What would George do? (Part 5)

G. H. Morling on further purposes of suffering


Not all suffering in our world can be assigned a purpose; nor, arguably, should it be. One problem in searching for purposive explanations of suffering, in contrast to causative purposes, is that so much is left to the imagination. For example, we may identify clear evidence-based reasons for the cause of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the direct and indirect suffering resulting from the disease; and we may determine the best measures to contain and eradicate it. But it’s far from clear what its purpose, if any, might be.

Epidemiologically, a new virus has been discovered, named by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses as the “severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2” (SARS-CoV-2). The virus displays certain physical characteristics and pathology, and the disease it causes in humans is known as coronavirus disease, or COVID-19.

There are common symptoms in sufferers ranging from mild fever and a dry cough to respiratory failure and death. Some patients who test positive to the virus appear to have been asymptomatic. The virus usually spreads through contact with contaminated surfaces and through the air (e.g. coughing or sneezing), although transmission from children to adults appears to be negligible. These are scientific and medical facts.

Identifying the origin of the virus is less certain because this relies on different kinds of evidence. Suggestions range from animal to human transmission in a wet market in Wuhan, China, to creation in a secret government laboratory for military purposes. The supposed purpose of related suffering, or indeed any suffering, is more of a philosophical question. And, from a Christian point of view, both causative and purposive explanations for suffering may have a theological dimension.

In my previous post, I discussed two possible purposes of suffering indicated in the writings of Australian Baptist theologian G. H. Morling, namely, to strengthen faith and trust in God, primarily through prayer; and to deepen one’s identification with Christ. Morling discusses two further purposes of suffering: redemptive suffering, and suffering for the purpose of character-building.

Of course, sometimes our suffering is caused by folly (our own or another’s), and the purpose may be to impart preventive wisdom, but Morling does not discuss these.

Redemptive suffering

This explanation of the purpose of suffering has a noble history in the Catholic tradition. Indeed, I had it in mind when writing on the death of Pope John Paul II in 2005:

Central to John Paul’s vision has been the question of the meaning of human life and, in particular, of suffering. In his final weeks and days, the world witnessed the pope’s physical and emotional suffering more intimately than ever before. The one who had defended the rights of the oppressed, the unborn and those who cannot speak for themselves now demonstrated by his silent example how to suffer and die with human dignity, “serenely abandoning himself to God’s will,” as the Vatican media put it.[1]

Now Morling was no Catholic sympathiser; his anti-Catholic rhetoric would have impressed the most fundamentalist NSW Baptist of his day. Nor does redemptive suffering feature prominently in his writings; yet it is present.

Suffering may be explained as a consequence of sin, with God actively punishing a person or group for moral wrongdoing, or allowing evil to befall them as retribution for sin. On the other hand, suffering and evil may merely demonstrate that our lives are not ordered as they should be, inviting transformation. As C. S. Lewis argued, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”[2]

This aspect of purposive suffering is present in at least one place in Morling’s writings:

God comes into all circumstances and events and adapts them to His use and our good by making life’s trials of faith in some way redemptive in character. That is, in some way they are made to serve His purposes in the winning of souls.[3]

Notice the nuance here: Morling does not cast God as responsible for suffering, but as adapting the experience to God’s holy agenda and for our good. Notice also the qualification, in the last five words, reducing the rich theological trope of redemption to “the winning of souls,” the chief purpose for which a Baptist church member in NSW existed. Unlike many of his peers, Morling was theologically well read, but he was an astute politician who knew how to keep his day job.

What is redemptive suffering? For some, the idea of redemption, along with creation, is one of two rubrics under which all biblical doctrines may be gathered. For others, redemption is another word for atonement, or what Paul may signify in his use of the term “cross.” But that does little to elucidate what is meant by the term “redemptive suffering.”

