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III. THE SUFFERINGS OF CHRIST.
“For as the sufferings of Christ abound unto us, even so our comfort also aboundeth through Christ” — 2 Corinthians 1:5.
And that word “sufferings,” when used by the Apostle Paul, is not a big term to express a very little thing. “For we would not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning our affliction which befell us in Asia, that we were weighed down exceedingly, beyond our power, insomuch that we despaired even of life.”
And still later in the same letter we have another glimpse of the apostle in suffering. “In stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in death oft, of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one. Thrice was I beaten with rods, once I was stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren, in weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness.”
And yet, in the very midst of this tumultuous narrative, like bird song in a thunderstorm, there rises this melodious assurance — “As the sufferings of Christ abound unto us, even so our comfort also aboundeth through Christ.”
It is a strange conjunction this of “suffering” and “comfort.” And it is all the more strange when they are put together in the relation of cause and effect, and comfort emerges from suffering as springs have been loosened by the earthquake at Messina, as volcanic influences are productive of conditions which feed the most luxurious vines.
But apostolic teaching is also the teaching of common experience. Apart altogether from the Christian revelation, men have learned that affliction and consolation, suffering and blessedness, are not alien and mutually repellent, but related by affinities vital and profound.
Even Positivism, which is just a vast scheme of benevolence comprehending every form of sentient life, and which aims at universal blessedness, “decks itself out in the blood-stained garment of Christian asceticism,” and in order to gain happiness employs the ministry of sacrifice. One of the primary precepts or principles of Positivism is just this — either suffer or die!
But the teaching which links the volcano and the vine, the earthquake and the springs, suffering and blessedness, affliction and emancipation, is preeminently significant of the Christian religion. It found its symbol of life in the minister of apparent death. Its emblem of victory is a cross, and its ascending transitions are crucifixions. It fashions its glories out of seeming shame, as the loveliest hues are extracted from the blackest pitch.
It has only one path into life — a strait gate and a narrow way; it has only one secret of joyful liberty — self-sacrifice and vigilant self-restraint. “If any man will be My disciple, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.” We can obtain the wine of life only through the crushing of the grapes. Affliction introduces us to the juices and the mannas. “For as the sufferings of Christ abound unto us, even so our comfort also aboundeth through Christ.”
And so let us turn our minds in quiet meditation upon those “sufferings of Christ” in which fellowship we are to find our consolation. And let us, first of all, remind ourselves of the words in which our Lord described His holy purpose and ministry: “He hath anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor; He hath sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised.” Such is the range and richness of our Lord’s redemptive mission.
Now, the range of our possible sufferings is determined by the largeness and nobility of our aims. It is possible to evade a multitude of sorrows by the cultivation of an insignificant life. Indeed, if it be a man’s ambition to avoid the troubles of life, the recipe is perfectly simple — let him shed his ambitions in every direction, let him cut the wings of every soaring purpose, and let him assiduously cultivate a little life, with the fewest correspondences and relations.
By this means a whole continent of afflictions will be escaped and will remain unknown. Cultivate negations, and large tracts of the universe will cease to exist. For instance, cultivate deafness, and you are saved from the horrors of discords. Cultivate blindness, and you are saved from the assault of the ugly. Stupefy a sense, and you shut out a world. And, therefore, it is literally true that if you want to get through the world with the smallest trouble you must reduce yourself to the smallest compass.
And, indeed, that is why so many people, and even so many professedly Christian people get through life so easily, and with a minimum acquaintance with tribulation. It is because they have reduced their souls to a minimum, that their course through the years is not so much the transit of a man as the passage of an amoeba.
They have no finely organized nervous system, or they have deadened and arrested the growth of one nerve after another; they have cut the sensitive wires which bind the individual to the race, and they are cosily self-contained, and the shuddering sorrow of the world never disturbs their seclusion. Tiny souls can dodge through life; bigger souls are blocked on every side.
As soon, therefore, as a man begins to enlarge his life, his resistances are multiplied. Let a man tear out of his soul the petty selfish purpose and enthrone a world purpose, the Christ purpose, and his sufferings will be increased on every side. Every addition to spiritual ambition widens the exposure of the soul, and sharpens its perception of the world’s infirmity and the sense of its own restraints. How then was it with that vast spiritual ambition of the Saviour which He Himself described in words which I have quoted from the Gospel by Luke? That all-absorbing redemptive purpose was bound to introduce Him to ceaseless suffering.
First of all, there were the sufferings which were incident to the very existence of a majestic purpose. Vast ambitions are not kept burning in the soul without fuel. They suck the very energies of the body into their own flame. Fine passion makes a heavy drain upon the nerves; the suburbs are scoured to feed the fire at the centre. There is not a man or woman of holy Christian passion today who is not “burning the candle at both ends.” They cannot help it.
