I imagine the short paragraph from Jeremiah Burroughs landed like it did that morning, in part, because my 2-year-old had just thrown an entire bowl of cereal on the floor — again. An exceedingly small affliction, to be sure, but not an exceedingly small mess (or an exceedingly rare one, for that matter).
Unbeknownst to me, the milky Cheerios strewn across my kitchen floor prepared the way for a life-changing illustration. Hours later, I read,
It is a saying of Luther: “The sea of God’s mercies should swallow up all our particular afflictions.” Name any affliction that is upon you: there is a sea of mercy to swallow it up. If you pour a pailful of water on the floor of your house, it makes a great show, but if you throw it into the sea, there is no sign of it. So, afflictions considered in themselves, we think are very great, but let them be considered with the sea of God’s mercies we enjoy, and then they are not so much, they are nothing in comparison. (209)
Name any affliction that is upon you — chronic pain or sudden illness, persistent relational tension, the thorns and thistles of your workplace, a tortuous inability to fall (or stay) asleep, the loss of someone you love — name any affliction that is upon you, and there’s a sea of mercy to swallow it up. If you have God in your affliction, your burden is but a bucket in the ocean.
Buckets of Affliction
Now, to say that a burden is but a bucket (or “nothing in comparison”) is not to say that it is actually nothing. To suggest so would gut Burroughs’ scene of its power and belittle the immense mercy of God. No, as we all know, even a pailful of water can be truly disorienting. And life among our storms often makes heavy buckets feel like ponds, or rivers, or even oceans.
Few have carried suffering better than the apostle Paul, and yet hear him describe his “bucket” in a particular season:
We do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. (2 Corinthians 1:8–9)
Notice, receiving affliction well does not mean downplaying affliction. Paul despaired of life itself — and he doesn’t apologize for feeling (or speaking) that way. The bucket of water felt like a death sentence. And he wanted the others to know his pain was that intense, that bitter, that bleak (“We do not want you to be unaware, brothers . . .”).
No, faith doesn’t downplay affliction, but it does place our sometimes overwhelming affliction next to the always overwhelming mercy of God in Christ.
Oceans of Mercy
The power of Burroughs’ imagery, then, doesn’t come from diminishing our suffering or distracting us from it, but from setting our suffering in proper proportion to reality. Does anything we experience distort ultimate, spiritual reality more than suffering does? If we who are in Christ could see everything as it really is, our affliction — any affliction — would look smaller than it feels, wouldn’t it? In many cases, a lot smaller.
As we’ve seen, Paul felt his pain acutely, and he didn’t ignore it or shy away from it or even keep it to himself. But he also wouldn’t let it blind him to the endless waves of mercy washing over him. Just a few verses earlier, with affliction crashing around him, he can still say,
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction. (2 Corinthians 1:3–4)
In all our affliction, his mercy is more. Through eyes filled with tears, he can still see the sea. He knows that nothing — not beatings, not imprisonments, not riots, not sleepless nights, not hunger — nothing can separate him from the love of Christ. And so he always has more comfort than sorrow. Even while he has real, painful reasons to despair, he has even more reasons to bless God.
Because the apostle Paul stood along the same shores Luther and Burroughs later found, he could say of great, unwanted, unbearable suffering, “This light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Corinthians 4:17). Our buckets are shallow and brief beside the unseen oceans awaiting us. Everything we ever lost and endured will be swallowed up by “the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:7).
Joy Hiding in Buckets
When we lay our pails of affliction beside the sea of God’s mercy, we can begin to make sense, can’t we, of this strange marriage in Scripture between suffering and joy (see Romans 5:3; Colossians 1:24; 1 Thessalonians 1:6). Again and again, we see saints not only finding the strength to bear and endure suffering, but actually learning to rejoice, even while the floors are still soaking wet.
Paul, for instance, can go as far as saying, “In all our affliction, I am overflowing with joy” (2 Corinthians 7:4). In all our affliction — not before or after or even beneath. And not a slow, weak drip of joy, but overflowing joy. This kind of joy perseveres in suffering, and even sometimes grows — like red and yellow and deep purple tulips in beds of snow. How could joy thrive out in the bitter cold? Because, in the right hands, unwanted buckets remind us to look beyond to the ocean.
A chapter later, Paul observes the same marvel in the church at Macedonia. Notice, again, how surprising joy finds its way into the fires of suffering: “In a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part” (2 Corinthians 8:2). Joy didn’t wither in the throes of adversity and poverty, but amazingly swelled and overflowed. Their buckets were many and too heavy to carry, but they were also thimbles lost in far greater waters.
And the same miracle happens among the Hebrews: “You had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property . . .” (Hebrews 10:34). We might understand them accepting what happened here, but joyfully accepting? How does someone rejoice while they suffer this kind evil? Finish the verse: “ . . . since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.” Since they had set their buckets beside the wider, deeper seas of God’s mercies. How much can we really lose? How much can anyone really take from us?
Your Feet in the Sand
Few of us need help seeing our buckets of trouble. We regularly trip and stumble over them and then clean up the messes. The buckets may be bigger or smaller, newer and older, fuller or lighter, but we all have them.
We need help, however, seeing the massive and wild seas beyond our buckets. We’re far more acquainted with our light and momentary afflictions than we are with all that God has worked and promised to those who love him. We’re experts in our miseries and infants in his mercies. And we wonder why our life often feels like one big, messy bucket after another.
The good news is that, if we’re in Christ, we already live on oceanfront property. Many of us, however, need to get out and feel the sand more. We spend too much time cleaning up messes in rooms without windows — all while the shore’s just a few feet away. But we need to see the water every day — to hear the roar of the waves, to smell the freshness of the air, to taste of the ocean, to search and search for where it ends.
So what habits help you sense and wonder at the mercy of God in Christ? How often do you lay down your buckets and let your feet feel the sand? What relationships help you consistently wade out further into his word and his work? Where does the wider lens of spiritual reality come into clearer focus?
If we’ll lift up our eyes, his mercy will swallow any sorrow.