What would George do? (Part 3)

G. H. Morling on further causes of suffering

 

As a child, I lived for six years in regional Papua New Guinea. Some of the parents or grandparents of local people I knew grew up in a stone-age culture and could recall the first time they saw a “white man.” It was an extraordinary time and place for me, and I’m so glad that my parents took the unusual step to move from suburban Australia to the tropical paradise it was then.

How such people traditionally made sense of their world was very different from the way I had been taught. My explanations came from science, history, medicine, biblical theology, and experience; theirs was also partly experiential but informed by their own practice of medicine, and their cultural and spiritual traditions. Illness and misfortune, for example, was sometimes attributed to sanguma – powerful and malevolent unseen forces.

Folk wisdom and various non-medical explanations for illness and suffering are widespread in many “developed” societies too. It seems that humans have a deep need to explain the problem of suffering, whether the explanation is scientific (empirical, medical), philosophical (reasoned argument), or metaphysical (theological, spiritual).

In my previous post, on Australian Baptist theologian G. H. Morling and the causes of suffering, I outlined two causes of suffering that are philosophically based; in this post I look at two spiritual or theological causes used by some to explain suffering.

Suffering as a consequence of sin

This is the third common causative explanation for suffering: a consequence of sin; or, if you will, getting one’s “just desserts.” This explanation does account for much suffering that is directly related to natural disasters, but may not account for the vast majority of cases of innocent suffering. Or does it? We simply can’t say. But it does suggest a simple direct cause, which is often what people (the non-suffering ones at least) want to hear.

There’s a famous story in the Bible (John 9:1-7) where Jesus meets a congenitally blind man, heals his blindness, and discusses with his disciples on what caused the disability. The story continues when the religious leaders discover that Jesus has broken the religious law by healing on the Sabbath, and Jesus talks to them about spiritual blindness, but that’s another story (verses 8-41).

I raise this story because the disciples had been taught by their culture to attribute illness and suffering to personal moral failure, or to the unintended and inescapable consequences of ancestral sins. These are convenient rational explanations, difficult if not impossible to prove or disprove. In his typed lecture notes on John chapter nine, Morling adds a handwritten addition to the margin, identifying the passage as dealing with the theme of “evil (and suffering),” and adds, “There is no answer in the realm of the intellect.”[1]

On John 9, Morling further notes that the disciples’ question implies “the belief that suffering is always the result of sin.” He adds, in the margin, “Job answers this” (see further below). He notes an apparent first-century Jewish belief regarding the transmigration of the soul, which may have informed the disciples’ question, but notes that the response by Jesus rejects this idea.

Morling continues: “Instead, Jesus places suffering within the divine counsel, which is finally inscrutable, but which permits suffering in order ‘to let the work be illustrated’ (Moffatt’s translation of v. 3).” He concludes that, according to the teaching of John 9,

we may not attribute our suffering to God’s displeasure. There is a deep connexion between sin and suffering (Jn 5:14; Mt 9:2), but we must never say that the suffering of the saints in particular is a sign of the Heavenly Father’s disapproval of their lives.[2]

This is a clear refutation by Morling of the notion that sin causes suffering.

The classic biblical example of the doctrine of sin as the primary cause of suffering is not the blind man of John 9 but the Old Testament patriarch Job, who endures different kinds of suffering – sudden, intense, horrific, chronic, traumatic, isolating – and yet the reader is made aware that the suffering is undeserved (see Job 1:1-2:13). Job’s three friends, however, don’t know what the reader knows, and attribute his suffering to moral failure.

