The news is tragic: Boko Haram, the Islamic State’s West African Province, has beheaded Lawan Andimi, the Nigerian pastor whose hostage video-turned-testimonial earlier this month encouraged and inspired many.
More than three centuries have passed since another pastor, Thomas Brooks, reflected on God’s tendency to draw nearest to his people when their persecution is most intense. In Heaven on Earth, Brooks explains that assurance—one of the greatest gifts the child of God can receive from the Father—brings joy to worship and prayer, as well as strength and boldness to our witness. In the excerpt below, the Puritan shows how the Lord gives special assurance to those who suffer for his name, including—and perhaps especially—martyrs (Rev. 6:9–11). May Brooks’s words embolden our prayers for those called to such a vocation, and for the family and flock of our Nigerian brother now promoted to glory.
Suffering times are times when the Lord is pleased to give his people some sense of his favor. When they are in sufferings for righteousness’s sake, for the gospel’s sake, then usually God causes his face to shine upon them. Now they shall hear best news from heaven when they hear worst from earth.
God loves to smile most upon his people when the world frowns most. When the world puts its iron chains upon their legs, then God puts his golden chains about their necks; when the world puts a bitter cup into their hands, then God drops some of his honey, some of his goodness and sweetness into it. When the world is ready to stone them, then God gives them the white stone. When the world cries out, “Crucify them, crucify them,” then they hear that sweet voice from heaven, “These are my beloved ones, in whom I am well pleased.”
When the world gnashes upon them, and presents all imaginary tortures before them, then the Lord opens paradise to them, as he did to Stephen. When Paul and Silas were in prison for the gospel’s sake, then God fills them with such unspeakable joy, that they cannot but be singing when others are sleeping (Acts 16:23–24). God turns their prison into a palace, a paradise, and they turn his mercies into praise. Paul and Silas found more pleasure than pain, more joy than sorrow, more sweet than bitter, more day than night, in the prison.
It was God’s lifting up the light of his countenance that made the martyrs to sing in the fire, to clap their hands in the flames, and to tread upon hot burning coals as upon beds of roses. This made Vincentius say, when he felt the flame come to his beard, “What a small pain is this, compared to the glory to come? What is a drop of vinegar put into an ocean of wine? What is it for one to have a rainy day, that is going to take possession of a kingdom?” The smiles of God made Sanctus to sing under dreadful sufferings, “I am a Christian”; and this made the Christians to sing in Tertullian’s time, “Your cruelty is our glory.”
To conclude, the smiles of God upon the prisoners of hope, is that which makes them more cheerful and delightful in their sufferings than Jesus Christ was in his. When Faninus, an Italian martyr, was asked by one, why he was so merry at his death, since Christ himself was so sorrowful: “Christ,” said he, “sustained in his soul all the sorrows and conflicts with hell and death, due to us, by whose sufferings we are delivered from sorrow and fear of them all; and therefore we have cause of rejoicing in the greatest sufferings.”
Now there are these special reasons to be given, why the Lord is pleased in suffering times to visit his people with his lovingkindness, and to lift up the light of his countenance upon them.
That their patience and constancy under the cross may be invincible. God knows right well, that if his left hand in suffering times be not under his people, and his right hand over them, if he does not give them some sips of sweetness, some relishes of goodness, they would quickly grow impatient and inconstant. Oh, but now the smiles of God, the gracious discoveries of God, makes their patience and constancy invincible, as it did Vincentius, who by his patience and constancy maddened his tormenters; they stripped him stark naked, whipped his body all over to a gore blood, sprinkled salt and vinegar over all his wounds, set his feet on burning coals, then cast him naked into a loathsome dungeon, the pavement whereof was sharp shells, and his bed to lie on, a bundle of thorns. All which this blessed martyr received, without so much as a groan, breathing out his spirit in these words, “Vincentius is my name, and by the grace of God I will be still Vincentius, in spite of all your torments.” Persecution brings death in one hand and life in the other; for while it kills the body, it crowns the soul.
For the confirmation of some, for the conversion of others, and for the greater conviction and confusion of their adversaries, who wonder, and are like men amazed, when they see the comfort and the courage of the saints in times of suffering. As the sufferings of the saints do contribute to the confirmation of some, so by the blessing of God they contribute to the conversion of others (Philem. 1:10). It was a notable saying of Luther, “The church converts the whole world by blood and prayer.” Hegesippus reports an observation of Antoninus the emperor: “That the Christians were most courageous and confident always in earthquakes, while his own heathen soldiers were at such accidents most fearful and dispirited.” Certainly no earthquakes can make any heartquakes among the suffering saints, so long as the countenance of God shines upon their face, and his love lies warm upon their hearts. The suffering saint may be assaulted, but not vanquished; he may be troubled, but can never be conquered; he may lose his head, but he cannot lose his crown, which the righteous Lord has prepared and laid up for him (2 Tim. 4:7–8).
He may lose his head, but he cannot lose his crown, which the righteous Lord has prepared and laid up for him (2 Tim. 4:7–8).
For the praise of his own grace, and for the glory of his own name. God would lose much of his own glory, if he did not stand by his people, and comfort them and strengthen them, in the day of their sorrows. It makes much for the glory of God, that his people are cheered and comforted, quickened, and raised, spiritualized and elevated in the day of their sufferings. Oh, the sight of so noble a spirit in the saints, causes others to admire God, to lift up God, to fall in love with God, and to glorify God, for owning his people, and for being a light to them in darkness, a joy to them in sorrow, and a palace to them in prison (Dan. 3:28–30; 6:25–27).
Believing times are times when the Lord is graciously pleased to lift up the light of his countenance on his people. When his children are in the exercise of faith, then the Lord is pleased to make known his goodness, and to seal up to them everlasting happiness and blessedness (Eph. 1:13). Him that honors Christ by believing, by fresh and frequent acts of faith upon him, him will Christ certainly honor and secure by setting his seal and mark upon him, and by assuring him of a kingdom that shakes not, of riches that corrupt not, and of glory that fades not. Faith looks upon God, and says with the psalmist, “This God is my God, for ever and ever” (Ps. 63:1; 48:4). It looks upon the precious promises and says, “These precious promises are mine” (2 Pet. 1:4). It looks upon heaven and says, “Henceforth is laid up for me a crown of righteousness” (2 Tim. 4:8). And this fills the soul with joy and peace. Faith has an influence upon other graces; it is like a silver thread that runs through a chain of pearl, it puts strength and vivacity into all other virtues.
This is an adapted excerpt from Thomas Brooks’s Heaven on Earth (Banner of Truth Trust, 1961).