Learning about Pain from Luther, Bunyan & the Bible
by John Piper
From 1660 to 1672, John Bunyan, the English Baptist preacher, and author of Pilgrim’s Progress, was in the Bedford county jail. He could have been released if he had agreed not to preach. He did not know which was worse—the pain of the conditions, or the torment of freely choosing it in view of what it cost his wife and four children. His daughter, Mary, was blind. She was 10 when he was put in jail in 1660.
The parting with my Wife and poor children hath often been to me in this place as the pulling of the Flesh from my bones . . . not only because I am somewhat too fond of these great Mercies, but also because I . . . often brought to my mind the many hardships, miseries and wants that my poor Family was like to meet with should I be taken from them, especially my poor blind child, who lay nearer my heart than all I had besides; Oh the thoughts of the hardship I thought my Blind one might go under, would break my heart to pieces. (Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners [Evangelical Press, 1978], p. 123)
But this broken Bunyan was seeing treasures in the Word of God because of this suffering that he would probably not have seen any other way. He was discovering the meaning of Psalm 119:71, “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I may learn Your statutes.”
I never had in all my life so great an inlet into the Word of God as now [in prison]. The Scriptures that I saw nothing in before are made in this place to shine upon me. Jesus Christ also was never more real and apparent than now. Here I have seen him and felt him indeed. . . . I have seen [such things] here that I am persuaded I shall never while in this world be able to express. . . . Being very tender of me, [God] hath not suffered me to be molested, but would with one scripture and another strengthen me against all; insomuch that I have often said, were it lawful I could pray for greater trouble for the greater comfort’s sake. (Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, p. 123)
In other words, one of God’s gifts to us in suffering is that we are granted to see and experience depths of his Word that a life of ease would never yield.
Martin Luther had discovered the same “method” of seeing God in his Word. He said there are three rules for understanding Scripture: praying, meditating and suffering trials. The “trials,” he said, are supremely valuable: they “teach you not only to know and understand but also to experience how right, how true, how sweet, how lovely, how mighty, how comforting God’s word is: it is wisdom supreme.”
Therefore the devil himself becomes the unwitting teacher of God’s word: “the devil will afflict you [and] will make a real doctor of you, and will teach you by his temptations to seek and to love God’s Word. For I myself . . . owe my papists many thanks for so beating, pressing, and frightening me through the devil’s raging that they have turned me into a fairly good theologian, driving me to a goal I should never have reached” (What Luther Says, vol. 3 [Concordia Publishing House, 1959], p. 1360).
I testify from my small experience that this is true. Disappointment, loss, sickness, and fear send me deeper into God and his Word than ever. Clouds of trifling are blown away and the glory of unseen things shines in the heart’s eye. Let Bunyan and Luther encourage us to lean on God’s Word as never before in times of affliction.
I know that there are seasons when we cannot think or read, the pain is so great. But God grants spaces of some relief between these terrible times. Turn your gaze on the Word and prove the truth of Psalm 119:71, “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I may learn Your statutes.”
Trembling to learn of God with you,