As for Job, in his misery and agony he too wants to know the reason for his suffering, and protests to God in words considered to be of the ancient world’s literary masterpieces. But the story does not end the way we might expect; theologian Frances Young puts it well:

But how unfair! … Job’s comforters advance the common wisdom, urging him to repent on the grounds that his suffering in itself shows he cannot be innocent. Job resists this interpretation of his suffering. He protests and argues, begging God to come and vindicate him. But when God does eventually appear, it seems as if Job is simply cowed into submission. Furthermore the narrative within which the dialogues are framed reasserts the view Job so eloquently challenges: God is depicted as allowing Satan to test Job’s loyalty, which is then rewarded at the end by a restoration to his fortunes. Many modern readers find the book deeply unsatisfying.[3]

What does Morling make of this causative explanation for suffering? Whereas he has a lot to say in other contexts about sin, redemption, retributive justice, and the personal consequences of moral failure, nowhere in any of his writings that I have read does he employ this argument to account for suffering.

Morling does occasionally refer to Job, though usually by name-dropping, expecting his readers or audience to imagine Job’s situation as he develops a point of argument. Indeed, the closest he comes to invoking the story of Job in relation to suffering is in his devotional exposition of Psalm 6:1-3, published in 1948, where he suggests that, in his dark despair, the psalmist “doubts the mercy of God, and even seems to plead that his acute suffering exceeds the bounds of a proper loving correction.”[4] Morling opines:

The charge could well be made against some of the Old Testament writers that they fail in a proper sense of reverence. Men like Job and Habakkuk enter into argument with God. Psalmists expostulate with God. Is it right? Is it permissible? Well, let it be said that scriptural characters are not held up to us as models of conduct. We follow only one Master, who is Jesus Christ.[5]

That is all Morling says on the subject of Job and suffering, with one exception.[6] Morling seems to imply that the sufferer ought to passively, perhaps even unquestionably, accept the experience dispensed by fate or providence. This could hardly be described as wise pastoral advice, at least as it reflects what I was taught by wise pastoral teachers such as Rose Weir and John Reid who taught me decades later at Morling College. Yet Morling’s response here is not without reason, as I explain in a forthcoming post on purposive suffering.

As for the claim sometimes articulated that the atonement of Christ provides healing for all, based on Isaiah 53:4f, Morling dismisses it, arguing that this would “imply that all sickness is due to sin which is certainly not the case.”[7]

Suffering and the demonic

If suffering cannot reasonably be attributed to sin, at least from a biblical perspective, what of the role of demonic activity? Morling takes references to demons and demon possession of individuals, as portrayed in the Gospels and Acts, as literally true. He acknowledges that “many modern scholars deny the fact of spirit possession … [but] some modern psychiatrists do not share the denial.”[8]

Reflecting on Mark 5:1-20, Morling states that “the clear New Testament teaching is that there is an organized ‘kingdom of evil’ under ‘the prince of the devils’ … there are such dread beings as evil spirits who have access to humanity, and always mean harm to human life.”[9] Suffering could, therefore, be attributable to demonic influence. Other passages in Morling’s writings strengthen this argument.

On Ephesians 6:10-18, a key Pauline text on prayer and spiritual warfare, Morling reaffirms the reality of demons working against the will of God, and writes, “The nearer you are to Christ, the intenser [sic] is the conflict.” [10] He does not seem to be referring here to personal spiritual or emotional conflict, but to moral and political corruption.

On Hebrews 2:14f, Morling states that, for the Christian, physical “death is not yet done away with but it has ceased to be the Devil’s instrument … [yet the Devil] is said to have some power with respect to death.” This power is overcome by the death and resurrection of Christ.[11]

On suffering resulting from disobedience to God, Morling argues that “God’s will is always a beneficent will and that the distresses that weigh us down are the consequences of man’s sin and, I would add, finally, of a personal power of evil whom the Bible calls ‘the Devil’.”[12] Moreover:

the burdens that often make our pilgrimage path so hard to tread are not the direct will of God for us. Rather, are they the result of the operation of a Satanic rebel will and of human wills which serve his malign interests. On the other hand, I insist with equal earnestness that God has not let go the controls of His world. The devil is not on the throne.[13]

Whereas there is no clear indication in Morling’s writings that he supported the notion of personal sin as a cause of suffering, there is clear albeit qualified evidence in his writings that suffering may be caused by demonic activity.