Some may find it offensive to imagine that something as distasteful and unwelcome as suffering could be viewed as redemptive. It’s a concept that, in Christian circles, is not infrequently used but may often be poorly understood. Theologian Frances Young explains well what I understand the term to mean:

The cross redeems humanity from all the ‘gonewrongness’ of the universe, and this must include not just sin and moral evil, but other kinds of impairment, disability, and suffering. At the very least sufferers have found it possible to believe that the story points to compassionate understanding and experience within the Godhead itself. Furthermore, the suffering of Christ has been exemplary, encouraging believers to endure in hope, and in the belief that ultimately all will be well. But above all sufferers have been affirmed as bearing the image of God in Christ … The Christian approach to suffering must be by way of atonement.

On the cross Jesus cried out, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ God was absent yet supremely present. Beginning from the cross, we may gain a different perspective on creation. For, as Simone Weil observed, creation was itself an act of abandonment. If the infinite divine being is to allow anything to exist that is other than itself, it has to ‘withdraw’, making space for the ‘other’, risking exclusion while remaining an enfolding presence and the ultimate condition of any existence at all. Paradoxically, the suffering attendant upon God’s absence is necessarily built into the creative order. On the cross, God took responsibility for creating such a world by bearing the pain and enduring the darkness.

So in Christian thought the redemptive possibilities of suffering outweigh its problematic or educative nature.[4]

Young puts a positive spin on redemptive suffering. Evangelical pastor and author John Stott applies the negative spin in a short passage near the end of his book, The Cross of Christ, where he discusses contemplation of the cross as a path to mature holiness.

Stott notes that Roman Catholics appear to use the term “redemptive suffering” in two ways: either “simply to indicate that affliction, though it embitters some, transforms others”; or as an opportunity for penance. According to Catholic teaching, divine pardon does not remit penance, and the best penance is sent from God in the form of “ ‘crosses, sicknesses, pains’ – which atone for our sins.”[5]

Stott rightly rejects the latter way as offensive to the Protestant mind and conscience; and, “since Jesus Christ is the one and only Redeemer,” he counsels Christians never to use redemptive language of anything we do. He does, however, affirm the notion of “creative suffering,” popularised by Swiss physician and author Paul Tournier, as an analogy for transformation through suffering.[6] Stott concludes his reflections on suffering and holiness with these remarkable words:

Biblical teaching and personal experience thus combine to teach that suffering is the path to holiness and maturity. There is always an indefinable something about people who have suffered. They have a fragrance which others lack. They exhibit the meekness and gentleness of Christ … I sometimes wonder if the real test of our hunger for holiness is our willingness to experience any degree of suffering if only thereby God will make us holy.[7]

It is hard to draw general conclusions as to Morling’s considered view of the notion of “redemptive suffering” from a single reference to the term in his writings, but it is hard to imagine him disagreeing with John Stott, whom he elsewhere applauds, on this.

Suffering as soul-making

The fourth purpose of suffering, for Morling, is “soul-making,” similar to the previous purpose, in the sense of developing maturity, but with an educative rather than transformative focus. He appears to have viewed this as the best explanation of the darker “direct sensations of life” which allowed him to “see deeply into reality.”

For Morling, suffering unveiled what otherwise remained hidden in human identity, experience and destiny. “Soul-making” is related to the spiritual aspirations of what he terms a “great soul,” one who expresses “the nature of a permanent misfit in his world.” Morling has in mind figures such as Mohandas Gandhi, John Keats, perhaps someone like Thomas Merton, perhaps also himself. Certainly, Morling was viewed in such a way by his peers, as Stuart Piggin and Bob Linder observe in their recent book on Australian evangelical history:

Morling had gifts unusual in evangelical circles and seemed an unlikely warrior of the church in its struggle with liberalism [in the early twentieth century]. He had a mystical emphasis that drew from a rich variety of spiritual traditions … [In contrast with Archdeacon T. C. Hammond, Principal of Moore College, a Calvinistic, anti-Catholic polemicist,] Morling was not primarily an apologist or controversialist. He was an exegete and homilist who thought the best defence of the Bible was to teach it exegetically and experimentally … [His students] preached the Word, but neither their doctrine nor their theology was particularly robust, and they rarely made hearty controversialists.[8]

One might add that they also rarely made “great souls.” Morling was unique, at least among NSW Baptists.

