What would George do? (part 7)

G. H. Morling on suffering, providence and prayer

 

In my previous post, I discussed some aspects of Morling’s thought on suffering and divine providence. In this post, I want to look at his reflections on human freedom, experience, and prayer for healing and deliverance from suffering – and how these themes relate to the biblical doctrine of providence.

In his discussion of postmodern theology, theologian Richard Lints notes the demise of what he calls “modernity’s triumphalism.” He argues that postmodern theologians “repudiate the triumphalism expressed both in the assertion that history is headed toward a humanly inspired utopia and the assertion that it is headed toward a divinely inspired heavenly kingdom.”[1]

This judgment leaves little room for alternatives, except perhaps a move back to the sources and to a renewal sparked by close attention to premodern theology. But that is not my point here. A key reason proposed by postmodern theologians for the demise noted by Lints is theodicy. Lints claims that “in light of the horrific suffering experienced during the past century, it is very difficult to sustain a belief that God somehow maintains control over this world”; and argues that postmodern theologians have set themselves the difficult “task of creating transcendent meaning and purpose for the human community without a transcendent source.”[2]

None of us knows what challenges or revolutions lie ahead. As an adult, Morling lived through both World Wars, and the Great Depression, and it would appear that frugality and thrift were elements of both his household and College environments through much of his forty years as Principal. Morling was theologically active during the “long demise,” but probably did not see postmodernism approaching over the horizon. He expressed no confidence in an immanent liberal utopia, but rather emphasised a transcendent eschatological hope in the return of Christ and the end of history according to the divine will.

What did Morling make of the suffering that occurred in his own life, and all around him, and around the world? In previous posts, I outlined Morling’s experience of suffering, and noted possible causes and purposes for suffering drawn from his writings. Unlike many of us, Morling does not seem to have found his faith seriously challenged, at least at a fundamental level, by the existence or prevalence of suffering.

I believe this is because he was well prepared, and cultivated an expansive yet intimate understanding of God and God’s ways. Divine providence is often a mystery, especially in the midst of great pain or suffering or loss, but those who learn that God is love also discover God’s compassion and mercy and grace. Morling drew comfort from Paul’s words in Romans 8:28, and the statement by Joseph to his brothers in Genesis 50:20, implying that God uses difficult circumstances and unwanted experiences for our good.

In the messiness of life, it can be hard to trust God to bring good out of evil situations, and order out of chaos, and peace in place of pain. In hindsight, it appears that our wills are poorly aligned with the will of God. At times we resist and fight against the things that rob us of dignity, diminish our wellbeing, and hold us back, wreck our carefully laid plans and dash our hopes. How would Morling speak into such experiences?

Morling might first acknowledge that this phenomenal world is not now the ideal that God desires it to be. He would outline the various ways in which rebellion against God and God’s will leads inevitably to suffering and harm – to the natural world, to human communities, and to the lives of individuals. He would remind us that Christians are not immune to the effects of such problems. He would call for godly wisdom and discernment in preparing for the worst while hoping for the best. In one place, he writes:

It seems to me most necessary that Christian men and women should be prepared ahead for distress that may come upon them. Clear thinking now will stand us in good stead then. We might also bear in mind that an earnest spirit is not an excuse for a muddled mind.[3]

In this piece Morling makes three observations about the operation of the will.

First, he affirms that our “Sovereign Father has endowed His creatures with the gifts of personality, central in which is the will. In other words, God has wrought into His scheme of the universe the fact of human freedom.”[4] That is, free will is compare will, tible with the sovereignty of God, and each of us possesses the freedom to choose the good when faced with a moral choice.

Second, Morling acknowledges that often this does not happen. There are two wills at work in the world, he says,

the will of the Sovereign Father and the will of people capable of refusing the will of the Sovereign Father and initiating courses of conduct quite contrary to it. This is the second factor – the presence of the human will in the history of man, a human will which, if you care to insist, God Himself created, but without which man could not have been made in His image and made capable of the highest blessedness.[5]

The paradox of divine sovereignty and human freedom (or responsibility) is an enduring theme of theological debate. How is it possible for God to exercise absolute sovereignty in our world, yet grant us the freedom to will as we choose? In what sense are we morally free? If we are not free, how can we speak meaningfully about ethics, or discipleship? And if God is not absolutely sovereign, what does that say to us about God?

Clearly Morling understood the human will to be free in some true sense, and that this freedom is a gift from a gracious and loving God. He also held that our freedom to choose between good and evil often leads to choices and consequences that are outside the will of God and result in sin, suffering and injustice.

