Affliction. Many of us hear this word and flinch from it. The natural bent of our hearts is for health and wealth in our lives, which is likely why the false gospel of "prosperity" is so popular in our day and age. No one wants to live through affliction, and certainly no one in their right mind would pray for it!
And yet... if I were to make a choice of which chisel in God's tool chest works the best to conform us into the image of Christ, it would have to be this most unwelcome chisel of affliction. I have pondered this topic for a very long time, and it's taken a while to put my thoughts into words. I believe its because our Lord needed me to live in affliction for a season to fully comprehend the "why" behind it all.
Earlier this year, I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. For a disease of this magnitude, you don't know what it's like until you know what it's like. My mother has RA as well, and I was always sympathetic toward her, but I never knew the level of pain she had to deal with. That is, until I began to feel my hips and knees screaming at me going up and down stairs. Until my first flare in the knuckles of my right hand. Until I lay crying at night whenever I needed to roll over in bed. RA can affect every synovial joint in the body. The body's own immune system mistakenly begins to attack synovial tissue, which over time destroys bone, leading to deformities. RA can also severely affect the eyes, heart, and lungs. So believing this disease merely affects the hands or the feet is wrong. This is not your "grandmother's arthritis"; many prefer to call it "rheumatoid disease" rather than "arthritis", as it affects much more than one's joints.
Medications help slow the disease down, but it cannot stop it completely. There is no cure for RA. One might help inflammation by eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly at the direction of a physician. But unless RA goes into remission, the majority of sufferers deal with pain on some level. While medications slow RA down, they do not always help with pain. They might lesson one's pain, but pain is still prevalent in the life of one with rheumatoid arthritis.
Why would God saddle me with this lifelong pain? Why does He give His children affliction anyway? My story might not be your story, but we all have a story, amen?
Perhaps we cannot fully know the reasons why until we look back upon our lives in Glory. I firmly believe the will of God is a mystery, and we only know what He wills us to know. Sometimes, God's logic can seem backwards to us. But even saying that, here are a few reasons why I believe God afflicts His children.
God disciplines every child He receives.
"For the Lord disciplines the one He loves, and chastises every son He receives." ~~Hebrews 12:6
When one first comes to Christ as a new believer, they must repent of their sin and believe on Him who saves. God's chastening in this manner purges our sin from us. Those idols we were once in love with, such as drinking, sex, greed, success, self-righteousness... they are kicked out and Christ places Himself on the throne of our hearts. This process can be painful to one who is used to walking in sin. Friends and family might not understand. It's altogether possible believers might be forsaken by those they love if they grow closer to Christ. Even though this discipline cuts us to the quick, it is necessary for our Lord to have His proper place FIRST in our lives. In other words, this discipline is meant to focus our lives where it is supposed to be focused - on CHRIST and HIS glory.
Affliction purges our pride.
It is very hard to puff up with pride when one is stooping down in pain. It matters not if this pain is physical, mental, or spiritual. Being faced with one's weaknesses in a specific matter teaches us our absolute, utter dependence upon God for everything. The penchant of our flesh is to think too highly of ourselves. Many times, in order to work through us for His Kingdom, our Lord has to "get us out of the way", for lack of a better term. We are told to love others as ourselves, and to place others before ourselves. But pride places us at the front of the line, and secretly believes we're better than everyone else. Therefore, God humbles us with affliction in order to get the focus off ourselves to more perfectly love others. When God empties one of their pride, no good work for the glory of His name is too "low" to stoop. Since our Lord Jesus Christ stoops to us, God likewise wants the same mind in us (Philippians 2:5-7).
Our weaknesses serve to show others the strength of Christ.
Our Lord told the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:9 that His strength is made perfect in weakness. The Apostle Paul's response was that he would boast all the more gladly in his weakness so that the power of Christ might rest upon him. Why is this? Because Christ is able to do far more abundantly above all that we can ask or think (Ephesians 3:20). If we are able to accomplish amazing things with the black backdrop our weakness on display, even the world pauses and recognizes another power is at work here - the shining power of Christ. How can one's faith be so strong if they're dealing with such a harsh ordeal? It is the power of Christ. How can they find joy in the midst of such tragedy? It is the power of Christ! He sustains us as the strength of our hearts (Psalm 73:26), therefore He drains us of our strength in order to showcase His own.
Affliction teaches us to look to Heaven.
Romans 8:21-23 tells us creation is in bondage and is groaning with us to be set free. This groaning turns our eyes from trusting this weary, temporal world to look to the eternal goodness and mercy of our Lord Jesus. He has promised to make all things new (Revelation 21:5). This promise fills us with hope and turns our eyes toward Heaven's horizon. Our afflictions help us to cry out for Christ's return to complete the work He has begun in each and every one of us (Philippians 1:6). Affliction frees us from thinking on earthly vanities and teaches us to look forward to our eternal rest, setting our minds on things that are above (Colossians 3:2). When this happens, we can find rest in knowing our affliction is only temporary, and we will one day be set free into a glorious inheritance (Colossians 3:24). Therefore, affliction is the hammer that breaks our idols. Nothing on earth can possibly compare to what is coming!
Affliction separates the wheat from the chaff.