And the consequence is they experience the sufferings which are incident to the limitations of the flesh. The body is too frail for the fiery spirit. The steed is exhausted while the driver is quite fresh. And, therefore, do these passionate hearts suffer in the imprisonment of their own physical restraints. “I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how am I straitened!”
And do you wonder, as you read the record of the sacred life, that you come upon significant words like these: “And Jesus, being wearied, sat thus by the well.” “And He was in the hinder part of the ship, asleep on a pillow.” May I say it reverently — it was the tired-out body, the exhausted minister which carried the holy, passionate redemptive purpose of God.
And, second, there were His sufferings which were incident to the passive antagonism of the indifferent. I mention these before I mention the antagonism of His positive foes because I think they inflict a deeper wound. The fiery crusader can meet an active opponent and overthrow him, but what can he do with the indifferent who have not a spark of concern? If you are passionate about anything, the indifference of others will make you wonder; if it is a moral enthusiasm, the indifference will give you pain. “Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by?”
That is the cry of a wounded spirit. They would not even turn aside to glance at the pearl of great price! I think there is no crucifixion for the spiritually chivalrous man equal to that which is inflicted by the unconcern of those whom he seeks to redeem.
There is on sentence in James Gilmour’s diary which was surely written in blood. It was written after years of labour. “In the shape of converts I have seen no result. I have not, as far as I am aware, seen any one who even wanted to be a Christian.”
And that was the experience of a man who, when he arrived at his field of labour, had written these words in his diary: “Several huts in sight! When shall I be able to speak to the people? O Lord, suggest by the Spirit how I should come among them, and guide me in gaining the language, and in preparing myself to teach the life and love of Christ Jesus!...I have not, as far as I am aware, seen any one who even wanted to be a Christian.” Surely that was “the fellowship of His sufferings!”
And third, there were His sufferings which were incident to the active antagonism of His foes. There are the sufferings occasioned by passivity, but there are also the sufferings occasioned by hostility. One man has no interest in your message; the other listens and rejects. One man scarcely lifts his eyes to look at you. “So was it in the days of Noah!”
The other stands up to you and declares you have a devil. Your aims are distorted, your spirit is misinterpreted; you are said to be wearing a stolen livery, assuming a benevolent purpose while you are seeking your own ends. And so it was with our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. “He came unto His own, and His own received Him not.” Hostilities were multiplied. “He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.”
Now all these sufferings are sufferings which we can partially share with our Lord. There are other of his sufferings, mysterious and awful, of which we may know little or nothing.
“We may not know, we cannot tell
What pains He had to bear.”
Those secrets are yet enfolded in gross darkness; and all that we at present know is this — that out of the darkness, as from black subterranean depths, there flows “a river of water of life, clear as crystal,” medicinal, strong in gracious healing, and carrying the virtuous energies of moral and spiritual transformation. There is something here which we can never share. “It is finished.”
But the other sufferings I named we must and we shall share, if we share the largeness of His purpose, and in our own degree seek the moral and spiritual redemption of the race. There is a space left for your energies and mine, and therefore for your sufferings and mine: we can “fill up that which is lacking of the affliction of Christ.”
And now, for one moment, I turn the matter around. “For as the sufferings of Christ abound unto us, even so our comfort also aboundeth through Christ.” If we have fellowship in the one, we shall have fellowship in the other. I have already said that if we lessened our lives we should lessen our sorrows. It is now needful to add that if we lessen our lives we also lessen our joys. Deaden the sense of hearing and you escape the discords, but you also lose the harmonies. Drug your artistic sense, and you lose the pain of the ugly, but you also lose the inspiration of the lovely.
If by the enlargement of my life I let in human sorrow, I also let in divine consolation. A big, holy purpose makes me more sensitive toward the sin and hostility of man, but it also makes me more sensitive toward God. If the sufferings abound, “so our comfort aboundeth also.” If I said nothing more than this, this alone would suffice; if we suffer with Christ, Christ Himself becomes a great reality. When life is a picnic, we play with theology; when life becomes a campaign, we grope for a religion. It is one thing sounding when your boat is in the open see; it is another thing sounding when the menacing rocks are on every side.
When we suffer with Christ, we come to know Christ, to come face to face with reality, and the idle superfluities drop away. “And our comfort also aboundeth through Christ.” Our fellowship with His sorrows makes us receptive of His joys; “My joy shall be in you, and your joy shall be full.” Our fellowship in His battles makes us receptive of his peace; “My peace I give unto you.”
There is no surer way of becoming sure of Christ than to follow the way of sacrificial life and service. It may bring us into a fiery furnace of suffering, but “in the midst of the fire” there shall be One “like unto the Son of God.”
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