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DIVINE GOODNESS AND THE MYSTERY OF SUFFERING.
Romans, viii. 28. “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God.”
THE idea of God is the root of all religion, and the love of God its great strength and comfort. Is there One above us who cares for us, who orders all things for our good, and who is therefore the object of our love?—this is the question of questions. Religion cannot stop short of such personal relations, however we may try to fill our minds with vaguer, or what may appear to some grander, thoughts. The idea of order is not enough, magnificent as we may make it. Behind the order we long to grasp a Will—a moral Life answering to our life—a Love at once near to us and supreme. Nor is there any contradiction in the ideas, contradictory 107as they have been sometimes made to appear. It is nothing but the narrowness of human logic that supposes order—or evolution, if we prefer the word—at variance with Providence or the operation of a Supreme Love. Rather, order is Providence, and the law which rules our lives is at the same time the Love which guides them—the working together of all things for good to those who recognise the good and own it.
There is no thought more familiar in Scripture than the thought of an Almighty or Sovereign Will, into whose grasp is gathered the control of all things. The God of Scripture is a Supreme Person, who “doeth according to His will in the army of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay His hand, or say unto Him, What doest thou?”6060 Daniel, iv. 35 He directs equally all the mightier movements of nature and the minuter changes of life. His omnipotent governance upholds the course of sphered worlds; and at the same time the very hairs of our head are numbered by Him, and not a sparrow falleth to the ground without His permission. “He telleth the number of the stars; He calleth them all by their names.”6161 Psalm cxlvii. 4 He also “healeth the broken in heart, and bindeth up 108their wounds.”6262 Psalm cxlvii. 3. “He divideth the sea with His power, and by His understanding He smiteth through the proud. By His Spirit He hath garnished the heavens; His hand hath formed the crooked serpent. Lo, these are parts of His ways; but how little a portion is heard of Him? but the thunder of His power who can understand?”6363 Job, xxvi. 12-14.
We read much nowadays of the anthropomorphism of the Old Testament, and of the manner in which science has extended our conception of nature, and of the universal order which reigns throughout it, binding all things into one. We can never be too grateful for the real results of science—for everything that expands our intelligence and at the same time sobers it; and that larger and truer philosophy, which has planted the great cosmical idea as almost a commonplace in the modern mind, is to be accepted as a blessing. It is impossible to exaggerate the good which has come to popular religion from the growth of scientific thought and the expulsion of those spectres of arbitrary personality which were wont to lurk in the obscurities of nature. But it may be doubted how far the Bible was ever responsible for such 109imaginations, or whether even modern thought can conceive more grandly of the inscrutable Power of which it speaks—which it everywhere recognises—than the psalmist or the divine dramatist whose language I have quoted. What march of cosmical Force through endless aeons is more sublime than the rule of Thought, alike in the courses of the stars, the waves of the sea, and the pulsations of the heart? And if this conception is anthropomorphic, are not all our conceptions equally so? Man can only think at all after his own likeness on any subject; and whether the conception of mere Force, or of an intelligent Will, bears least the stamp of human weakness, may be safely left to the rational judgment of the future. It is the savage who, when he hears the thunder amongst his woods, or looks upon the riot of nature in a storm, trembles before a mighty Force which he fails to understand. It is the Hebrew poet or Grecian sage in whose own mind has risen the dawn of creative thought, who clothes this mystery of Power with intelligence and life.
But the idea of the Divine which meets us everywhere in Scripture is not merely sovereign and intelligent; it is essentially beneficent. “The Lord is good to all; and His tender mercies are 110over all His works.”6464 Psalm cxlv. 9. “Thy mercy, Lord, is in the heavens; and Thy faithfulness reacheth unto the clouds. . . . How excellent is thy loving-kindness, O God! therefore the children of men put their trust under the shadow of Thy wings.”6565 Psalm xxxvi. 5, 7.