Who is the false convert and who is the true son of Heaven? Throw them into the furnace and you will soon find the chaff singing a blasphemous tune. It is only the wheat who will remain rejoicing through the fire; though He slay them, they will hope in Him (Job 13:15). Affliction turns false converts bitter, as they blame God for their circumstance. After all, they were such "good Christians". Why is God doing this to them if they dotted all their i's and crossed all their t's? It is as if they feel God "owes" them for XYZ, and thus they walk away when God doesn't perform. This is the unfortunate reality of those who hope in the false "prosperity gospel". What happens if instead of health and wealth, you get pain and tragedy? We must come to realize prosperity is an idol. We come to God for GOD, not for any other reason. We love Him. We adore Him. We want to glorify Him as the passion of our lives--even if we must sing in the furnace. Both Peter and James say afflictions serve to strengthen our faith, not make it bitter (1 Peter 1:7, James 1:2-4). Therefore, while the chaff's heart bristles in the furnace, the wheat's heart is refined to be more precious than gold.
Affliction reveals the loveliness of Christ.
"I know, O LORD, that Your rules are righteous, and that in faithfulness You have afflicted me." ~~Psalm 119:75
There are some lessons of our sanctification we cannot learn but through the valley of the shadow. Despite our natural bent to believe the Lord has forsaken us in these times, we are told in Psalm 23:3 that this valley of death is the righteous path. Certain graces seem only to be given when one walks this treacherous road. When can we know God as Protector if there is nothing from which we need to be protected? How can we know His tender heart when there is no need for Him to be tender with our grieving hearts? How can we experience the fullness of His gentle hand when our souls be not under assault? How can He prove His faithfulness if His faithfulness be not tried? This way of affliction reveals to us new facets of the ineffable Beauty of Jesus Christ our Lord. We have known Him for His mercies, but through the trials of affliction, we now know Him for His tender mercies. He is the First and the Last, the Alpha and the Omega, the King of Glory, the Lord of Hosts, and the God of Heaven and Earth, and this very God deeply cares for our wounded hearts. I have found my sweetest communion with Christ to be on my darkest days, when I feel I can't go on, when I have nowhere else to turn, I look into His countenance and am swept away by His compassion, specifically for me. He is so good to us, and I daresay this truth cannot be fully known unless we have walked with Him down these dark and lonely roads of affliction.
Christ Himself promised us affliction because the world hates Him.
"If the world hates you, know that it has hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you." ~~John 15:18-19
We are associated with Christ as His Body, His people, and those who love Him. Therefore, we are hated of the world because of it. This hatred of the world will lead to persecution. "If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you." ~~John 15:20 Christ promises us tribulation in this world (John 16:33). He specifically says He did not come to bring peace, but a sword, and that family members will be against each other (Matthew 10:34-35). A prophet is not without honor - except in his hometown, among his relatives, and his own household (Mark 6:4). We are told not to be surprised when these fiery trials come as though "something strange" were happening to us. We are to expect affliction and persecution as Christians (1 Peter 4:12-16). Darkness hates the light because the light reveals their deeds (John 3:20-21). This is why the world hates Christ and His Church. We reveal their evil deeds, and they love their sin more than righteousness (John 3:19).
Affliction makes us more like Christ, who was Himself the Man of Sorrows.
This is, perhaps, the main reason why I believe affliction to be God's greatest chisel to conform us into the image of Christ. Can you think of a man who suffered more than Yeshua of Nazareth? Here was God in flesh, who'd left His glorious Throne, who was exposed to such vile blasphemy - to His face, no less - who would have gathered the people under His wings if they'd let Him. He faced a people whom He Himself had created, who rejected Him, beat Him, spat upon Him, and crucified Him, which is likely the most gruesome way mankind has devised for others to die. Christ is well-acquainted with grief, all aspects of it, physical, mental, and spiritual. God the Father turned His face away from Him upon that cross. I cannot imagine what that must have been like for Him, who had eternal fellowship with the Godhead to be forsaken in the darkest hour of history. In fact, Christ has suffered in ways that we cannot, because in His suffering, we are therefore spared. Christ suffered on our behalf so we would know that when we suffered, it would not be permanent. Our Savior knows exactly the depth and width of unimaginable suffering. We have a great High Priest who knows our pain! (Hebrews 4:15-16) In this way, whenever my body is groaning from pain, piercing pain, unbearable pain, I know my beloved God has walked this road before me and knows exactly what I'm going through.
And that, my brothers and sisters, is what makes the Lord Jesus Christ so altogether glorious in my sight. If we want to be like Him, we must suffer for His name's sake. If we are to be children of God, we are to pick up our cross and follow Him (Matthew 16:24). It is my pleasure to suffer for my precious Bridegroom. If my little life can somehow bring Him glory through my pain, if He can advance His Kingdom through my obedient heart in the midst of my affliction, then may it be, Lord Jesus. Let me be like You! Come and chisel this life, until through my affliction, You have polished me into a woman of God with no spot or wrinkle. Purge the world in me and fill me with the Heaven in You!
Yes, Lord, this is my prayer.
On the day I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, I knew exactly what it meant for the rest of my life. I knew it wasn't a trial the Lord would use to punish me, rather, it was one with which He entrusted to me. Even through my pain, and with the knowledge of all the pain and sorrow yet to come, that very day I did something I have never done when faced with affliction in my entire life.