Now is the time of year that we like to survey the mercies we’ve received from the Lord over the past 12 months. With thanks recalling all that He has richly given us to enjoy – family, friendships, Christian fellowship in our church, and even our daily food – find their source in our Father’s abundant kindness (e.g., Acts 14:17; Jas 1:17; 1 Tim 6:17).
But as we count the blessings of the year, we must include those things that we did not likely greet with gratitude nor perceived as merciful. That is, the difficulties, pains, and hurts that we encountered this year, over many of which we are still wincing. These too must be counted as all joy (Jas 1:2), for they also originate in our Father’s kindness as He sovereignly superintends our afflictions to instruct us as His beloved children.
In a nod to the Christmas season, I recently preached through Luke 1. The whole chapter is drenched in God’s mercy (cf. vv. 50, 54, 57, 72, 78). He is mercifully fulfilling His promises to save in the coming of the Lord Jesus. Yet, He was also mercifully chastening His people to believe more all the promises that are Yes and Amen in Jesus Christ (2 Cor 1:20).
Zechariah was specifically disciplined for his private unbelief (vv. 18-20), struck mute and deaf (cf. v. 62, “they made signs,” which indicates he couldn’t hear), during the first and only pregnancy his wife would have. This was intended that he might learn greater trust and even be granted a public, prophetic testimony to the Lord who fulfilled His promises before Zechariah’s very eyes – in the birth of his son, John the Baptist (vv. 57-76).
By His corrective discipline, the Lord made a faithless priest a faith-filled prophet (vv. 64-76). Is that not mercy? Our friend, J.C. Ryle, says plainly that it was more than mercy, it was a profitable gain:
We need not doubt that the past nine months had been a most profitable time to the soul of Zacharias. He had learned, probably, more about his own heart, and about God, than he ever knew before. His conduct shows it. Correction had proved instruction. He was ashamed of his unbelief. Like Job, he could say, ” I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now mine eye seeth thee.” Like Hezekiah, when the Lord left him, he had found out what was in his heart. (Job 42:5; 2 Chron. 32:31).
Let us take heed that affliction does us good, as it did to [Zechariah]. We cannot escape trouble in a sin-laden world. Man is born to trouble, as the sparks fly upwards. (Job 5:27) But in the time of our trouble, let us make earnest prayer that we may ‘hear the rod and who hath appointed it,’ that we may learn wisdom by the rod, and not harden our hearts against God. ‘Sanctified afflictions,’ says an old divine, ‘are spiritual promotions.’ The sorrow that humbles us, and drives us nearer to God, is a blessing, and a downright gain (Expository Thoughts on the Gospels: Luke, Vol 1, p. 32).
Zechariah learned the same lesson that the Lord had taught the Psalmist (Ps 119:71), that He was to teach Paul (see 2 Cor 1:9-10) and what is plainly declared by Hebrews 12:11: “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”
Sanctified affliction is a spiritual promotion, a blessing, a mercy… a downright gain. And since even the best of God’s people still need to grow in trusting their God, our loving Father excludes none of His children from correction – even devout priests! Remember, children without discipline are properly called orphans (cf. Heb 12:8).
Christian, as you give thanks to God for all that He has mercifully given you last year, be sure to give thanks for everything. Include the disappointments and the suffering. They are gain to us as we are drawn nearer to our Father and deeper in our trust of Him through Jesus Christ. Although sometimes with tears, we confess every affliction to be a poignant reminder that we who are in Christ Jesus are looked upon by our heavenly Father with love.