Leaving it all quietly to God

Separate from physical and spiritual suffering is the experience of suffering caused by what we might call relational stress: loneliness, opposition, betrayal, rejection, enmity. Morling does not directly address these issues in the context of a theology of suffering, but does discuss disappointment in a Christian’s life. For example, in his presidential address to the Annual Assembly of the Baptist Union of NSW in September 1929, he acknowledged that, for a minister,

There comes a time when we are burdened by the apparent insignificance of our work. In moods of depression the glory fades and all seems so paltry – our church little and unlovely, our preaching, our teaching, our service of whatever kind, commonplace and ineffective. We all have our fainting fits.[14]

Writing on Hebrews 6:13-20, he acknowledges that disappointment is a universal phenomenon, and observes the possibility that one’s “allegiance to Christ has not brought all that was expected so that now, faith wavers. The promises [of God] still remain … and they wait to be confirmed in your experience.”[15] Morling highlights the power of personal experience as a standard by which to validate truth claims – a key principle for understanding his epistemology, his approach to biblical interpretation, and his entire theological vision.

This notion is clarified in his 1951 book, The Quest for Serenity. In a chapter titled, “Leaving it all quietly to God,” Morling quotes a phrase by John Keats, the “Giant Agony of the world,” from the poem referred to in my previous post. He argues that, when “intellectual theory” fails to account for the presence of great suffering, “the experience of life does: and, since life is larger than logic, the practical answer is of greater value.”[16] Morling observes that

God has not given us the full explanation of the presence of evil in the world. We understand a good deal when we realise that this world in which there is so much pain, is a ‘vale of soul-making,’ but that only takes us part of the way towards an explanation. But, we repeat, there is a solution that comes out of life. It is this: that when faith bravely, patiently, trustingly faces its personal problem, it finds that the problem disappears in an experience of God which dispels all doubts and resentment.[17]

In addition to the experiences of suffering and grief later in life, Morling encountered several significant experiences during childhood and early adulthood. In The Quest for Serenity, he writes:

I carried from childhood into riper years a legacy of nervous weakness. In early years I was beset by debilitating fears. There were the usual distresses associated with a highly sensitive nature; and there were others beyond the ordinary. I had eerie experiences of going off into nothingness which filled nights with dread… I emerged into normal physically healthy youth and manhood and tendencies to nervous imbalance remained. Life education for me has meant largely the control and correction of these elements of my inheritance.[18]

As a ministry intern at Tamworth in early 1917, Morling encountered an experience of “great inner turmoil” involving doubt regarding assurance of salvation.[19] He cycled to the Peel River at Tamworth, “and spent some time examining his life before God.”[20] As Morling recounts the experience:

In my own life increase of rest has kept pace with deeper insight into the doctrines of grace which minister to the life within. There came a time in young manhood when, although I was a sincere and outwardly loyal disciple, doubts and fears assailed me. Then I ‘walked in darkness and knew no light’; however, I could and did still trust in the name of the Lord and stay upon my God. The dawning of a great light was not far off. The Sunrising from on high soon visited me. I became assured of sonship with God and I have never for a moment wavered in that assurance …

Service was rendered to the Lord Jesus and His Church with an almost intolerable sense of strain. There was a burdensome sensitiveness and a great anxiety about results. Relief came, as through patient study and prayer, enlightenment was given on God’s provisions for a naturally restless heart like mine. As, one by one, the magnificent truths of grace were brought home to me, I made humble heart adjustment to them. There have been no cataclysmic experiences; only a progressively enriched experience.[21]

In 1960, Morling recalled this experience as the second of seven defining aspects of his spiritual development.[22]

What caused Morling’s childhood nervous distress and night terrors, which continued into adulthood? He frames these simply as “my inheritance.” What caused the doubts and fears that assailed him in early adulthood, and the “great inner turmoil” he experienced at Tamworth associated with an apparent lack of assurance of salvation? We do not know, except that he refers to an unnamed book he was reading while at Tamworth, and the counsel of an older Christian mentor after he returned to Sydney, as guides. And there was the ministry of prayer.

