G. H. Morling on the purpose of suffering
As we reflect on the Covid-19 pandemic, and the negative impact it is having on individuals and whole populations, some of us will be asking, “Why is this happening? What is it for? What purpose does it serve?” We are not so much interested in causative explanations but in purposive ones.
Some explanations as to the purpose of the suffering, grief and anxiety resulting from the pandemic (and state measures to lessen its epidemiological impact) may be trite, simplistic, and perhaps offensive.
For example, when 69-year-old Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick infamously tweeted on 23 March that infection prevention laws should be relaxed because, in his view, “grandparents would be willing to die to save the economy for their grandchildren,” he was inadvertently suggesting an economic purpose for suffering. His views were presumably not well received by many Texas grandparents.
But there are more substantive explanations for the purpose of suffering, fashioned by those with a far greater perception of human dignity and potential than men such as Dan Patrick, and in this and my next post I want to look at four of these.
When we suffer, or observe suffering in others, or reflect on suffering past or present, we may ask, “Why?” Sometimes this is because we lack information that will help to make sense of the suffering, or gain a sense of control over the out-of-control chaos and uncertainty unleashed by the sudden arrival of disease, disaster and distress.
At other times we sense a need for an explanation of the causes of suffering. At t still other times, perhaps less often, what we are seeking is a reasonable explanation of the purpose of the suffering. We imagine that, if only we could understand why this is happening (to us, to me), it will be easier to bear the weight of the suffering and persevere until it comes to an end. Often, of course, the distinction between causes and purposes may be blurred and far from clear-cut.
This post discusses two moral purposes attributed to suffering, in the context of the Christian thought of Australian Baptist leader G. H. Morling. My next post will consider two more purposive explanations, and reflect on implications for us during the current Covid-19 pandemic, now in its fourth month in many parts of the world.
In a previous post, I argued that experience was a key factor for Morling in making sense of the world and validating truth claims. In a document entitled, “The minister and the mystics,” Morling expresses the view that “we see deeply into reality only in direct sensations of life such as we receive in high experiences of love or deep experiences of sorrow.” When he reflected deeply on the possible reasons for suffering, Morling appears to have considered four such purposes.
One of these, in his estimation, outshone all the rest.
Suffering strengthens our faith in God
One purpose of suffering, from a Christian point of view, is to strengthen trust and faith in God, and to develop a life of prayer, perhaps in preparation for service to others. Suffering may remind us that we are mortal, and at the mercy of beautiful but cruel nature – including pathogens such as the corona virus. Suffering caused by human malice, incompetence or neglect reminds us that people may not have our best interests at heart, and both accident and injustice cannot often be avoided. We live in a world, and in communities, marred and distorted by evil.
These experiences are said to drive us to our knees in prayer to God, seeking divine grace and mercy to help us in our time of need. Morling suggests that this demonstrate a quality of faith that “seems to place Christ on His honour,” obliging him to respond to our supplication in some meaningful way. He suggests that “God does not exempt His children” from the experience of suffering, even suffering caused by the devil, but “weaves [our troubles] into the pattern of His perfect will for His own glory and for our own enrichment.”
To support this argument, Morling provides one biblical example, two illustrations from his own reading (from the writings of Amy Carmichael and O. Hallesby), and three personal observations relating to people he knew.
The biblical example is Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor 12:7-10), an unidentified problem that distressed the Apostle and led to unanswered prayer for its removal from his life. Morling observes that Paul’s “prayer for the healing of the flesh was not granted but God gave him something better, an endowment of grace so great that in his new found inner strength and exaltation he actually ‘gloried’ in such ‘distresses’.”
The phrase “something better” describes the abounding grace of God which Morling experienced in Tamworth as a ministry intern, and subsequently. Elsewhere Morling associates this with “a second act of righteousness,” an impartation of divine power for Christian service accompanying the prior imputation of righteousness, analogous to John Calvin’s notion of “double grace.”
For Morling, “If faith does not advance to lay hold of this second aspect of righteousness, which is nothing less than the holiness of God resident within the regenerated heart, then the Heavenly Father cannot satisfy the longing soul.” Paul learned to trust God’s wisdom and discovered contentment through the experience of significant, perhaps chronic, suffering; it seems that Morling did too.
