The Problem of Suffering and Sin. I

Henry Churchill King, D.D.

President of Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio

Light from Christ


We have seen in the previous articles that there are some important initial reasons for faith in the final solution of our problem, and that such a faith is not precluded by the fact of animal suffering. The inevitable prerequisites of a moral world, too, were seen to be such as to require the possibility of sin and of suffering—a weighty and far—reaching consideration. We should have only a play—world otherwise. We might therefore anticipate exactly such difficulties as we do find. The deeper common reactions of the race upon our problem, moreover, were felt to bring real help. The necessary smallness of our human view, the bearing of the race's faith in immortality, the further light from the trend of evolution, and the four common views of suffering, all alike have light to give. Much suffering is indubitably due to the sin of the sufferer himself. Other suffering is as probably due to conditions required for our full discipline in living. Particularly is it deeply true, that reward must not follow too closely or too surely upon the righteous act—that the good must often suffer and the wicked prosper —if genuinely unselfish character is to be produced. We come even to be thankful, from this point of view, that we have a problem of evil. And no doubt ultimately we must fall back upon the thought of the majesty of God. Any adequate vision of God makes us feel anew the smallness of our view, and the wisdom and necessity, after our best attempts to understand God's ways, of leaving the whole problem in his hands, with faith in a solution we cannot fully see. Now, has the peculiarly Christian view any further answer to our question? Has Christ himself some still larger help to give? This is our present inquiry.

A series of considerations makes us feel that we have not yet reached the heart of the matter. For Christianity has made us far more sensitive to certain implications of our natures, to which the race as a whole, to be sure, has not been blind, but which have received an emphasis and setting, from the Christian point of view, not before possible. Christ's teaching and life and death throw into strong relief certain great trends of our beings, and make more possible a positive attack upon our problem.

First of all, we are impressed anew from the Christian viewpoint that man is really made for action, for heroic achievement, for service and sacrifice so made for all this that he cannot be satisfied

With ghastly smooth life, dead at heart, Tame in earth's paddock as her prize.

His very sports show that he joys in difficulties for their own sake. He seeks adventure and delights in obstacles. There is something in men far deeper than the desire for easy—going pleasure and passive self—indulgence. So that a moral philosopher like Paulsen feels compelled to say:

Who would care to live without opposition and struggle? Would men prize truth itself as they do, if it were attained without effort and kept alive without battle? To battle and to make sacrifices for one's chosen cause constitutes a necessary element of human life. Carlyle states this truth in a beautiful passage in his book on Heroes and Hero—Worship: "It is a calumny to say that men are roused to heroic actions by ease, hope of pleasure, recompense—sugar—plums of any kind in this world or the next. In the meanest mortal there lies something nobler. The poor swearing soldier hired to be shot has his 'honor of a soldier,' different from drill, regulations, and the shilling a day. It is not to taste sweet things, but to do noble and true deeds, and vindicate himself under God's heaven as a God—made man, that the poorest son of Adam dimly longs. Show him the way of doing that, the dullest day-drudge kindles into a hero. They wrong man greatly who say he is to be seduced by ease. Difficulty, abnegation, martyrdom, death, are the allurements that act on the heart of man."

The difficulties of life therefore have their own contribution to make to life, just as soon as one looks at life even approximately from Christ's viewpoint. When a man thus positively faces life's ills he finds in them an opportunity, which he would not spare, for a field for training and for conquest, for such all—round self—discipline and development of will as he knows he needs. He even rejoices, therefore, in many—sided trials and temptations, in order that a patient steadfastness may "have its perfect work," and that he himself may be called out on every side, and be made "perfect and entire, lacking in nothing." It is still partial defeat that one should be able only to stand his lot, and not also to be "happy in his lot."

Nor are there only this many—sided discipline of will to be achieved and the natural joy in such achievement. Life itself and joy in life both broaden and deepen through opposition and labor and misfortune, as Lotze has penetratingly pointed out:

By the opposition which the natural course of things offers to a too easy satisfaction of natural impulses; by the labor to which man is compelled, and in the prosecution of which he acquires knowledge of, and power over, things in the most various relations; finally, by misfortune itself and the manifold painful efforts which he has to make under the pressure of the gradually multiplying relations of life; by all this there is both opened before him a wider horizon of varied enjoyment, and also there becomes clear to him for the first time the inexhaustible significance of moral ideas which seem to receive an accession of intrinsic worth with every new relation to which their regulating and organizing influence is extended.