There are times in one’s experience when the cause of suffering is unknown, even unknowable. It may seem that we are not in control of those causes; and much that impacts on our experience – physically, emotionally, cognitively, or spiritually – is hidden from perception. That is often not the case with regard to the purposes of suffering, the subject of my next two posts.


Rod Benson is a Baptist minister and Research Support Officer at Moore Theological College, Sydney. This article may be freely reproduced in any form provided that proper attribution is made to this website.


References:

[1]      G. H. Morling, “John’s Gospel,” 60pp. typescript, n.d., 37.

[2]      Ibid; original emphasis.

[3]      Frances Young, “Suffering,” in Adrian Hastings (ed.), The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 688.

[4]      G. H. Morling, “Studies in the Psalms: Study no. 16,” The Australian Baptist, 2 Nov 1948, 2.

[5]      Ibid.

[6]      The exception is in Morling’s lecture notes on John 9:2 (see footnote 1), where he writes in the margin, “Job ans. this” (i.e., “answers”). For a recent explanation of suffering attributed to personal sin, see Peter Hick, The Message of Evil and Suffering: Light into Darkness (Nottingham: IVP, 2006), 141-143.

[7]      G. H. Morling, “God and physical healing,” repr. in E. Ron Rogers, George Henry Morling: The Man and His Message for Today (ed. Bruce Thornton; Forest Lodge, NSW: Greenwood Press, 2011), 95. Morling refers here to 1 Peter 2:24.

[8]      G. H. Morling, “The divine worker,” in The Incomparable Christ: Selected Scripture Studies (ed. Bruce Thornton; Macquarie Park, NSW: Baptist Historical Society of NSW, 2010), 62. Originally published as part of a series in The Australian Baptist, Sep 1945-1946.

[9]      Ibid., 103.

[10]    G. H. Morling, “Great themes of the Epistle to the Ephesians. Study No. 4: The spiritual conflict,” Bible Studies , n.d., 85.

[11]    G. H. Morling, “The Epistle to the Hebrews,” 43pp. typescript, 1957, 11.

[12]    G. H. Morling, “Living in the will of God,” in Bruce Thornton (ed.), The Franciscan Spirit and Other Writings (Macquarie Park, NSW: Baptist Historical Society of NSW, 2008), 173.

[13]    Ibid., 174.

[14]    G. H. Morling, “The church’s heritage of power,” The Australian Baptist, 1 Oct 1929, 1.

[15]    G. H. Morling, “The high priestly ministry (Hebrews 1-10),” in The Incomparable Christ: Selected Scripture Studies (ed. Bruce Thornton; Macquarie Park, NSW: Baptist Historical Society of NSW, 2010), 330. Originally published as part of a series in The Australian Baptist, Nov 1939-1940.

[16]    G. H. Morling, The Quest for Serenity (Sydney: Young & Morling, 1951; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965; revised edition: Macquarie Park, NSW: Morling Press, 2002), 56.

[17]    Ibid., 57. The phrase “vale of soul-making” originates with John Keats, who in a letter of 21 April 1819 to his older brother George, used the phrase to summarise his philosophy of life. See Jeffrey C. Johnson, “The vale of soul-making: How Keats coped with fever,” Paris Review, https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2014/07/25/the-vale-of-soul-making/

[18]    Morling, Quest for Serenity, 13.

[19]    Graeme R. Chatfield, “Morling, George Henry (1891-1974),” in Timothy Larsen (ed.), Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals (Nottingham: IVP, 2003), 444.

[20]    Rogers, George Henry Morling, 18.

[21]    Morling, Quest for Serenity, 28f.

[22]    Rogers, George Henry Morling, 311f.

 

Image source: Archyde