The Christian Experience of Suffering (3)
Some of the lessons are brought out even more clearly in the twelfth chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews. The passage is too long to quote in full, and we shall confine ourselves to the leading feature of its teaching.
We learn in the first place that we must not expect to derive blessing automatically from suffering. Affliction by itself, no matter how great its intensity, does not sanctify.
The most general reason for this is that we can despise chastening – we can treat it with contempt. It is profitable only for those who are exercised by it. This gives rise to the question, What is it to despise the chastening of the Lord? and, What is it to be exercised by it? The answer lies, I think, in recalling Paul’s reaction to the thorn in the flesh. He became aware of its presence, grew anxious about it, did the honour of supposing that it was from God and therefore purposeful, and prayed in order to ascertain precisely what that purpose was. The essence of the matter lies here; chastening is despised whenever it is not interrogated, whenever it is accepted simply as event and incident, rather than as something purposeful and intelligible, which on enquiry, will yield its meaning, and draw our attention to some weakness or some peril in our spiritual life with which it is intimately connected. It is a part of Christian watchfulness to maintain a questioning attitude towards providence as a whole, on the supposition that it is all of God and all purposeful and all connected with our redemption; when pleasant, as consolatory, and when bitter, as corrective.
But the teaching of this passage goes further. Not only is adversity not automatically edifying; in itself, it is positively dangerous. Even our Lord was ‘tempted by suffering’ (Hebrews 2:18). This is the sense preferred by Gerrhardus Vos (The Teaching of the Epistle to the Hebrews, p. 102). A two-fold danger is suggested. Firstly, there is the danger that we ‘faint’, (verse 5) when rebuked by providence. The native tendancy of such an experience is to exhaust, to ‘overtax the mind and break the heart’. We may become so pre-occupied with pain that we neglect Christian duty, imagining that out obligations to God must for the moment be forgotten, since we cannot be expected both to do and to suffer. It is quite possible for sorrow to reduce the Christian to impotence. An interesting instance of this is seen in the conduct of the disciples in Gethsemane – they were sleeping (and thus neither watching nor praying) for sorrow (Luke 22:45). The same situations seems to have prevailed among those addressed in the Epistle to the Hebrews. They were nursing their sorrows, long inactive and loath to bestir themselves, so that the writer has to urge, ‘Lift up the hands which hang down and the feeble knees.’
The second danger is that adversity may embitter us. ‘Looking diligently lest . . . . any root of bitterness springing up trouble you,’ (verse 15). Complaint against God, envy towards the more privileged, and a morbid outlook on life in general is by no means an uncommon reaction to suffering. It may even reduce us to a condition where we hold in contempt those who, in our estimation. Have an easier time, and lead us to relegate them, if only unconsciously, to an inferior spiritual order.
These facts should rid us of several wide-spread misconceptions. Affliction is not a situation in which spiritual benefit is inevitable, and in which we can relax in the belief that we are in no danger. The Biblical teaching is quite to the contrary; adversity is perilous. It is, in itself, independently of God’s presence and independently of our own gracious response, exhausting and embittering, demanding constant watchfulness, urgent prayer and the whole armour of God. Nor are we to suppose that our sanctity is commensurate with our suffering. Certainly it ought to be! Our sanctimoniousness may be there too! But the poor and the persecuted are not always blessed. Of the three crosses on Calvary, one was atoning and the other was sanctifying. But, quite as certainly, the third was hardening.
The second lesson suggested by this passage is that our suffering of chastisements is, so far forth, evidence that we are sons. This proposition must be stated cautiously. The fact that we suffer is not in itself proof that we stand in a special relationship to God. Suffering is common to all men, not peculiar to the church. The negative holds true: if we are all without suffering, we are bastards. But the positive (if we suffer, we are sons) does not necessarily follow. All sons are beaten, but all who are beaten are not sons. Before suffering can be taken as evidence of our sonship other factors must be taken into account, primarily the description of suffering as chastening. Only when adversity is corrective and sanctifying have we reason to draw comforting conclusions about it. But a caveat must be uttered. Suffering may well be disciplinary even in the case of the non-Christian. It may improve and purify. The all-important factor is the direction in which the improvement takes place. For the Christian, the issue is ‘peace and righteousness,’ (verse 11) graces peculiarly spiritual. Hence the conclusion is forced upon us: if we suffer, that is a presumption that we are sons; but only if the result of our experience is greater likeness to Christ are we entitled to regard that experience as proof positive that we are members of the family of God.
The third lesson is, perhaps, the most important of all – ‘Looking unto Jesus,’ (verse 2). This, it is suggested, is the only way to avoid spiritual depression. ‘Lest you be wearied and faint in your minds, consider him that endured such contradiction of sinners against himself.’ Several features of the Person and work of Christ are explicitly introduced to our attention.