This is only the use of the laboratory method in life itself. Nobody is going to take in the sweep of the moral ideas by passive reception. He must work them out in the laboratory of life's active experiences. Man's very being demands it. The insistence of modern psychology, therefore, that we are made for action, serves further to accentuate considerations essentially Christian.

The like facts that men are made not less surely for personal relations, and that the whole man can come out only in such relations, have other vital bearings on our problem. The light from Christ's life is here unmistakable. Whatever the initial difficulties—given a world of sin and suffering on the part of others—if one loves others, he must suffer, and he cannot but choose to suffer. Because we love, and in proportion as we love, we must suffer and choose to suffer. Without some such experience of our own, indeed, we should be shut out from all the more significant relations to others who suffer. There could be otherwise but a shallow understanding of them or sympathy with them. If, then, in such a world one would belong in the company of the highest in character, he cannot choose but suffer. We are made on so exalted a plan that we cannot be wholly happy in selfishness. Even the most selfish wish at least the selfless devotion of some other. Some companionship in suffering then is necessary, if we are to be let into the high privilege of helping another in his darkest hours—if we are not then to be left in the outer circle of the uninitiated. The testing question of life continues to be: "What, could ye not watch with me one hour?"

And it is only to souls thus willing to pay the price of suffering that there can come, too, the joy of truly redeeming work. It is part of these very natures of ours, everywhere knit up with other lives, that there is no cheap way in which this highest joy can be tasted. Human love would be less worthy than it is, were it not ready and glad to pay the price of the suffering involved in winning another to his own highest good. For joy's sake, as well as for duty's sake, the highest in character cannot excuse themselves from redemptive suffering.

Moreover, it must stir our thought to see so often that is it not those who have suffered most who are most unhappy, or most at cross—purposes with existence, or who trust God the least. The deadly ennui belongs on the whole not to these, but to the "favored sons of destiny," whose wants seem all provided for and who have no struggle to make. Suffering, this would suggest, cannot quite be the unmitigated evil we are tempted to regard it. One suspects there must somehow be hidden in the heart of suffering some distillate even of joy—some cure for its own pain. This finds beautiful and truthful expression in a passage in Elizabeth Hastings' thoughtful novel, An Experiment in Altruism. To Janet, who has been inclined to quarrel with life, has come a great sorrow in the sudden death of her noble lover. A friend goes to her to speak what comfort she can, but expecting to find her still more bitter than before.

"Do you know," she said, "the sorrow almosts rests me? I have had so much of the bitter and meaningless pain. Perhaps my quarrel with life is over."

"But this is so inexplicable," I cried, taking the girl's hands in mine and forgetting that I was there to comfort her.

"It doesn't need to be explained, because it hurts, and the hurt is life, and life is good. Oh, I tell you," she added proudly, drawing her hands away and going over to seat herself by the window; "it is only when you are standing outside, looking at life, talking about it and thinking about it, that you can say it is cruel. When you are really living, the very hurt is glorious."

I sat and watched the tearless face. The girl had been carried beyond me, out into the deeps of life where my words of help could not reach her.

"I have always been trying to reason out the meaning of things," she said, turning quickly toward me, "and nobody even told me that it is only what cannot be said that makes life worth while."

"People have tried to, Janet," I said softly, "but that is one of the things that cannot be told."

"There isn't any kind of pain," she said slowly, "that can equal the joy of simple human love."

I forgot my rebellion of the night before. I bowed my head in the presence of this power for whose better apprehending we covet the very agony and pain of life. We follow swiftly to let even its shadow fall upon us, for if "in its face is light, in its shadow there is healing too."

