. In suffering, fill your eyes with your sovereign, justifying, all-deserving, all-powerful God through his Word and prayer.
Do not sorrow for sorrow’s sake. In God’s economy, grief has a direction and a purpose. In the world’s understanding, suffering is pointless. Paul says that the world’s notion of sorrow produces death (2 Cor. 7:10-13), but God has a beneficial goal in mind: your sanctification. If the afflicted believer is cognizant of God’s purposes in the troubles, the trial is no longer “meaningless”, but has an ultimate advantage, even benefit. That immediately leads to the next point.
Alter your primary goal. I was recently talking to a man who said he would gladly rid himself of all emotions if it meant he would no longer feel miserable in his affliction. In other words, comfort was this believer’s highest good. Is that God’s greatest purpose in your affliction? If we are able to alter our desired outcome from our bare comfort, to God’s glory and our growth in Christ-likeness (and the alleviation of the trial too, of course), we will have avoided much “waste”.
Ensure your deliverance is in Christ alone. John Owen once said that it is the principle business of every discouraged soul to “endavour deliverance”, but that deliverance must be found only in Christ. After all, Cain and Judas sought deliverance from their afflictions, but could not find it, because they sought it not in Christ!5 There is a brilliance in this simple fact. Affliction naturally presses us to find relief. It would be inhumane (even inhuman) to suggest otherwise. Their is a singular focus that comes from intense trials: wanting to be rid of it. But where are we seeking such respite? If we can apprehend that our deliverance is found solely in Christ, then affliction may direct us to Jesus in a way unlike other times in our lives. If in the face of fiery difficulties we are able to do but one thing, may it be this: pursue Christ that we may find rest (after all, cf. Matt. 11:28-30).
The above suggests that there is much to do when we suffer, and certainly far more could be said. But at the least we may say this: when we face trials, we must strive to reorient our thinking, shift our desires, and redirect our commitments. We naturally think, want, and purpose in one direction; God in his scriptures calls us to a different direction, in order that we don’t let a “good” affliction go to waste!
- Originally published as an appendix in Suffering and the Sovereignty of God and then republished in booklet and online formats as Don’t Waste Your Cancer. John Piper and Justin Taylor, Suffering and the Sovereignty of God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2006), 219.
- Yes, I realize that John Piper is not an apostle or biblical author (though I’m not altogether certain every believer today realizes this same point!)
- Archibald Alexander, Thoughts on Religious Experience (Edinburgh; Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1998), 35-36.
- Alexander, Thoughts on Religious Experience, 35-36.
- Westminster Conference (London, Building on a Sure Foundation : Papers Read at the 1994 Westminster Conference), 87.