Charles Haddon Spurgeon was no stranger to suffering. Known in his day as the “Prince of Preachers,” Spurgeon faced trials of various kinds throughout his life, some physical, some circumstantial, some internal and personal. Such a man—one so saturated with Scripture and seasoned through suffering—has much wisdom to offer us. This is wisdom for everyone, because the question of suffering is not a question of if we will face it, but when. Suffering is one of life’s certainties, as is the good which God produces through it. We would therefore do well to listen to the Spurgeon as he offers counsel to prepare us for the suffering we will face.
In an article entitled “Sweet Fruit from a Thorny Tree,” Spurgeon provided insight from his own experience of suffering. He describes himself as one “who ha[s] of late been a prisoner of the Lord in the sick chamber.” Yet his time in the figurative cell was not wasted, as he goes on to say that his experience of darkness and depression and difficulty has yielded good fruit. It is the fruit he wishes us to taste, so as to strengthen us to face the thorns.
1) “Pain Teaches Us Our Nothingness”
The first lesson Spurgeon learned from suffering and shared is that “pain teaches us our nothingness.” When we’re healthy, it’s easy to think we have the world by the tail. When we’re strong and not facing the uncertainties of biopsies and tests, it’s tempting to enlarge our sense of self-sufficiency and self-esteem. When this happens, our inflated self-perception becomes unmoored from reality. According to Spurgeon, it is in the experience of limitation and weakness that we discover the truth about ourselves. “How,” he writes, “have I felt dwarfed and diminished by pain and depression!” He goes on to describe his experience: “The preacher to thousands could creep into a nutshell, and feel himself smaller than the worm which bored the tiny round hole by which he entered.”
Most of us are far too great in our own estimation. Often, God chooses to use sickness and disappointment and heartache in order to confront us with our frailty. In other words, He must discipline us as a loving Father. And while the discipline is unpleasant, “it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11).
2) We Learn Where to Find Hope and Cast Our Cares
The second lesson from Spurgeon is that “heavy sickness and crushing pain shut out from us a thousand minor cares.” Some forms of suffering leave us unable to tend to our normal affairs—life’s “minor cares”—forcing us to entrust to the Lord all the things we are helpless to do. We often experience this in our own lives and ministries, when we have been totally incapable of fulfilling our usual duties. What a gracious reminder to see that Jesus Christ is well able to take care of everything without our help! The experience of suffering reminds us of our reliance on God. Even the apostle Paul, himself well acquainted with sorrow, confessed that one divine purpose of his suffering “was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God” (2 Corinthians 1:9).
The question of suffering is not a question of if we will face it, but when. Suffering is one of life’s certainties, as is the good which God produces through it.
Spurgeon says, “The reins drop from the driver’s hands, the ploughman forgets the furrow, the seed-basket hangs no longer on the sower’s arm.” In other words, nearly all of us eventually reach a point in life where we cannot do the tasks that we so often take for granted. And this experience, he says, cuts us “loose from earthly shores” and provides us with a dress rehearsal when our life’s work will end and we will be no more. What an invaluable lesson that can be learned through no other means!
3) Pain Leads to Tenderness
Spurgeon also observes, “Pain, if sanctified, creates tenderness towards others.” Without the grace of God, the pain, disappointment, heartache, sadness, and sickness we endure may simply harden our hearts and make us resentful. But when grace sanctifies our pain and sickness, our trial may become the occasion for our hearts softening and genuine sympathy prevailing. Indeed, we may be equipped through it such that “we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Corinthians 1:4).
The way Spurgeon puts it, suffering will open doors of ministry that would have otherwise remained closed to us: “The keys of men’s hearts hang up in the narrow chamber of suffering, and he who has not been there can scarcely know the art of opening the recesses of the soul.”
4) The Old Is Seen in a New Light
Finally, sickness and other trials may cause us to become all the more focused and diligent when we have been favored—if we have been favored—to return to the place of our service. “Pain,” says Spurgeon, “has a tendency to make us grateful when health returns.” The “wasted” months may lead to an economy of life wherein we’re more earnest, more careful, more prayerful, more dependent upon God, more passionately committed to doing the work of the Gospel than before we went in the chamber and found the keys hanging on the hook.
We do not know what kind of suffering we will face. But how encouraging it is to see the fruit God has produced through the suffering of His people! There are lessons in the school of suffering that we could not otherwise learn, and God Himself will walk with us through each trial. He has brought us thus far, “through many dangers, toils, and snares,” and He will lead us home. The Lord Jesus—the Suffering Servant of Isaiah’s prophecy—was a man of sorrows, was acquainted with grief, and yet endured it for the joy set before Him (Isaiah 52–53). We now go through our sufferings in His footsteps, enduring no darkness that He has not endured before us and for us. And so our suffering will make us like Him—and that will be the sweetest fruit of all.
This article was adapted from the sermon “Sweet Fruit from a Thorny Tree” by Alistair Begg.