There is still another human experience in these personal relations that suggests that suffering is no dumb, barren, brute fact without any ideal message. That fact is the repeated experience of the special growth of a true and high love, through fellowship in suffering, in the sharing of burdens. It is not only that suffering seems many times a thing to rejoice in, because it reveals our friends and God; but that the very sharing in the common suffering peculiarly draws souls together. Whatever the explanation, the fact remains. And the deepening love is rightly felt to be more significant than the suffering by which it was purchased. This fact is an intimation, once more, that the deepest draughts of joy even are not to be found in unmixed and easy pleasure; that harmony is more than melody and unity than simplicity. Man's nature is too broad to make it possible to satisfy him without an admixture of self—giving love, and he glories in the cost of such love.

This holds not alone in the realm of personal love. It seems indeed to be in general true that life's most precious experiences are open to us only through suffering. Here, again, whether we can explain it or not, a life seems to us shallow into which small experience of suffering has come. We cannot, with our eyes open, choose it either for ourselves or for those we love. George Eliot has laid her finger on one reason for this common human experience, and men have turned often to these words of hers just because they rang so true:

We can indeed only have the highest happiness, such as goes with being a great man, by having wide thoughts and much feeling for the rest of the world, as well as ourselves; and this sort of happiness often brings so much pain with it, that we can only tell it from pain by its being what we should choose above everything.

I always wish, myself, to couple with this word of George Eliot's another equally discerning but rarely quoted word of Lotze's:

And then there is pain, the bitterness of which is only intelligible by reference to the refined relations of social life, and to the consciousness of combined victory and reconciliation springing from practised ethical insight—pain which gives rise to innumerable feelings not easily expressed, and pervading our whole life like a precious fragrance that we would on no account consent to renounce.

Here too the joy is inextricably mingled with the pain. To insist that one must be spared such pain as George Eliot and Lotze here describe is to insist that life should be a comparatively barren and futile thing—is to insist that one doom himself to an essentially narrow and shallow life. Obviously the indication here confirms our earlier reflections on the prerequisites of a moral world. In such a world the bitter and the sweet go back to essentially the same sources. Both arise from the fact and meaning of those close personal relations in which men stand. Even when we are most rebellious against the scheme of things, nothing could persuade us to give up the personal relations, out of which our rebellion springs.

Still another fact of our human experience shows that life's suffering is seldom bare pain and evil. Nothing seems to men more sacred than certain kinds of suffering, but it is always suffering in which there is some element of sacrifice. Christianity has done most of all to bring the sacredness and value of sacrificial suffering into relief. Paulsen thus cannot be said to overstate the case when he says:

The great truth which Christianity has impressed upon us is: The world lives by the vicarious death of the just and innocent. Whatever system—loving theology may have made of it, it remains the profoundest philosophical—historical truth. The nations owe their existence to the willingness of the best and the most unselfish, the strongest and the purest, to offer themselves for sacrifice. Whatever humanity possesses of the highest good has been achieved by such men, and their reward has been misunderstanding, contempt, exile, and death. The history of humanity is the history of martyrdom; the text to the sermon which is called the history of mankind is the text to the Good Friday sermon from the fifty-third chapter of the prophet Isaiah.

We need the help of the deepest facts if we are to read the riddle of the world's sin and sorrow, and we are certainly close to earth's deepest facts in the phenomena to which Paulsen here calls attention; for this point of view, as he clearly recognizes, has grown directly out of the life and teaching and death of Christ.

We have then one more outstanding fact with which we may face the problem of suffering and sin: "Christ also suffered." At first sight the crucifixion of Christ seems only to accentuate and increase our problem; for it looks as if God had forgotten Jesus too and allowed the evil to triumph over him. But the experience of humanity is that, as the years roll on, the fact of Christ's suffering and death has been the source of men's greatest help, as they themselves have stood face to face with suffering and sin. Already those who were as close to Jesus' time as the New Testament writers, disclose with unmistakable plainness this triumphant viewpoint. They are sure that Christ's suffering greatly counts, and that it cannot therefore mean that God forgot him. They appeal thus to Christ's suffering to strengthen their own hearts and the hearts of their brethren under a like undeserved suffering. The books of Hebrews, I Peter, and Revelation all seek thus to stay persecuted and suffering souls. In essence their argument is the same: If Christ was allowed to suffer and die in rejection and apparent defeat, your suffering too, though it were equally undeserved, does not mean that God has forgotten you or his kingdom. In many varied forms they express it—in literal phrase, in analogy, in vivid pictorial presentation, like the vision of the souls under the altar, and of the "Lamb that had been slain" upon the throne. Christ's suffering, therefore, suggests to them rather that their suffering, too, may count, and that they are thus honored in sharing in the inmost work of Christ. "Beloved," runs a passage in I Peter, "think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which cometh upon you to prove you, as though a strange thing happened unto you: but inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ's sufferings rejoice."

