“With great spiritual privileges comes great pain. It is plain from scripture that this is God’s design: “Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations,” Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 12:7, “for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me – to keep me from exalting myself!” Great privilege, great pain, God’s design. So it was with Bunyan, Cowper, and Brainerd. But they did not all have the same pain. For Bunyan it was prison and danger, for Cowper it was lifelong depression and suicidal darkness, for Brainerd it was tuberculosis and the ‘howling wilderness.’
What was the fruit of this affliction? And what was the rock in which it grew? Consider their stories and be encouraged that no labor and no suffering in the path of Christian obedience is ever in vain. ‘Behind a frowning providence He hides a smiling face’” (14).
So ends the preface to John Piper’s book, The Hidden Smile of God: The Fruit of Affliction in the Lives of John Bunyan, William Cowper, and David Brainerd. God has greatly used this book to illustrate biblical truths about himself to me, and to solidify my trust in His sovereignty.
There can be no harder test of your trust in God than to face suffering that comes straight from His decree and design. It would be one thing if a person caused you hurt. God would still have allowed it, but there would have been an intermediary choice maker who was most likely in sin. But when there’s no one standing between you and God during your time of pain, that is when trust is most potently tested. It is difficult to know that your suffering comes (in a different sense) straight from God’s hand – meaning that he designed it and intends to use it in his plans. But it’s that very truth – that he intends to use it – that has brought me the most comfort through the past year and a half. Even today as I write this, my fiancée, Anna, and I are facing new trials and are finding comfort in the truth that God is somehow using it for good. She keeps saying to me that, “God is doing a thousand things in everything he is doing,” a very helpful and needed reminder.
Piper wisely begins the book with an introduction that highlights the fruit accomplished in their suffering before delving into the darkness of their experiences. Also, he handles the question of God’s role in our suffering (designer yes, but not implicated in sin).
“The afflictions of John Bunyan gave us Pilgrim’s Progress. The afflictions of William Cowper gave us [hymns like] “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood” and “God Moves in a Mysterious Way.” And the afflictions of David Brainerd gave us a published Diary that has mobilized more missionaries than any other similar work. The furnace of suffering brought forth the gold of guidance and inspiration for living the Christian life, worshipping the Christian God, and spreading the Christian Gospel.
There is a certain irony to the fruit of these afflictions. Bunyan’s confinement taught him the pilgrim path of Christian freedom. Cowper’s mental illness yielded sweet music of the mind for troubled souls. Brainerd’s smoldering misery of isolation and disease exploded in global missions beyond all imagination” (19).
“We are the beneficiaries today of the fruit of their affliction. And God’s design in it is that we not lose heart, but trust him that someone also will be strengthened by the fruit of ours” (38).
Piper recounts the events surrounding the long imprisonment of John Bunyan, which prompted Bunyan to pour himself into Bible study and to write as extensively as he did. It has been said in reference to the apostle Paul that much of the New Testament’s existence is owing to his long periods of imprisonment. Though Bunyan’s works came after the close of the scriptural canon and are not God-breathed, the same thing could generally be said about his active writing career. His passion to dig deep into God’s Word and then to correspond with his church in writing has given us many great works, not the least of which is Pilgrim’s Progress.
“This, in the end, is why Bunyan is still with us today rather than disappearing into the mist of history. He is with us and ministering to us because he reverenced the Word of God and was so permeated by it that his blood is ‘Bibline’ –the essence of the Bible flows from him.
And this is what he has to show us. That “to live upon God that is invisible” is to live upon the Word of God. To serve and to suffer rooted in God is to serve and suffer saturated with the Word of God.” (78).
If there has ever been a man who fits the description of a troubled soul, William Cowper was the man. His mother died when he was 6 years old and his father sent him away to school. His courtship and engagement to his loving best friend was suddenly broken off by his father-in-law to be and she remained single for the rest of her life due to grief. They corresponded in writing but were never married. His shaky career was derailed when mortal fear of a public interrogation-like job interview sent him into what would be the first of 4 major valleys of depression in which he would repeatedly try to take his own life.
“In 1786 Cowper entered his fourth deep depression and again tried unsuccessfully to commit suicide…He wrote his last original poem in 1799, called “The Castaway,” and then died…
William Cowper’s melancholy is disturbing. We need to come to terms with it in the framework of God’s sovereign power and grace to save and sanctify his people. What are we to make of this man’s lifelong battle with depression, and indeed his apparent surrender to despair and hopelessness in his own life?” (98-99).
““Immediately I received the strength to believe it, and the full beams of the Sun of Righteousness shone upon me. I saw the sufficiency of the atonement He had made, my pardon sealed in His blood, and all the fullness and completeness of His justification….” One might wish that the story were one of emotional triumph after his conversion. But it did not turn out that way. Far from it.” (93-94).
“God moves in a mysterious way,
His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take,
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy, and shall break
In blessings on your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust him for his grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.
His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower” (80).
“When I really enjoy God, I feel my desires of him the more insatiable, and my thirstings after holiness the more unquenchable….Oh, for holiness! Oh, for more of God in my soul! Oh, this pleasing pain! It makes my soul press after God….Oh, that I may feel this continual hunger, and not be retarded, but rather animated by every ‘cluster from Canaan,’ to reach forward in the narrow way, for the full enjoyment and possession of the heavenly inheritance. Oh, that I might never loiter on my heavenly journey!” (122).
To read Brainerd’s writings and to meet the man in person would likely have seemed to be two contrasting experiences. His relationship with God and his love for scripture poured out with passion in his writings. But his solitary personality, gloomy moods, and almost constant, debilitating struggles with health would have made him a solemn roommate.
Piper gives enough background about Brainerd’s struggles to help us understand where the gloominess comes from. His tuberculosis made life difficult, let alone trying to minister to the native villages that he travelled to. His desire and vision for ministry seems not to have been realized (at least not what he dreamed of accomplishing). But the limitations he faced in public ministry were made up for in God’s blessing of the influence of his writings on many others who would take the gospel around the world.
“We turn finally to the question, what was the fruit of Brainerd’s affliction?….As a result of the immense impact of Brainerd’s devotion on his life, Jonathan Edwards wrote, in the next two years [after Brainerd’s death], the Life of David Brainerd, which has been reprinted more often than any of his other books. And through his life the impact of Brainerd on the church has been incalculable. Beyond all the famous missionaries who tell us that they have been sustained and inspired by Brainerd’s Life, how many countless other unknown faithful servants must there be who have found from Brainerd’s testimony the encouragement and strength to press on!” (155).
Piper’s main purpose in this book is not merely to recount the difficult events of the lives of three faithful servants of Christ. His purpose is to use those accounts to solidify our confidence in God’s goodness even in the middle of our trials.
“The afflictions of John Bunyan and William Cowper and David Brainerd were not for naught. The pebbles did not drop in vain—neither in their own lifetimes, nor in the centuries to follow. God has breathed on the waters and made their ripples into waves. And now the parched places of our lives are watered with the memories of sustaining grace” (164).
The waves of cause and effect resulting from Heather’s cancer and death have just begun to travel through time. But I am confident in God’s design despite those plans involving my pain. I trust Him. I know it has brought Him glory. And I know it will continue to do so in His perfect way.