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Most Christians are familiar with the hymn, “Amazing Grace,” penned in the 18th century by the converted slave-ship captain, John Newton. But many believers may not be as familiar with the pastoral counseling of Newton, which he engaged in mainly through writing letters to various people over his forty-three years of serving as a pastor. As one called to care for hurting and suffering people, Newton soon found that “trials and suffering” became his most frequent and favorite subject to address with people. And one of his most effective ways to minister to people in trials was to assure them that there was a “need-be” for the difficulty.

Purposeful Afflictions

Newton writes, “But, when we are afflicted, it is because there is a need-be for it. He [God] does it not willingly. Our trials are either salutary medicines, or honourable appointments, to put us in such circumstances as may best qualify us to show forth his praise.”1 In other words, our trials always have a divinely-ordained purpose. They are not accidents, random acts or moments of bad luck or fate. Instead, difficulties are designed by God for our spiritual benefit.

By “salutary medicines,” Newton means that God intends our suffering to bring some needed spiritual improvement or healing. By “honourable appointments,” he intends to communicate that our afflictions would in some way draw the attention of others to Christ and His work. Newton continues: “Usually he has both these ends in view; we always stand in need of correction; and, when he enables us to suffer with patience, we are then happy witnesses to others of the truth of his promises, and the power of his grace in us. For nothing but the influence of God’s good Spirit can keep us, at such times, either from despondency or impatience.”2 Let’s look at both of these benefits in more detail.

Salutary Medicines

Newton understood that believers are in need of daily correction if they will arrive at their final destination of Christlikeness (Romans 8:29, 2 Corinthians 3:18). God takes no pleasure in the bitter medicine of corrective afflictions. But He dispenses these for our benefit: “…not that the Lord delights in grieving us and putting us to pain; on the contrary, he rejoices in the prosperity of his servants. No, it is not for his pleasure, but for our profit, that we may be made partakers of his holiness.”3 The divinely appointed medicines of trials conform believers to holiness and Christlikeness.

For example, Newton explains that: “Many of our graces likewise cannot thrive or shew themselves to advantage without trials; such as resignation, patience, meekness, long-suffering.”4 Trials, like a spiritual workout, allow believers to strengthen Christ-like character through the exercise of these graces in the difficulties of life. For example, we may have a relationship with a particularly difficult person (spouse, child, co-worker, etc.). Instead of viewing these relationships as problems that we need to change, Newton would encourage us to see them as purposeful opportunities to exercise and develop Christ-like qualities, such as patience, understanding, sacrifice and biblical love. In this way, God redeems our trials as part of the “all things of life” for the purpose of growing us into Christ’s image (Romans 8:28-29).

Honourable Appointments

Second, Newton explains that trials are divine “appointments” that allow believers to be “happy witnesses to others of the truth of his promises.” When the promises and grace of God so strengthen and encourage us so as to allow us to endure and even thrive under various afflictions, we demonstrate evidence to others of the reality of our faith and authenticity of grace. Newton elaborates:

Afflictions evidence to ourselves, and manifest to others, the reality of grace. And when we suffer as Christians, exercise some measure of that patience and submission, and receive some measure of these supports and supplies, which the Gospel requires and promises to believers, we are more confirmed that we have not taken up with mere notions; and others may be convinced that we do not follow cunningly devised fables.5

In other words, grace is magnified and faith is verified when God supports believers through their afflictions. As Paul wrote to Corinthians the very words of Christ to him, “‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.’ Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me” (2 Corinthians 12:9). Trials shine a divine spotlight on the magnitude of grace and the sufficiency of Christ’s power. And when these evidences of grace go public, unbelievers who need Christ are influenced regarding the reality of Christian faith.

Do You See His Hand?

What is your trial? Pastor Newton encourages us to see the “need-be” for our afflictions. The Lord’s purposeful hand is in every trial for our good and for His glory. Newton writes, “Though he put forth his hand, and seem to threaten our dearest comforts, yet when we remember that it is his hand, when we consider that it is his design, his love, his wisdom, and his power, we cannot refuse to trust him.”6 Will you trust Him and His purpose for your difficulty? Do you see His hand in your affliction?

[1] John Newton, Works of John Newton, Volume 6 (Banner of Truth Trust, 1985), 338.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Works, 2:198.

[5] Works, 2:23.

[6] Works, 6:33.