It is needless to multiply quotations of this kind. The God of Scripture is, beyond all question, not only supreme, but supremely good. He not only performs all things, but He performs all things well. There are many dark things in the divine government—things that transcend our comprehension, and in which we may be unable to see a consistent meaning; but the ideal of the Divine in Scripture is never at variance with our highest thoughts of what is right and good. I am speaking now, of course, not of incidents in the divine representation, or of all actions attributed, or supposed to be attributed, to God. It is no part of an intelligent criticism to deny the progress of moral any more than of intellectual thought in Scripture. The Divine ideal, as unfolded in its pages, is not to be judged by the imperfect manner in which the early Hebrew mind sometimes interpreted its meaning, or conceived 111of it as acting. Its true representation is the highest thought of Hebrew psalmist and prophet in their highest moments of inspiration. And here there is nothing at variance with our Ideal of all that is true and right and good. Nay, rather, is not our thought continually falling below the Biblical thought, and needing to be refreshed by it? Is not the very ideal which some men now seek to turn against Scripture mainly the product of Scripture, and only living where the Bible is still a power in the education of the popular conscience?
Not only so, but our brightest dreams of human progress do not outreach the Biblical conception of a kingdom of righteousness and peace yet to be established. Obvious and grave as are the disorders of the present world, there is everywhere, according to this conception, an underlying plan of good. The fulness of the Divine thought only gradually unfolds itself in action. There is a potency of good amidst all the signs of evil. “Clouds and darkness” may surround the Divine Governor, but “justice and judgment” are the habitation of His throne, and “mercy and truth” go before His face.6666 Psalms xcvii. 2, lxxxix. 14. His ways may be inscrutable, His footsteps not 112known;6767 Psalm lxxvii. 19. but His mind is ever good towards all the creatures He has made, and who do not disown His care. “All the paths of the Lord are mercy and truth unto such as keep His covenant and His testimonies.”6868 Psalm xxv. 10.
Such an optimism is everywhere taught in Scripture. The darkest enigmas of life and of history are conceived only as shadows resting on an upland which is stretching towards the clear day. The higher levels of the Divine kingdom are all luminous, and even those lower shadows which now fall so heavily over many human creatures are not spots of hopeless darkness. They will be finally cleared away, and made to disclose their meaning in the Divine plan for all. The characters of evil which are now hardest to read may yet be seen to have a purpose of good. For we are but “the creatures of a day.” It is but a span of the great cosmical life that is disclosed to us; and could we see the end from the beginning, all would be found in order. The enigmas which we cannot explain may be intelligible to a larger faculty and a wider horizon of knowledge. The complications in which we can see no meaning, or only such a meaning as seems to fall below our 113own highest thoughts of the Divine, may expand into issues of beneficence that will gladden the angels, when the great plan is complete and the glory of final victory is poured backward through all its ascending developments and darkly-lying shadows.
Is this not, after all, a higher optimism than that of any mere stoicism, which sees in all around us the mere movement of fate, and which construes the evils of the world not as accidents which may bear in the end some divine meaning, but as essential parts of the whole—necessary steps in the cosmical development? It may or may not be possible in such a view to hold that the plan of the world is good after all, and to reverence and admire, and even worship after a fashion, all the outgrowth of its activities, as the only Divine we shall ever know. But I confess that the world seems hardly good to me apart from the thought of a great Mind moving through it all, and bringing good out of evil. This may not help me better to understand the amount of evil that I see. The existence of evil is as hard upon one hypothesis of cosmical origin as another. It at least helps me to bear with the evil, and to strive against it—to think that there is One to whom all evil is 114hateful as it can be—nay, more than it can be—to the purest human intelligence, and whose aim is to reconcile an evil world to Himself, by forgiving men their trespasses, and sending a new Power of good into the world for its redemption. Let me have no higher thought than the cosmical life of which I am a part. I may not despair under the burden of this thought; but I can hardly be cheerful. I may accept the world and my own part in it as so far good—good because it could not be otherwise in the nature of things. And it is not the part of a wise man to quarrel with the inevitable for himself or others. But why should I believe in good as an idea at all on such an hypothesis? Whatever is, is and must be best in such a case. It is the fittest in the circumstances. It is the point in the eternal order which the cosmical life has reached; and I know not on what ground I or others can pronounce any actual point in this development evil, save on the ground that there is a Divine Idea behind the order and higher than it. Whatever falls below this Idea, or is at variance with it, is therefore evil. This is surely the higher philosophy as well as faith—to believe that all things are working together for good; not merely because things are as they are, and 115could not be otherwise, but because they are everywhere more and more unveiling a supremely beneficent Mind—a God who “is Light,” and in whom “is no darkness at all”6969 1 John, i. 5.—who is Love, and before whose presence evil cannot dwell.