Suffering deepens our identification with Jesus
A second purpose of suffering, related to the first, is identification with Christ in his mission and human experience. The central and unifying theme of Morling’s theology, as I argue in my doctoral dissertation, is the New Testament concept of union with Christ, drawn especially from such texts as 2 Corinthians 5:17 and Galatians 2:20.
The purpose of the humiliation and incarnation of Christ was not to bring heaven to earth but to raise redeemed humankind to heaven in a union with Christ so profound and complete that 2 Peter 1:4 describes it as “participation in the divine nature.”
The expression of this doctrine in Morling’s life is arguably what gave him the reputation of a “mystic,” a strange description for a NSW Baptist leader in the twentieth century, perhaps even more so today. The notion of participation in Christ filled Morling’s vision, and inevitably included participation in Christ’s sufferings. Commenting on Philippians 3:10, for example, Morling makes the extraordinary claim that “only those who themselves have the experience of suffering can fully enter into the fellowship of Christ.”
Similarly, in reflection on the central themes of the Letter to the Hebrews, Morling notes three aspects of Christ’s identification with Christians, in his role as high priest enthroned in heaven (Heb 2:10-18). Note again the mystical element present here, despite the fact that Hebrews has very little to contribute to the biblical doctrine of union with Christ.
The second and third points Morling makes are irrelevant to the discussion here, but his first point is enlightening. He argues that the perfecting of Christ implied in verse 10, leading to a predestined goal, could not be achieved
apart from certain experiences which culminated in the Cross. Let us not question the necessity of experiences through which God allows us to pass. Such experiences which may bring us into the blackness of midnight will open up new possibilities of service.
So just as Jesus grew, as it were, through his human experiences of suffering and humiliation, and those experiences fitted him for service unique to his mission, so too our sufferings are divinely ordained and provide important preparation for service in the kingdom of God.
This was Morling’s confident conviction, arising from reflection on his personal experience and reading of the Gospels and Letters of the New Testament. Suffering deepens our identification with Jesus, and such identification transforms us, so that experiences that may be viewed from a human perspective as “the blackness of midnight” become opportunities for Christian service.
We often forget, or suppress, the fact that suffering is so prominent in the biblical literature, and especially in the life and death of Israel’s Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. Theologian Frances Young beautifully expresses the theological conviction that suffering lies at the heart of the biblical story, and this provides a segue to the two purposes of suffering outlined in my next post:
Christian thought about suffering cannot be reduced to explaining it away, in however philosophically sophisticated a way. It must rather embrace the fact that suffering lies at the heart of its formative story.
Central to Christianity is Christ’s crucifixion, the story of an absolutely innocent person suffering the most extreme form of capital punishment in a context of brutal foreign oppression.
If Christians are called to participate in Christ, and to imitate him, suffering of various kinds will form part of that experience. Conversely, the experience of suffering is made bearable in part by a growing theological understanding of its purpose and by the grace that God gives to those who suffer for his sake.
My next post discusses two further purposes of suffering: redemptive suffering, and suffering as character-development.
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.
 G. H. Morling, “The minister and the mystics,” repr. in E. Ron Rogers, George Henry Morling: The Man and His Message for Today (ed. Bruce Thornton; Forest Lodge, NSW: Greenwood Press, 2011), 115.
 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), 96, 97.
 Ibid., 96.
 “Christ was given to us by God’s generosity to be grasped and possessed by us in faith. By partaking of him, we principally receive a double grace: namely, that being reconciled to God through Christ’s blamelessness, we may have in heaven instead of a Judge a gracious Father; and secondly, that sanctified by Christ’s spirit we may cultivate blamelessness and purity of life.” John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion (ed. John T. McNeill; trans. Ford Lewis Battles; Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1959), 3.11.1.
 G. H. Morling, The Quest for Serenity (Sydney: Young & Morling, 1951), 28.
 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), 180.
 G. H. Morling, “The Epistle to the Hebrews,” 8 (doc. 66 in archives).
 Frances Young, “Suffering,” in Adrian Hastings (ed.), The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 689.
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