Third, Morling states that, typically in human history,

the human will has conflicted with the Divine will, chosen the evil instead of the good, and frustrated the purposes of God … There is much in our lives for which God cannot be held responsible …

As I write, I call to mind situations that have come within my knowledge over recent years. I have sat in a children’s court and seen children subnormal in mind and body charged with various offences. Do you think it to be God’s will that such children should be born into the world? I think of a friend enduring great pain because of an internal growth. Is God responsible for cancer?[6]

Morling takes up these questions in subsequent pages, referring to British philosopher John Stuart Mill’s classic essay on “Nature,” in which Mill argues that we are not justified in blaming God for natural evils such as droughts or earthquakes, nor for “the many painful problems that arise in war.”[7] Incidentally, this is a rare example of Morling strengthening his case through recourse to philosophical rather than biblical arguments.

The problem of theodicy may be especially challenging for those who faithfully follow Jesus and seek to live in obedience to God, but who also experience significant suffering or evil. Morling accounts for such experiences by distinguishing between “affliction” and “chastisement,” and by introducing the concept of a divine “beneficent plan,” or “beneficent harmony,” which he understands to be playing out in the world.

In lecture notes on Hebrews 12:4-11, Morling writes, “It is important to observe that the pain which had come to these Christians was not deserved but God, in sovereign directing will, wove it into a beneficent plan for their lives. One must distinguish between the primary and the secondary will of God and between affliction and chastisement.”[8] He then states five summary points:

    • Christians “must expect untoward circumstances,” and should accept these as divine chastening (Prov 3:11f);
    • suffering is never arbitrary since discipline is for the purpose of holiness;
    • to be of help, “discipline must be received in the right spirit” (subjection to God and respect for his ways), and “we must be ‘exercised’ by it,” accepting it as a form of training;
    • we must endure under the trial: “God’s discipline is something which causes distress … and the disciplined soul must have power of resisting”;
    • there is a happy outcome to such suffering and trials, an “afterwards” yielding “the peaceable fruit of righteousness” (Heb 12:11).

In his lecture notes on the Epistle to the Romans (8:18-25), Morling claims that Paul in this passage argues that “the high privileges of the child of God … come to him through the medium of suffering.”[9] For Paul, nature is negatively affected by human sin, and the corruption of nature in turn leads to human suffering.

Morling interprets Romans 8:28-30 as Paul’s theological answer to this apparent problem of injustice. He concludes that “the children of God in every part of their lives and every sphere are taken up into God’s eternal purpose so that even their sufferings are part of a beneficent harmony whose ultimate design is conformity to the image of Christ.”[10] Presumably the “high privileges of the child of God” include such conformity, made possible through union with Christ.

This idea of beneficent harmony as the fruit of God’s mercy in the face of evil and suffering informs an evangelical understanding of the sufferings of Christ, as well as the experience of Christians. Reflecting on Hebrews 2:10, on the necessity of the experience of human suffering by the incarnate Christ, Morling makes a Christological inference and then offers some pastoral advice based on further inferences:

The word [“suffering”] raises experience of life into a place of great importance. The perfect Christ could not become the perfect Saviour 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.[11]

For Morling, then, some suffering may be attributable to chastisement for disobedience, while other instances may be seen as training opportunities in Christian service, all with the underlying purpose of conformity to the image of Christ.

There are some problems with this view of suffering. For example, are there other instances of suffering for which there is no purpose – and, if so, why is it so, and what proportion of our suffering is purposeless? Should we seek out experiences of suffering in order to increase our conformity to the image of Christ or expand our horizons of service? Is it wrong to pray for relief from suffering if God has purposed it for our growth? Morling does not directly answer these questions, but his approach to the practice of prayer for healing is instructive.

For much, if not all, of Morling’s time of active Christian ministry, the issue of prayer for healing was never far from the surface of debate among Baptists in NSW. It was a controversial subject. Should Christians demand that God heal? Do some Christians possess a supernatural gift of healing, and if so how should it be exercised? Did not all the so-called “sign gifts” cease after the original apostolic period ended? What does unanswered prayer for relief from suffering teach us about God, our world, and ourselves? Morling spoke directly to these pastoral issues. For example, in an article titled “God and physical healing,” he wrote:

I am concerned to put this matter in scriptural balance. The conclusions which I have reached are these:

I do not believe that we can demand healing of God. There is a distinction between demand and request. Where there is a clear Divine promise we can make a claim on God for its fulfilment. I do not understand the scriptures to teach that there is such a Divine promise which justifies a demand for healing. Isaiah 45:11 states, ‘concerning the work of my hands command ye me.’ But I am most hesitant to include universal physical healing within the scope of such command.