II. But turning to the more special view of the subject, it may be asked, Is this, after all, a true view on the Christian any more than any other hypothesis? Is it consistent with facts that “all things work together for good to them that love God”? It would be endless and useless to argue the general question of optimism. The question has little practical value, and, besides, is hardly that which is in view of the apostle. When he says in the text, “and we know that all things work together for good to them that love God,” he assumes all of which we have been not unnaturally led to speak in the present atmosphere of thought around us. He at least has no doubt of a God who is over all, who doeth according to His will, and who directs all creatures and things which He has made for His own glory and their good. It may be doubted how far the optimism of St Paul would correspond to our modern notions of a beneficent progress of the world, 116and of the evolution here—on this earth—of a kingdom of divine righteousness and peace. But it cannot be doubted that he believed in the reality of such a kingdom; and that he and his fellow-believers were members of it; and that all things in his life and theirs were working together for their good as such. He felt himself in the hands of One whose servant he was—whose will he was bound to obey; and it is his consolation that in doing this he was not only doing his duty, but securing his happiness. He had no doubt of God’s good purposes with him, and that amidst all the sore perils of the Christian life which he had so heartily embraced, there was a divine plan of good for him, and for all who with him had entered upon it. The only question, therefore, is as to the fact of this experience amongst Christians generally. Do we know that all things that make up our lives—that whatever happens to us of apparent good or evil—is really for our good? Do we find this true, as St Paul did? It must be admitted that it is hard sometimes to realise this. Much in life, on the contrary, seems difficult to understand and to bear—nay, at times seems too perplexing and darkened to have any good in it, or at least any good 117which we can ever know. There are probably such moments of depression in all lives, and not least in the best. St Paul himself was not free from them when the thorn in the flesh was given to him, the messenger of Satan to buffet him.7070 2 Corinthians, xii. 7. Even his strong faith sometimes drooped, and he passed under the shadow, weak, forsaken, and afflicted. Yet even then he rejoiced in tribulation, as “working patience, and patience experience, and experience hope.”
It is sufficiently obvious that the good of which the text speaks is not any form of mere earthly good. There is no assurance here or anywhere of prosperity to them that love God. Rather it is true that “whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth.” In all true natures there is a deep consciousness of suffering. The evils of life bear upon them with equal force; and in their case there is more tenderness under the pressure. The very capacity of loving God implies a capacity of loving others, and a susceptibility of feeling which may be bitterly wounded amidst the strifes of life or by the strokes of bereavement.
It can hardly be questioned that in modern times, and amidst the indulgences of our modern 118civilisation, human nature has become more sensitive. Suffering smites it more acutely. Death casts a deeper shadow. The early Christians were a stern if also a tender race. Especially they felt and moved in the unseen world as few men and few Christians now do. They saw God and Christ and the blessed angels as the companions of their trials in a way it is now hard to imagine. If their dear ones were taken away, even by cruel suffering, they could rejoice in the assurance that they were taken from an evil world, and were with the Father and the Saviour in an eternal kingdom, where no hurt would evermore come to them. This world was to them very evil, “a world lying in wickedness,” from which death was a happy escape. And so, with their hold of the invisible, and their indifference to the visible, they came with St James to “count it all joy when they fell into divers temptations.”7171 James, i. 2. They passed to the very opposite pole of experience which had characterised the ancient world. To the Greek, and even to the Hebrew, death had been the realm of darkness. To the Christian it became the passage to a realm of endless light and life. Facing it in the clear dawn of the resurrection, 119many as well as St Paul could boldly say, “death, where is thy sting? grave, where is thy victory? . . . Thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory, through our Lord Jesus Christ.”7272 1 Corinthians, xv. 55, 57. Nature and this mortal life sink out of sight. The living Christ and the unseen Heaven whither He had gone were for ever in their spiritual vision.
