The Puritan
Theology of Suffering

Dateline: 18 August 2013

In yesterday’s blog post I wrote about the contra mundum Christian worldview, of how it has resulted in the persecution of believers in times past, and will likely lead to persecution of Christians in the days ahead. 

Persecution for holding fast to one’s religious beliefs is one form of suffering, but there are many other forms of suffering that Christians (and unbelievers too) have to face in this life. Suffering can come from any number of things... sickness and accidents, loss of a loved one, loss of a job, etc. Suffering can be mental, or physical, or spiritual. 

We have all had to deal with suffering to some degree in our lives. There are people reading this who are suffering at this moment. And it is almost certain everyone reading this will face some sort of personal suffering in the future. Suffering is a part of life in this fallen world. 

But it turns out that suffering for a Christian is something much more than just a hard time. It has a purpose, which brings me to a book I have just read titled Suffering and Sovereignty, by Brian H. Cosby. The subtitle is “John Flavel and the Puritans on Afflictive Providence.” I learned about this book from this online interview with the author: A Right View of Suffering.

I should preface what I’m about to say by noting that I have attended some form of fundamentalist or evangelical church for most of my church-going life. The Puritans are pretty much never mentioned in such churches and I think this is a shame. The more I read from the Puritan writers, the more I realize that Puritan spiritual maturity far, far exceeds that of the average modern evangelical. This book is but one example of that.

On page 2 of Suffering & Sovereignty it says...

This book aims to present a Puritan theology of suffering by looking at one of Puritanism’s greatest leaders, writers, and sufferers—John Flavel. In particular, it will examine Flavel’s theology of suffering within the seventeenth-century context to show his understanding of the origin and nature of suffering, how God is sovereign over suffering, why God ordains suffering,how the believer ought to respond to suffering, and how biblical doctrine can bring comfort and consolation to the believer in the midst of suffering.

As for the personal sufferings of John Flavel (1827-1691), the book explains that his parents were arrested and put into prison for holding an unauthorized worship meeting. While in prison, they contracted the plague. Though released, they both died shortly thereafter. This was an early and difficult loss. Later in his life, Flavel’s first wife died in childbirth, as did the baby (a son). Flavel would marry two more times and those wives also died. A fourth wife outlived him. Flavel was a “nonconformist minister,” and, as such, he was hounded and persecuted by the authorities. Though not martyred for his beliefs, Flavel was burned in effigy, and his writings were collected and burned by those who opposed his theology. So John Flavel was well acquainted with this subject of suffering!

But the writings of Flavel were very popular among the Puritans and they have survived to this day. I dare say that God has preserved them, and I’m grateful for that.

God is Sovereign

Fundamental to the Puritan theology of suffering is the sovereignty of God over all of His creation. 

The world, according to the Puritans, “Was not a machine that ran automatically according to an initial plan.” Rather, God created the world and subsequently orders and governs His creation by His providence.

According to Flavel, God is immanent, active, and involved in every movement of a cloud, every flight of a bird, and every “motion” of humanity.


“Providence” was understood by the Puritans to be the personal outworking of God’s sovereign will in everyday life.

Flavel argues that the providence of God is “holy,”which means that it is morally righteous.

Flavel... sees divine providence as a supporting and encouraging doctrine for the believer, especially in times of suffering. He adds this doctrinal conclusion: “It is the duty of the saints, especially in times of straits, to reflect upon the performances of providence for them in all the states, and through all the stages of their lives.

So it is that Flavel taught that God is sovereign over all things, including suffering. He believed that such suffering in a believer’s life was, therefore, “afflictive providence.” 

"In all the sad and afflictive providences that befal you, eye God as the author and orderer of them.”

Flavel asserts that the afflictions that come in a believer’s life are, in themselves, evil, but...

...Flavel is careful not to assign evil to God. Rather, God permits it, restrains it, and overrules it—for His glory and the good of His people.

Thus Flavel calls afflictions that are used by God in the lives of the elect “sanctified afflictions.”

Stating it positively, God permits evil [through afflictions]. Stating it negatively, God withholds the restraints of evil. Either way, Flavel argues, God remains holy.

Afflictions Are Not Eternal... 
For God’s People

The Puritan theology of suffering, as expressed in John Flavel’s writings, made a clear distinction between afflictions that come into the life of believers and unbelievers. 

When afflictions come into the life of unbelievers, they are a foretaste of God’s wrath and the punishing judgement to come; those who die without Christ will face eternal affliction. Flavel offers no comfort or hope for those who live and die without Christ.

But affliction in the life of the Christian is totally different. 

While sin first brought affliction into the world, eternal affliction was taken out of the world by the affliction of Christ for all who receive Him as Savior and Lord.

When suffering comes into the life of a believer in Christ, the affliction is temporary, and it is allowed by God for specific purposes. It is not punishment, but fatherly discipline. Such sanctified afflictions actually come from the love of God for His people and should be seen as blessings.

Now that’s probably a hard theology “pill” to swallow for most modern evangelicals. After all, it is contrary to the health-wealth-and-prosperity “gospel” that has infiltrated the American church. It also conflicts with the various healing ministries that teach that God doesn’t want us sick or suffering in any way.

The Blessings 
Of Affliction

In the book Suffering and Sovereignty, Brian H. Cosby, presents John Flavel’s answer to the question of why God ordains suffering in the lives of His people. There are eight reasons, and God’s ultimate purpose in these afflictions is twofold—to bring Glory to Himself and ultimate good to the Christian believer. 

I will only list the eight reasons here. If what I have written thus far resonates with you, I encourage you to get the book so you can read and better understand these reasons for afflictive providence.  The text that accompanies these eight reasons is the “meat and potatoes” of this excellent book. In understanding these reasons, I believe every Christian will be greatly edified and better equipped (spiritually) to handle them. 

1.  To reveal, deter, and mortify sin.

2.  To produce godliness and spiritual fruit.

3.  To reveal the character of God.

4.  To relinquish the temporal for the eternal.

5.  To produce a sincere faith, devoid of hypocrisy.

6.  To encourage fellowship with God through word, prayer, and the sacrament of theLord’s Supper.

7. To bear witness to the world.

8.  To cultivate communion with Christ, the greatest sufferer.

There is much more to this book that I would like to discuss  and quote, but I will close with the following (which is found in the book under point 5 above). This quote speaks to the matter of affliction in the form of persecution, which the Puritans were familiar with, and which I believe the church in America is going to become more familiar with in the years ahead...

”Affliction is a furnace to separate the dross from the more pure and noble gold. Multitudes of hypocrites, like flies in a hot summer, are generated by the church’s prosperity; but this winter weather kills them.”

The unbeliever—who Flavel calls a “false professor”—experiencing suffering often “quits religion to save himself.” While suffering causes the elect to “cleave to [religion,]” it causes the unbeliever to “forsake” it. God ordains suffering to produce a greater sincerity of faith and to separate the Christian from the non-Christian. 


Anonymous said...

Thank you Herrick. I'm quick to thank God for his abundant blessings but forget to thank him for the day-to-day struggles I encounter.

1 Thessalonians 5:16,17,18
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you

Kind Regards,

Gary said...

Very good posting, Herrick.
Flavels books are said to be some of the best intros to Puritan Theology.

jean said...

A very timely reminder for me, Herrick.