More than ever in these present times, Christians need to be acquainted with the shape and style of biblical religion. None of us is immune from becoming infected by the spirit of our age - let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall! In this regard, nothing is more important than us having a truly biblical perspective on, what John Owen called the “horticultural” nature of the life of faith. Owen well understood that the Christian life is not marked by even, unhindered, mechanical progress. Rather, growth is “horticultural”, uneven, irregular and inconsistent. The reason for this is not difficult to understand: The life of faith is not immune from the disappointments and heartaches of what Paul calls “the sufferings of this present age” (Roms.8v18). God does not exempt his children from unexpected, sorely wounding providences. In 2 Cor.1v8, Paul tells us that the hardships and pressures he and his friends were experiencing were so severe, that “we despaired even of life”!
Even in the model life of faith, we find our Lord Jesus Christ experiencing disappointment, opposition, hardships, and bereavement. Nowhere does God imply that his believing children will be cocooned from the struggles, disappointments and perplexities of living in a fallen world. On the contrary, in addition to this the Lord tells us that “everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2Tim.3v12). Without this spiritual realism, our lives will become the prisoners of circumstance, rising and falling depending on the kind of circumstances that touch our lives.
But the Lord has given us infinitely more than the grace of spiritual realism in order that we might cope with the heartaches, disappointments and mysteries that inevitably touch our lives. First of all, he promises us his unfailing presence in all our times of need: “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (Hebs.13v5). More than that, he promises to be the indwelling Helper of his children. In the Upper Room, as he faced the Cross, the Lord Jesus assured his disciples, “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.” (Jn.14v18). He was speaking of his coming in his Spirit to be their abiding indwelling Sanctifier and Friend. Whatever difficulties and disappointments you face, however sore God’s unexpected providences, of this you can be sure, you are never alone! All the resources of the Godhead are for you and in you! Believe this!
More than this, God assures us that not one unexpected providence that touches his children’s lives is fortuitous. Our God is the One “who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will” (Eph.1v11). Here we come face to face with God’s unconditional sovereignty. But this truth is revealed in Scripture not as a puzzle to unravel, but as a comfort to embrace! Who is this God who is unconditionally sovereign over all things? He is the God who “spared not his own Son, but gave him up for us all” (Roms.8v32). He is “the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort” (2Cor.1v3). It is our loving heavenly Father who does whatsoever he pleases. Who God is to us in Christ is our assurance that “Our Father’s hand will never cause his child a needless tear”. Believe this. By faith draw out the comfort of being a dearly loved and precious child of a sovereign and loving Father.
There is another strand of encouragement that God gives to us in his Word. In 2 Cor.1, where Paul recounts the great pressures that were causing him to despair even of life, he tells us that “this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.” God was pleased to bring his servant into such straitened circumstances in order to strengthen his trust and confirm his obedience. Samuel Rutherford made the same point: “Faith is the better for the free air and the sharp winter storm in its face. Grace withereth without adversity.” God always has our eternal as well as our present good in mind in his relations with us. John Newton’s celebrated hymn, “These Inward Trials”, captures the grace of God’s dealings with his hard-pressed children. Having asked the Lord for growth in “faith and love and every grace”, the child of God finds his life assaulted on all sides by unexpected and sore providences. In response to the Christian’s perplexity at what has happened, the Lord replies: “These inward trials I employ, From self and pride to set thee free, And break thy schemes of earthly joy, That thou mayest seek thy all in me.” The Lord always and ever has our best before him. He is “the gardener” who lovingly prunes the branches united to his Son so that they will bear “even more fruit” (see Jn.15v1-2).
Until we go to be with the Lord, we will find unexpected, and sore, providences touching our lives. It cannot be otherwise, for the servant is not greater than the Master! But, though we might well be hard pressed on every side, we are never crushed. Though we might well be perplexed, we are never in despair. Even if we are persecuted, we are never abandoned. (see 2Cor.4v8-9). God will not exempt you from the tears or the pains; but he will be with you, and in you, every step of the way, bringing the infinite resources of the Godhead graciously to sustain you and make you “more than a conqueror”. He who promised is faithful.