Christ's life-purpose and the cardinal principle of his teaching had been self-giving love. In the terms of such a love he interpreted God and life and heaven. His kingdom was to come, not by force, but by trust in the omnipotence of such love. Were there any circumstances too strong for that? Can it stand the world as it is? May we trust God to the bitter end, even to seeming defeat and death with every accompaniment of mental agony? These seem to be the questions involved in the crucifixion of Christ, and his disciples came to believe that the results of his suffering death justified, vindicated, and fulfilled the faith shown in his life and teaching; and showed in turn to men that they might believe that their suffering, too, could be made to count for others. In that great consummation they would have a right greatly to rejoice. Once more, however we explain it, the suffering death of Christ, conceived as the culmination of his life, is seen to have power to stay the hearts of men as has no other fact.

The greatest gift the hero leaves his race Is to have been a hero.

"The prophet," wrote Professor James in his chapter on the will, "has drunk more deeply than anyone of the cup of bitterness, but his countenance is so unshaken and he speaks such mighty words of cheer that his will becomes our will, and our life is kindled at his own." In supreme degree this has proved true of Christ. Mrs. Stowe is thus faithful to human nature, when she makes Uncle Tom, bruised and bleeding for a righteous and kindly deed, turn for enduring comfort only to the story of the crucifixion. And the "Sky Pilot" can bring to the rebellious sufferer, to whom he would minister, no deeper word than one that goes back again to the crucified Christ. And as he reads in Hebrews the passage, "We see Jesus for the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor," he can only add: "You see, Gwen, God gave nothing but the best—to his own Son only the best." It must ever mean much to men, that something of that best; it should be open to them, to share with Christ.

The cross of Christ thus faces this greatest problem of men—the problem of evil—with a surpassing fact. The cross has mightily, gloriously counted, beyond all doubt, in the actual history of men. It brings thereby a new note into the whole discussion; for it suggests that all suffering may be made vicarious—may count for men. How great a change this may make in our point of view Professor James suggests in his illustration in his little book, Is Life Worth Living?

Consider a poor dog whom they are vivisecting in a laboratory. He lies strapped on a board and shrieking at his executioners, and to his own dark consciousness is literally in a sort of hell. He cannot see a single redeeming ray in the whole business; and yet all these diabolical—seeming events are usually controlled by human intentions with which, if his poor benighted mind could only be made to catch a glimpse of them, all that is heroic in him would religiously acquiesce. Healing truth, relief to future sufferings of beast and man are to be bought by them. It is genuinely a process of redemption. Lying on his back on the board there he is performing a function incalculably higher than any prosperous canine life admits of; and yet, of the whole performance, this function is the one portion that must remain absolutely beyond his ken.

Now turn from this to the life of man. In the dog's life we see the world invisible to him because we live in both worlds. In human life, although we only see our world, and his within it, yet encompassing both these worlds a still wider world may be there as unseen by us as our world is by him; and to believe in that world may be the most essential function that our lives in this world have to perform.