I am aware that godly men teach otherwise. They base their authority on the belief that healing is included in the atonement and, that, in consequence, we can claim healing for the body just as we can for salvation for the soul in response to faith. Matthew 8:17 which, repeating Isaiah 53:4 states, ‘Himself took our infirmities and bore our sicknesses’ is quoted in support.

What is the truth of the matter? The passage in Matthew is undoubtedly in fulfilment of Isaiah’s words. But in what sense were they fulfilled? The vicarious suffering spoken of in Isaiah was not worked out in the healings in Galilee because Christ has not yet died. The vicariousness had reference to sin not to physical healing as 1 Peter 2:24 clearly shows: Christ ‘bore our sins in His body on the tree.’

To include healing in the atonement is to imply that all sickness is due to sin, which is certainly not the case. In this regard John 9:1-3 is quite conclusive. The ‘bearing’ [of Isaiah 53:4] is rather the bearing of man’s troubles on His heart of which there are so many beautiful instances in the days of His flesh.[12]

There is further biblical commentary along with examples of miraculous healing in the article. Essentially Morling shared the cessationist belief that sign gifts were transitory, confirming apostolic authority, and became irrelevant by the end of the first century AD. He believed that answers to prayers for divine healing were examples of God’s general beneficent plan rather than claims on Christ’s atoning work.

Moreover, Morling understood that the healings recorded in the four Gospels were related to the incarnation and ministry of Christ, and the inauguration of the kingdom of God. Healings recorded elsewhere in the New Testament were special cases and not indicative of normative practice for the church. Yet God may grant a gift of healing to certain Christians, and James 5:4-16 encourages prayer for healing in accordance with God’s will.

In several places, Morling states that events recorded in the Book of Acts are “transitional” (a transition from Judaism to Christianity), and where there are differences between the practices described in Acts and those of the New Testament Letters, the teaching of the latter is to be regarded as normative policy for the church.

Finally, in an untitled handwritten document discussing the nature of the afterlife, Morling suggests that there is a “law of conservation in life” whereby no human experience is wasted. The notion that God desires to discipline and train us in this present life, perhaps with no discernible benefit, implies for Morling an afterlife in which such experience is rewarded in awe inspiring ways. “There is so much seeming wastage here,” says Morling. “The war cut off so many lives. [He lists three names, undecipherable] The only explanation is that this is a vale of soul-making.”[13]

Is Morling correct? What is your experience with prayer for healing, for yourself and others? In what ways can you trace God’s “beneficent plan” or discern God’s “beneficent harmony” in the events and struggles of your life? What biblical or theological support is there for Morling’s justification of inexplicable suffering as preparation for the next life?

In my next post, I plan to discuss Morling’s understanding of suffering and divine grace.


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]      Richard Lints, The Fabric of Theology: A Prolegomenon to Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 216; my emphasis.

[2]      Ibid, 217.

[3]      G. H. Morling, “Living in the will of God,” in Bruce Thornton (ed.), The Franciscan Spirit and Other Writings (Macquarie Park: Baptist Historical Society of NSW, 2008), 164f.

[4]      Morling, “Living in the will of God,” 164.

[5]      Morling, “Living in the will of God,” 165.

[6]      Morling, “Living in the will of God,” 165f.

[7]      Pages 167-169. Quote is from page 168.

[8]      G. H. Morling, “The Epistle to the Hebrews,” 12pp. typescript, n.d. (doc 67), 7.

[9]      G. H. Morling, “Lectures on the Epistle to the Romans,” 38pp. typescript, n.d. (doc 62), 29.

[10]    Morling, “Lectures on the Epistle to the Romans,” 31.

[11]    G. H. Morling, The high priestly ministry (Hebrews 1-10),” repr. in The Incomparable Christ: Selected Scripture Studies (ed. Bruce Thornton; Macquarie Park, NSW: Baptist Historical Society of NSW, 2010), 317.

[12]    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.

[13]    G. H. Morling, “Is man, whose powers, capabilities, desires stretch far beyond…” 4pp. typescript, n.d. (doc 190), 2.

Image source: St Paul’s Douglasville

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