What then is the link between “great souls” and suffering? How does suffering produce such persons? One clue lies in a document on the doctrine of God, dated 1957 (most of Morling’s writings are undated), where he distinguishes bodily suffering from spiritual suffering, and associates spiritual growth through the experience of suffering with these “permanent misfits.” He suggests that their suffering derives from a perennial quest for attainment coupled with “new vistas of possibility opening up at the point of each successive attainment.”[9]

The precise nature of this attainment is unspecified, but Morling adds that “the quest for the ideal is itself a great reward” and “this questing life is eternal in character with a range beyond time.” He refers to Psalm 37 and the Book of Job, and mentions the perennial ethical problem of the prosperity of the wicked versus the deprivation of the righteous. As I noted in part two of this series of posts, Morling argues that a valid Christian response to injustice is that “the believing man can afford to await the outworking of God’s purposes and restfully commit his way to Him.”[10]

Moreover, reflecting on Romans 8:28, and how God “adapts the evil, the wrong, the untoward in life, to the purposes of His will,” Morling appears to conclude that God adapts all things to the end of character-making. He writes,

Suffering is never the primary will of God for His children, but when suffering comes to them, He comes with it and makes it a potent means of good. This fact must be resolutely faced. While pain is not a good in itself; while indeed, in many cases, it only embitters and hardens, yet experience in general teaches that life reaches its noblest and best only through the discipline which pain brings.[11]

Theologian John Hick took this view of suffering in his 1966 book, Evil and the Love of God. He held that “while God does not ordain everyday instances of suffering, a world that includes suffering is the best kind of world for perfecting human beings as moral and spiritual agents.[12] Hick also argued that if soul-making is indeed God’s intention then “this must be the only world which could bring about what God intended.”

Suffering therefore has a distinctly teleological dimension; it is an educational experience, developing “great souls” – to the degree to which such persons are capable of and willing to comply with the divine ideal.

There are, sadly, some forms of suffering which are so gratuitously evil that their possible positive purpose is beyond explanation and of no conceivable redeeming value. There may also be instances of suffering for which no reasonable purpose may be assigned because we lack sufficient knowledge to do so. In such cases, Morling might well counsel us, pastorally, to “leave it all quietly to God,” allowing God to work out his sovereign purposes in spite of, or by way of, the suffering we experience or observe.

The last word here goes to Peter Hicks (no relation of John Hick), who urges that

our concern must be to work with [God] rather than against him in his purposes for good, and to do this we need a Spirit-inspired awareness of what those purposes are, in broad terms if not in details … [and to use] every situation, evil as well as good, painful as well as pleasant, to further the coming of his kingdom.[13]

I feel confident that Morling would agree.

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.


[1]      Rod Benson, “Pope John Paul II – an extraordinary life,” Sight Magazine, 4 April 2005, https://www.sightmagazine.com.au/2731-pope-john-paul-ii-an-extraordinary-life-2

[2]      C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (London: Centenary Press, 1940), 81.

[3]      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), 181.

[4]      Frances Young, “Suffering,” in Adrian Hastings (ed.), The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 689.

[5]      John Stott, The Cross of Christ (London: IVP, 1986), 367.

[6]      Paul Tournier, Creative Suffering (London: SCM, 1981).

[7]      Stott, The Cross of Christ, 369.

[8]      Stuart Piggin & Robert D. Linder, Attending to the National Soul: Evangelical Christians in Australian History 1914-2014 (Clayton, Vic.: Monash University Publishing, 2020), 140f.

[9]      G. H. Morling, “The doctrine of God: The doctrine of the Trinity; The Attributes of God,” 38pp. typescript, n.d. (doc 92 in archives), 25.

[10]    Morling, “The doctrine of God,” 25.

[11]    Morling, “Living in the will of God,” 179f.

[12]    Quoted in M. A. Rae, “Suffering,” in Martin Davie, Tim Grass, Stephen R. Holmes, John McDowell & T. A. Noble (eds), New Dictionary of Theology: Historical and Systematic (second edn; Downers Grove: IVP, 2016), 877.

[13]    Peter Hicks, The Message of Suffering and Evil: Light into Darkness (Nottingham: IVP, 2006), 198.

Image source: passionatepeople

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