In any case, the fact that Christ's suffering death has so counted for men in all the generations since is a very direct intimation that all suffering may be vicarious, may directly count for other lives. For all suffering may be turned into a voluntary sacrifice, and so be made an offering to God and our fellow—men, and thus have the bitterness of unmeaning suffering taken out of it. Matheson may thus well say: "If thou art love, then thy best gift must be sacrifice; in that light let me search thy world." And Hinton, in his Mystery of Pain, says still more directly: "All pains may be summed up in sacrifice and sacrifice is the instrument of joy." "The happiness for which we are intended is one in which pain is latent—not merely absent, but swallowed up in love and turned to joy." Now that statement seems to me to be absolutely true to our highest human experience. Men literally rejoice in sacrifices made for love's sake. They know no truer joy than that which so comes to them. If, therefore, they can reach a point of view whence they can feel that all their suffering may be, by the way in which they bear it, transmuted into voluntary sacrifice, it does thereby become an " instrument of joy." In that case we might believe that no sacrifice was lost. For the highest gift we can offer to man or God is a self—giving love. We do not seek the pain and trouble of our friends, but we do prize nevertheless, beyond all price, the love that is sacrificingly shown. And in the full light of the cross of Christ, we can see that we are praying to be delivered from the most precious thing in life, when we pray to be delivered from the sacrificial spirit. Men have thought it a learned and philosophical thing to say, that there was nothing that men could do for God. If God be in any true sense a Father, this common statement must be fundamentally false. And the old rabbi was right in his contention that it was given to him to "slake the thirst of God."

The cross of Christ has proved its power not less against the other still darker fact of sin, in spite of all inadequate and even sometimes repulsive theories concerning the meaning of that death. To help men to courage and faith, in the face of suffering, is itself a help against sin, a help to character. But the cross of Christ does more than that. It proves practically and directly effective, in winning men out of sin and into a sharing of Christ's own purposes. It suggests inevitably that an unconquerable, seeking, self—giving love is the one great redemptive force the world holds. It has drawn, and it still draws, men into a spirit like Christ's own. No soul—father or mother, husband or wife, brother or sister, or friend—can truly love a sinning man and not suffer in his sin, and carry its load. The greater the love the deeper the suffering. The more stubbornly the sinning man holds on his loveless course, the more bitter is the suffering of the one who loves him. There is no way by which the winning of such a man back to his best self and to his God can be made cheap and easy and painless. The very relations themselves make it impossible. There is only one thing that can win him, if he is to be won at all—the unconquerable, unstinted love of another, suffering for him and with him. This vision men have caught in Christ, and it has broken their hearts, humbled and subdued them, won their love and endless devotion, and dedicated them to a sharing in Christ's own redemptive work.

Here too we have direct help as we face the fact of human sin. There is pointed out to us the one sovereign way in which the conquest of sin is to be accomplished, both in ourselves and in others. And a new great motive is brought in, to give us strength to bear all that suffering which is due to the sin of others. We may so bear it, after the likeness of Christ, as to make it truly redemptive; and may believe therefore that Hinton is justified in saying, "All our pains identify themselves in meaning and end with the suffering of Christ." In a very real and deeply significant sense, thus, it is given to us to "know the fellowship of his sufferings"; it is given us to share in, and to carry on, Christ's own redemptive work.

But the suffering death of Christ has a still larger and deeper message for us. Our highest conception of love, our great and increasing tenderness to suffering itself, and our courage and faith in the face of suffering and sin, all grow directly out of the spirit and life and death of Christ. Now the best light on the character of God should come from the most outstanding and significant facts of the world. I cannot myself doubt that the great personalities of history are such facts, and that among these personalities Christ is supreme, and therefore of supreme value as indicating the kind of character we may expect to find in God. As a mere matter of fact, his life has thus untold significance. Moreover, there must be taken with this fact the further fact of Christ's own consciousness of mission from God—his sense that the very meaning of his life was that it revealed God. This ultimately means—what has been rightly called the greatest proposition of the Christian religion—that " God is like Christ"; that we may believe that there is at the heart of the world just such a love as Christ's, a love that suffers with men, unstinted, endlessly self—giving; that this is what is meant by calling God Father. If we can look at Christ in this way, as a true manifestation of God's own character and love, then we can see that God's relation to us is not an external one; that he is no mere onlooker; but that, because our Father, he suffers in our sin, bears as a burden the sin and suffering of us all, and cannot be satisfied when one child of his turns away in sorrow and sin. The cross of Christ would then drop as deep a plummet, as we can conceive, into this dark problem of suffering and sin. It would give us universally penetrating and enduring light. For then indeed it would be true that "the agony of the world's struggle is the very life of God. Were he mere spectator, perhaps he too would call life cruel. But in the unity of our lives with his, our joy is his joy; our pain is his."