John Owen FrontispieceLife is filled with disappointments and difficulties. It doesn’t matter if one is religious or not. Many struggle to make ends meet. Even if one avoids financial woes, cancer can strike out of the blue. Tensions strain relationships. Dreams go unfulfilled. And the list can go on.

Such trials are an old problem—as old as the human race. But while trials are no respecter of persons, Scripture teaches that Christians can view them in redemptive ways. Thus the apostle James wrote, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2–4 ESV).

John Owen (1616–1683) knew his share of trials, living through the English Civil Wars (1642–1651) and the religious roller coaster of seventeenth-century England as power shifted from Anglicans to Puritans to Anglicans and nearly to Roman Catholics. Not until shortly after his death did things settle down a bit with the religious toleration of William and Mary (r. 1689–1702; Mary d. 1694).

While he didn’t suffer as much as many of his Puritan peers, Owen did endure difficulties, and he understood what the apostle James was saying. Owen compared the Christian in trial to a tree in a storm, and his description helps us understand Christian views of suffering as illuminated in Scripture and refracted in church history (I have broken up what appears as a single paragraph in Owen’s work into several paragraphs—a bit better for online reading):

There may some perplexing temptations befall the mind of a believer, or some corruption take advantage to break loose for a season, it may be for a long season, which may much gall the soul with its suggestions, and so trouble, disturb, and unquiet it, as that it shall not be able to make a right judgment of its grace and progress in holiness. A ship may be tossed in a storm at sea as that the most skilful mariners may not be able to discern whether they make any way in their intended course and voyage, whilst they are carried on with success and speed.

In such cases, grace in its exercise is principally engaged in an opposition unto its enemy, which it hath to conflict withal, and so its thriving other ways is not discernible. If it should be inquired how we may discern when grace is exercised and thrives in opposition unto corruptions and temptations, I say, that as great winds and storms do sometimes contribute to the fruit-bearing of trees and plants, so do corruptions and temptations unto the fruitfulness of grace and holiness.

The wind comes with violence on the tree, ruffles its boughs, it may be breaks some of them, beats off its buds, loosens and shakes its roots, and threatens to cast the whole to the ground; but by this means the earth is opened and loosed about it, and the tree gets its roots deeper into the earth, whereby it receives more and fresh nourishment, which renders it fruitful, though it bring not forth fruit visibly, it may be, till a good while after.

In the assaults of temptations and corruptions the soul is wofully [sic] ruffled and disordered,—its leaves of profession are much blasted, and its beginnings of fruit-bearing much broken and retarded; but, in the meantime, it secretly and invisibly casts out its roots of humility, self-abasement, [and] mourning, in a hidden and continual labouring of faith and love after that grace, whereby holiness doth really increase, and way is made for future visible fruitfulness.[1]

[1] John Owen, Pneumatologia, in vol. 3 of The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold (1677–1693; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1965), 402–3. Italics original.

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