This article was found in the October 1952 issue of Progress, the monthly magazine of the Romford Congregational Church
Notes from an address by the Rev. Ronald M. Ward, B.D.
I want to discuss with you three ways in which people sometimes react to troubles. Let us call them the way of the Stoic, the way of the Jew, and the way of the Christian.
Although Jeremiah certainly had no spiritual affinity with Stoicism there is a text in the book bearing his name which expresses very well what I mean by the way of the Stoic. It reads like this. "Woe is me for my hurt! My wound is grievous: but I said, Truly this is a grief, and I must bear it." (Jeremiah 10:19)
Thousands of people with no religious faith show admirable courage in the face of suffering and loss by adopting this attitude. They bear their troubles manfully and in silence. Sometimes they even grin and bear them. They scorn to whine or complain or look for pity, feeling that the dignity of a human being forbids it, and in this matter many pagans put some Christians to shame. Theirs is part of the routine heroism of the world. It happens every day, is not confined to religious people and does not depend on a divine revelation. But nevertheless this is a threadbare cloak to draw about oneself when the wind is bitter.
What else has religion to offer?
The Jew strove to adjust himself to all kinds by accepting it as from the hands of a just and holy God. This point of view is well expressed in the book of Job, where Job says, "Shall we receive good at the hand of God and shall we not receive evil?" In this attitude great strength and consolation is sometimes found. Submission to the will of an all wise Creator whose decrees must never be questioned gives to many the courage they need to get through life.
A glance at the hymn book, and conversation with many Christians, will show that this essentially Old Testament idea is sometimes not much enlarged by an experience of the Christian Gospel. In fact some Christians deal with misfortune as a Jew might. They know nothing better than to attempt submission to the will of a God who "knows best". Hymn Thy Way, not Mine is full of the atmosphere of a patient submission. Thus verse four reads,
Take Thou my cup, and it
With joy or sorrow fill,
As best to Thee may seem;
Choose Thou my good and ill.
Some Christian buttress this thought by reflecting that our true joys are in heaven, not in this vale of sorrows, and that it is wrong to expect much happiness on earth. Hymn I'm But a Stranger Here begins in this not very inspiring strain: -
I'm but a stranger here,
Heaven is my home;
Earth is a desert drear,
Heaven is my home.
The question is whether Jesus thought the earth was a desert drear, and whether the highest Christian ideal in face of sorrow is truly expressed in the prayer for a "heart resigned, submissive, meek."
I do not wish to imply that there is no truth or health in this sentiment. A Christian no less than a Jew desires to accept the will of God and knows that "now we fight the battle, but then shall wear the crown." Nevertheless an emphasis upon acceptance of sorrow is not, as I hope to show, a fully Christian one, and may imply a sub-Christian conception of God.
Now let us turn our thought to the words of Jesus, uttered, according to the Fourth Evangelist, on the occasion of His arrest. "The cup which my Father has given Me, shall I not drink it?" This was said to Peter, who wished to resist with violence, and it seems at first sight to imply the Cross ought to be accepted as from God.
But God did not nail Jesus to the Cross. His enemies did that. We cannot identify the will of God with the will of Caiaphas. That His Heavenly Father required of Jesus an obedience which would involve the Cross, and that the Cross was made to serve the highest Divine purpose, is true. But that is very different from supposing that in the hour of His Passion our Lord accepted suffering as an act of God.
No sorrow is like unto His sorrow, but here at the Cross we may reverently learn something of the Christian approach to all suffering.
In the first place many things are permitted by God which are not willed by Him. In our darkest hour let us at least remember that. We are to trust Him as a Heavenly Father in all circumstances. But we are not to suppose that all circumstances come from His hand, although all circumstances are in His hand.
Most of our troubles can be traced back to human ignorance, or sin or foolishness (our own or another's, or that which belongs corporately to the race); or else to laws of nature which operate, I incline to believe, in a certain measure independently of God. We are often dishonest with ourselves when we forger this. Sometimes what people finally resign themselves to as the will of God is something they have been doing everything in their power to avoid. In fact we often attribute to the will of God those things which we cannot control, and for no better reason. At the present time thousands of human beings die every year of cancer, and Christian people contribute money to cancer research in the hope that a cure may be found. And yet in how many homes is a loved one who died of this disease spoken of as "taken" by God? People who say they cannot understand why such as good man should have suffered so much imply that their sorrow is due to a Divine decree. In that case every penny contributed towards cancer research is an attempt to frustrate the will of God. And if we shrink from such a blasphemous absurdity let us also shrink from the belief that God "sends" all our troubles to us.
The struggle of a protesting, suffering heart to accept some tragic happening as in some hidden way "good" for it can be very distressing and is quite unnecessary. Christian piety is not blind obedience to an inscrutable authority, but trust is a heavenly Father. And when it is desperately hard to maintain such a faith try to remember these three simple things. (1) Whatever happens to us God has permitted to happen, though He may not have willed it. (2) God can use what has happened, even when it is not His will, so that in the end it will be seen to have served His purposes. (3) Ultimately God's will must prevail, and even now, since evil and suffering only exist by permission and not in their own strength, God is in complete control.
This, however, is only one side of the Christian response to suffering, and it is the negative side. Jesus accepted the Cross, indeed He took it up, as the inevitable result of obedience to God. But He did more than receive it. He also offered it, as at the Last Supper when He gave the cup to His disciples and bade them share it amongst themselves, telling them that His death was to be something accomplished on their behalf.
Of course it is futile to compare the sufferings of Christ with ordinary human experience. But in the fact that His cup was both received and offered we may learn something which has a practical application to ourselves. The most Christian response to suffering is surely to ask oneself, not "How can I put up with this?", but "How can I offer this to God? In what way can it be found that a trouble can be turned into an offering, and in so doing we transform it into a creative source of life for other people instead of a drag upon ourselves. I think, for instance, of a woman lying in a hospital ward for many months, her twisted body offering vert little hope of future happiness for herself. And yet it was quite from her cheerful and trusting spirit that she was determined to do something with her situation which would be of service to other people. I think she was a source of courage and reassurance for everyone else in that place. I believe her life was a daily offering to God.
A pagan can bear his troubles manfully. A Jew can submit to them obediently. But only a Christian can offer them lovingly.
"If I stoop
Into a dark, tremendous sea of cloud
It is but for a time; I press God's lamp
Close to my breast; its splendour, soon or late
Will pierce the gloom: I shall emerge one day."