The first is the fact itself that our Lord suffered, suffered intensely and indeed suffered uniquely. He had to endure the hostility of sinners, He had to endure the Cross. And, according to a very likely interpretation of verse 4, we are reminded of the incomparable anguish of Gethsemane, where our Lord resisted sin unto (the sweat of) blood. We are made to feel ashamed of our plaintiveness, our anguish is so incomparably less.
Secondly, our Lord is set forth as ‘the author and finisher of our faith,’ (verse 2). We are inclined to deprive ourselves of the comfort which the fact that Christ suffered ought to afford by imagining that, in view of his incomparably superior equipment as a divine Person, suffering was for Him less formidable and less real and less intense than for us. The lesson before us is directly relevant to this. Our Lord met his anguish as a believer. He is the author of faith, the pioneer of it, the first and only man in whom faith is consummate and perfect. The passage insists upon the parallel between the Lord’s experience and our own. In Jesus Christ, it is a true body and a reasonable soul – in all things like our own, sin excepted – that is confronted by temptation and suffering: and it is as a man of prayer, and as a deliver dependent on the grace of the Godhead, and as One ministered to by the Holy Spirit that He suffers – meekly, majestically and triumphantly. We must not, even in the interest of the doctrine of our Redeemer’s Godhead, minimise the importance of the Incarnation. Gethsemane itself, the trepidation with which our Lord contemplated Calvary, is evidence enough that it was the limited and created faculties of the prepared body (Hebrews 10:5) which, sustained by grace, bore the fury of the elements in the valley of the shadow of death. He was tempted and tested. But if there is no psychological parallel with our own experience we lose the significance of the great claim, ‘yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15). We can believe in the compassion and in the fellow-feeling of Almighty God only (yet really) because in faculties similar to our own, and in circumstances similar to our own, the Son of God suffered far beyond any intensity conceivable in the experience of His people.
In the fourth place, the statement that Jesus endured the Cross ‘for the joy set before Him,’ suggests that He was encouraged in all His suffering by the prospect of future reward. This means, in general, that Christian eschatology legitimately influences the Christian reaction to suffering. Of the details of this we ‘cannot now speak particularly.’ But, clearly, such doctrines as the return of Jesus Christ, the transience of the world, the significance of death as ushering us immediately into the presence of God, and the unmixed blessedness of the world to come, should impart patience to those believers for whom, at the moment, life is a severe test of endurance.
The passage teaches, in the fifth place, that Jesus is set down at the right hand of God. The bearing on this on the problem of suffering is, in the first instance, that it shows us our Lord prospering though suffering, and therefore suggests the possibility of a similar issue to Christian adversity. The chaos and horror of Golgotha were followed by the glory of an incomparable exultation. And the Cross was not definitive of the Father’s real attitude to the Son. ‘Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life (John 10:17). We must never allow the vicissitudes of providence to suggest that the Lord does not care.
This particular statement, however, does more than merely exhibit our Lord as an example of one who prospers through suffering. It suggests that the fact that Christ is now at the right hand of God is in itself significant for the Christian sufferer. Not only is the process by which he was exalted significant. The fact is significant also, because it returns the answer, ‘Jesus,’ to the troubled question, Who is in control, and in whose hands is the Sovereignty? ‘And I beheld and, lo, in the midst of the throne and of the four beasts, and in the midst of the elders, stood a Lamb as it had been slain’ (Revelation 5:6). The Incarnate One now at the very heart of the divine administration, yet forever aware of what it means to be in the valley of the shadow of death – this is one of the most magnificent of the concepts of Scripture. Chance is not in control, nor impersonal force, nor man. God, righteous and merciful, is sovereign – ‘Let the earth rejoice (Psalm 97:1). Jesus Christ is Lord in every department of human life; redeeming love is sovereign; every element in providence, all that is contrary and all that is baffling, is apportioned to us by the Lamb of God. For the redeemed, every vicissitude must be in harmony with Calvary, must be a fellow worker with Calvary, furthering the purposes of particular, of personal, redemption.
And do we remember as we ought the incarnateness of the sovereign God? The man Jesus Christ is in the midst of the throne, the dust of the earth is upon the throne of the universe, and providence partakes, in toto, of His sinless humaneness. And do we appreciate the experience of our Lord – that He can be touched with the feeling of our infirmities, because the memory of the valley aides with Him; that, lest it were possible (which it is not) that either He or the Church should ever forget, He stands in the midst of the throne as One who has been slain? ‘Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer,’ (Revelation 2:10), because, ‘I dies and came alive again,’ (Revelation 2:8).
