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Samuel Rutherford: Lessons on Suffering

Sad Tree

 

Faithfulness to Christ necessarily entails suffering. On this, the Scriptures are abundantly clear: 

 

“Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted…” (2 Tim. 3:12). 

 

“When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:21–22). 

 

“The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom. 8:16–17). 

 

“Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Pet. 4:12). 

 

The Scriptures are plain: to be a Christian, especially in a world fundamentally opposed to Christ and His kingdom, means suffering. To sign up with Christ is to sign up for suffering, rejection, and loss. It’s not in the fine print; it’s written plain as day in the gut-wrenching wounds of our crucified Saviour. 

 

Even so, acknowledging the bare fact that suffering is unavoidable doesn’t necessarily prepare one to endure suffering itself. It may help to set expectations, but when trials threaten to overwhelm us, we need more than truisms if we are going to respond well. 

 

Thankfully, we are part of a body with many members we can look to for guidance in the area of suffering, and Samuel Rutherford is as capable a guide as any. 

 

Samuel Rutherford: Pastor and Sufferer 

Samuel Rutherford (1600-1661) was a Scottish Presbyterian pastor who lived and ministered during a volatile point in the history of the Protestant church. Standing against the wrath of the Episcopal Scottish Church, this good-for-nothing “puritan,” as he and others like him were sometimes called, sought for continued reform among Scottish churches following the Reformation. The result of Rutherford’s efforts, however, was a two-year period of exile and imprisonment in Aberdeen. Yet, like the apostle Paul centuries before, Rutherford’s imprisonment did not result in a slow digression into obscurity and ineffectiveness but rather in a remarkably fruitful letter-writing ministry. Thankfully, many of these letters have been preserved for us. 

 

Running throughout Rutherford’s letters is the clear and unmistakable theme of suffering. Indeed, one of his most prominent pastoral concerns was to teach his people how to suffer well. He did this both by example as well as through written instruction. One of the letters where this is most evident is a 1634 letter addressed to “Lady Kenmure,” the Viscountess of Kenmure. Lady Kenmure’s husband, John Gordon, had recently died and Rutherford wrote this letter to encourage Lady Kenmure with the hope of the gospel and to help her prepare for the hard days ahead. 

 

Let’s consider three points from Rutherford’s letter that can help us learn to suffer well. 

 

  1. God is Sovereign Over Our Trials

How would you counsel someone who, in Rutherford’s words, was experiencing the “heaviest worldly sorrow” and “weightiest burden” they had ever had to bear? Would you hesitate to bring God into the picture? Would you shy away from mentioning Christ for fear it would tempt the sufferer to turn from Him in anger? 

 

Rutherford does neither of these things. Instead, he sympathizes with Lady Kenmure and gently acknowledges the Lord’s hand in her suffering: “I trust your Lord will … give you comfort now, at such a time as this, wherein your dearest Lord hath made you a widow, that you may be a free woman for Christ” (31). 

 

Lest we be tempted to think Rutherford cold or untimely on this point, we should remember that he himself lost his own wife to sickness four years earlier, and he admits in this letter to Lady Kenmure that that wound “is not yet fully healed and cured” (31). Still, Rutherford understood that it does the Christian no good to separate God from suffering, as if He were somehow remote and uninvolved. The hope of the Bible is that God has not left His children to the cruel and emotionless whims of “fate.” Rather, like a master physician, He uses pain and trials to cut away the cancerous remnants of sin that linger in the hearts of His people, and by so doing fits them for glory (1 Pet. 1:3–9). Rutherford welcomed this knowledge, and it sustained him at many points during his difficult life. 

 

  1. Trials Prepare Us For Heaven

Flowing from this, Rutherford is careful to emphasize a second point: God uses trials to wean His children from their addiction to the cares of this world—cares that can easily choke their faith and render it unfruitful (Matt. 13:22)—and instead nurture in them a desire for heaven. 

 

He counsels, “Your Lord never thought this world’s vain painted glory a gift worthy of you; and therefore would not bestow it on you, because he is to provide you with a better portion. Let the moveables go, the inheritance is yours” (32). He goes on, “Consider how, in all these trials (and truly they have been many), your Lord hath been loosing you at the root from perishing things, and hunting after you to grip your soul” (32–33). 

 

We, like Rutherford, must learn to see God’s mercy at work in our trials. Through them, He is training us to daily relinquish our fascination with the fleeting pleasures of sin and instead to set our affections resolutely on the “city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10). After all, what good would it profit us to gain the “vain painted glory” of this world, yet forfeit eternal life in the new creation with Christ and His people? 

 

Christian, let the moveables go; the inheritance is yours. 

 

  1. Pray for God’s Particular Comfort

Finally, Rutherford teaches us to pray for God’s particular, unique comfort in our suffering, the kind of comfort only He can provide: “Now I pray that God may answer in his own style to your soul; and that he may be to you the God of all consolations” (33). 

 

At the end of the day, what our souls need most is to be cared for by Christ, our merciful High Priest and faithful Shepherd. For all our words, for all our theological principles and abstract ideas, Christ is the only one who can quiet our fears, offer comfort in the midst of tragedy, give strength in the midst of crippling weakness, and sustain our faith under the heavy weight of sorrow. Thus, like Rutherford, we should not hesitate to pray for ourselves and for one another that God would minister to us according “to his own style” and be to us “the God of all consolations.” 

 

While in this life we may experience His comfort infrequently and elusively, the hope of the gospel is that one day, after we have suffered a little while, “the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you” (1 Pet. 5:10). 

 

May God give us grace to follow not only in the footsteps of saints like Rutherford and countless others like him, but in the pattern and example of our Lord Jesus Christ, “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2). 

 

May He, during this brief time on earth, make your soul a castle that, though it is besieged, “cannot be taken” (32).