This feeling pervades the New Testament. It looks out upon us from the peaceful and beautiful emblems of the catacombs, and more or less lives in all Christian literature. In many of the mediaeval lyrics it deepens to an intensity of passion which throws the present world into a shadow of constant gloom, and casts the light of all joy and hope and rapture upon “Jerusalem the golden, with milk and honey blest.”
But nature and life are far too grand realities in themselves to remain at this point of depression. The world is not to be measured by the narrow gloom of the mediaeval poet, who looked forth upon it from his cloister, and had tasted little of its excitement. It is too real and too near to us, and in many things too noble and beautiful, to be thus despised. It is not to be thought of as merely full of evil to be got rid of to be changed by some sudden glory revealed from heaven, 120“with the voice of the archangel and with the trump of God.” The imaginative supernaturalism which made of our earthly life a mere painful transit to the invisible, is no longer a working faith to the modern mind, which loves nature and science, and art and civilisation. And the change has followed—that men are apt to be less patient under the trials of life. The less distinctly they see into the future, the more they prize the present. The less heaven is realised by them, the more they love earth, and the more bitterly do they feel the rupture of all those ties which make their earthly home less sweet to them, or darken it with ineffaceable shadows.
It may seem to some as if I were merely describing the growth of an unchristian temper, with which the language of St Paul has nothing to do. Of course, if men love the present life, and prefer earth to heaven, they cannot expect to find the good of which the apostle here speaks. This is true; and yet we must be fair to the modern no less than the ancient spirit. The materialistic temper is always unchristian; and words which have their root only in the vivid apprehension of a spiritual life can have no meaning to it. St Paul has himself admitted 121that if the future life were cut off, the trials of the present would be insupportable. It is only the glory of the one that lightens the darkness of the other. It is only the faith of immortality that gives hope in bereavement, or comfort in death. Let this be admitted. Yet there is truth, and even Christian truth, in the higher appreciation of nature and life which has sprung up in the modern mind. This earth and our being in it are rightly valued at a higher rate than they were by the mediaeval or the early Christian. The change of consciousness which has transformed both, and made them more dear and beautiful to us, is really a change after the mind of Christ, so often higher than that of the Church. The modern spirit has so far here returned to the Divine ideal instead of having departed from it. There is no necessary materialism in loving the fair earth which He loved, and clinging closely to those human ties which He Himself consecrated.
The difficulty is to love life and yet not fear death—to bear all the burdens of life, and find a divine meaning in them all—to count it all joy when our health is good and dear ones are spared to us, and yet also to count it joy when we fall into divers trials. In other words, the difficulty is to see a deeper reality in life than appears 122upon the surface—to believe in a divine education for ourselves and for others, even when there is confusion in our hearts and the smart of an intolerable pang.
It is useless—it may be cruel—to say to smitten and bereaved ones: Be composed. Look beyond the present to the future. Think of how St Paul endured steadfastly unto the end—of his joy in tribulation. It is the will of God that you should be left alone, and His assurance that this and all other things will work together for your good. This is true; and yet for the moment the mere fact of suffering, and its inconsolable bitterness, is even truer. It so fills the heart that aught else cannot get near to it. And there is nothing wrong, in such awful moments of sorrow, when the soul wraps itself in the garment of misery and sits aloof, and the voice of the preacher—even a preacher like St Paul—sounds hollow in the ear. There never can be anything wrong in the mere utterance of nature—the forlorn cry of the wounded life which God has so made that it cannot but cry when it is stricken sore. It is needless to attempt explanation. “Words fail of meaning before the dumb image of a sorrow that has itself no words. Its stony silence is more pathetic than any voice.123
But while we can explain nothing, and may hardly obtrude consolation, the stricken soul may at length find a meaning and comfort for itself. God may speak to it with a deeper force than nature when this force has spent itself, and the silence of sorrow has left a sanctuary where the Divine may be heard. The consciousness of mercy may rise through all the overwhelming consciousness of pain. The light of love may break from behind the cloud of judgment, or what seemed judgment. The Divine thought for ourselves and for others may take a larger and more beneficent shape than we had dared to suppose. Good of the highest kind has sometimes come from what seemed the most painful evil. From the very bitterness has sprung sweetness; and the wound which seemed to kill has grafted new shoots of character, which have grown into everlasting life.