One final lesson of this passage may be mentioned. It directly connects spiritual depression with theological ineptness. We become weary, and we faint in our minds, because we fail to consider the bearing of Christ’s suffering on our own experience (verse 3). And in verse 5 we are rebuked for forgetting the exhortation (advocacy) which speaks (argues) with us, and this exhortation is specifically identified as a passage of Scripture. In other words, the theology of the Bible makes a difference to the sufferer; and the Bible has a theology of suffering; and we allow ourselves to fall into unnecessary depression because, preferring simply to worry, we refuse to think. Think is the operative word. To possess the Scriptures , to read the Scriptures, to hear the Scriptures – these are no substitutes. The Bible yields its comfort only to thought. We are to consider Christ – to think through the significance of His advent and His work. We are not to forget the exhortation, the argument, the case by which Scripture shows that to best cast down is unnecessary and foolish. And that argument speaks, it discourses, it reasons, it uses logic. It is at this point that we expose ourselves to the charge of Hebrews 5:13; we know the truth, but we do not know how to apply it; we are ‘unskilful in the word of righteousness,’ inept in applying its great doctrines to the anxieties of life.
Three observations of a general kind will bring this to a close.
Firstly, the sufferings of the Christian have no bearing whatsoever on atonement, no connection with the basis of forgiveness. The caveat is not unnecessary. For example, commenting on 1 Peter 2:24, EG Selwyn writes, ‘We have no reason to think that the pattern which St Peter bids Christians follow was not intended to include the “sin-bearing” as well as the meekness of the Master.’ (The First Epistle of Peter, p. 180). The same idea has vitiated much of the interpretation of Isaiah 53, many critics insisting that the Servant is Israel, not the Messiah, and that the nation is there represented as suffering for the sins of the Gentiles. But the idea of an atoning connection between our sin and our suffering is unacceptable, in any form. It is incompatible with the perfection, and consequent finality, of the Atonement. When the New Testament teaches, ‘He offered himself’ (Hebrews 9:14), it must of course go on to teach, ‘Ye are complete in him’ (Colossians 2:10). The sole determinant of the Christian’s relation to the law of God is the death of Jesus Christ. The idea that we shall not suffer in the world to come if we suffer in this is more prevalent than we are inclined to imagine, and cannot be too emphatically discouraged. And it is surely important for Christian comfort to bear in mind always that suffering is for us not punitive but corrective, and that its intensity can never be in proportion to what our sin deserves.
In one passage, Isaiah 40:2, there is a prima facie suggestion of a connection between the Church’s suffering and her forgiveness: ‘Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned; for she hath received of the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.’ Here the pardon of iniquity is directly connected with receiving from the Lord’s hand, ‘double for all her sins.’ Two explanations of this are possible. Firstly, there is a relative connection between sin and correction. A time comes for the believer when the Lord says, ‘It is time to bring this chastening to a close; it is already adequate.’ He does not chasten beyond our need. Secondly, we may take the statement with its suggestion of a direct connection between our suffering and our pardon as literal truth. In the last analysis, it is precisely because the Church has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins that she is forgiven. She endures this, however, not personally, but in her Subsitute – ‘the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all,’ (Isaiah 53:6). For the purposes of Atonement the Servant is Israel, the Messiah is the church, the Substitute is His People. And it is on the fact that He, in our place, has exhaustively borne the curse due to our sins, that our forgiveness is based. The Church serves and obeys and suffers and dies redemptively in Him.
Secondly, it is imperative that w should not, in our evangelism, hide the harsh realities of the Christian way. It is seriously misleading to suggest that precisely what the natural man wants (happiness, self-realisation, freedom from anxiety, continuous victory) is the whole of what lies on the Christian side of ‘decision for Christ.’ Even if it were true (which it is not) that the life of the disciple is continuously and exclusively joyful, yet joy in Christian terms is not joy in the sense of the natural man. Honesty, not to mention the explicit requirements of our Lord, demands that the Evangelist should tell men to count the cost, and should portray that cost: Deny yourself, take up your Cross, and follow me through a strait gate and along a narrow way, prepared for ‘tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril and sword,’ (Romans 8:35). One cannot but wander whether the high casualty rate among professed converts today is due to the fact that the discovery that not all Christian experiences are joyous – that some are grievous – takes them completely by surprise. ‘When affliction or persecution arises for the word’s sake, immediately they stumble’ (Mark 4:17).
Finally, while hardship is inevitable, spiritual depression is not. The arduousness is by divine arrangement, the depression is the result human sin and frailty. It is not, praise God, incompatible with out being Christians, but it is a serious defect and hindrance. The Biblical standard is, ‘troubled on every side, yet not distressed; perplexed, but not in despair’ (2 Corinthians 4:8). In every situation, we are called upon to retain our faith in the fatherliness of God, and to cling to the hope of our calling. To allow chastisement o cast us into despondency is, so far, to have failed. Pain has reduced as to such confusion, that we have omitted to bring the great Christian verities to bear on present experience.
This is a slightly edited version of an article which was first published in May 1968.