What fresh depths of feeling and trust and sympathetic love—what tenderness and gracious helpfulness, and patience and courage—have found their soil in what seemed a hopeless sorrow! The weeping of the night has been turned into the joy of the morning; and the soul that has lain low has risen higher than before to altitudes of virtue. For heaven has 124been about it in its sorrow, and it has come forth from its chamber of loneliness a better, purer, and stronger being. We may fail to realise it, yet
“All sorrow is a gift, and every trouble
That the heart of man has, an opportunity.”
We may not feel this consciously. Through the blinding mist of our tears we may not see the purpose of divine mercy. In the sense of understanding it, we may never see it. But the purpose is, nevertheless, sure, and the opportunity of good given. And the good may come to us in many ways we little know, moulding for us new life and higher aims—breathing into our whole being higher activities and a richer strength of self-sacrificing duty.
It may be hard after all, I do not question, to find the good worked in some lives by suffering. There are those that seem to harden rather than soften when the world goes wrong with them, or some mystery of bereavement enters into their lot. It would be wrong to form harsh judgments of any such. It is enough that we can trace the thread of the apostle’s meaning in our modern experience, and see how the chosen purpose may work in many ways beyond our first knowledge and feeling. We are bound, 125besides, to remember the condition that is attached to the experience of the text. For all growth of good there must be a fitting soil. There must be a capacity of love in us in order to recognise love in God and a purpose of divine love in life. If we narrow our hearts instead of opening them, and so shut ourselves within the walls of our suffering that we cannot see beyond, we may get only moroseness, and evil temper, and impatient defiance from those strokes which have smitten us, yet not that we should for ever dwell in darkness. The light may never arise on us, because we will not lift our eyes towards it, although shining in the heavens. Such selfish concentration is the very opposite of love; and there is no good in it to any soul. It hardens alike in prosperity and adversity. In adversity it tortures as well as hardens. In order to find good anywhere, we must look beyond ourselves. In order to find the highest good we must look towards God, and let our hearts go forth to Him with unfailing trust. We may not be able to say with the patriarch, “Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him.”7373 Job, xiii. 15. It is of no use repeating the language of Scripture if our thought cannot rise to it. But we must feel 126that it is not God’s good purpose to slay us in any evil sense, or to bring our lives down to the ground, only that He may raise us up again and give us peace. “Though He cause grief, yet will He have compassion according to the multitude of His mercies. For He doth not afflict willingly, nor grieve the children of men.”7474 Lamentations, iii. 32, 33. We must believe in Him as our Father, and not merely as our Sovereign and Lord, assured that “He knoweth our frame,” and that He will not make us to suffer above what we are able to bear, but with every temptation will find a way of escape.
There is no other hope for life—there can be no other joy in death—than the assurance of a God above us, who is Love, and who has no thoughts but thoughts of love for all the creatures He has made—who has appointed our days, and the means of training us to His own service and glory. If we lose the conception of a Divine Benevolence, supreme over all, making all things work together for our good and the good of all, we lose all that can lighten the burden of life, or even render religion itself to a quickened heart anything but a misery. We can only love a God who is Love—whom we 127know seeks our good and the good of all. And if there is such a God—as Christ declares there is—in whom there is no darkness at all, no hate or evil at all, but only love and order, which is the soul of all love, how can we help loving Him? What fear need there be in our hearts? Evils may befal us—suffering and the bitterness of wrong or shame await us. We may look for light, but, behold, there is only darkness and the shadow of death! Yet we are safe in the arms of a Divine Love that will bear and carry us through all. Nothing in such a case can be truly adverse to us. Troubled on every side, we are not yet in despair; cast down, we are not forsaken. “To love God in Christ,” as Bunsen said when dying, “is everything.” All else God will care for if we only love Him. He will make light to arise in the midst of darkness. He will make the crooked places straight, and the rough places plain. And, finally, He will bring us to that eternal home where we shall rest from our labours, and the wounds of the stricken heart shall be for ever healed; “and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.”
“Now unto Him that is able to keep you 128from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy, to the only wise God our Saviour, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever. Amen.”129
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