What would George do? (part 8)

G. H. Morling on suffering and grace

In my previous post, I suggested that G. H. Morling cultivated an almost child-like faith in divine providence, benevolence and mercy; that with human freedom comes the potential for suffering; and that one should accept suffering as discipline or chastisement, use it as an opportunity for growth, and learn to persevere, since no experience is wasted.

I want to turn now to the theme of suffering and grace in Morling’s writing; and conclude, in my last post in the series, with a commentary on his thought regarding suffering and glory.

When the Covid-19 pandemic emerged as a global threat, I recall reading that the only people asking health experts questions about meaning were journalists and deeply religious people. They considered the question, “Why is this happening?” The former largely sought factual, evidence-based information from experts as a basis for news stories; the latter conjured their own sometimes bizarre folk-religious responses relating to so-called apocalyptic end-times.

There were others, though, who tended to seek information on how to help people in need and prepare for the immediate future under what has come to be known as “lockdown.” They asked practical questions such as, “What should I do now?” and “Where am I most needed?”

Earlier I discussed how suffering may be perceived as corrective, or educational, especially in the context of religious knowledge, and that such perspectives raise thorny issues about divine sovereignty, the will of God, the freedom of the will, and the usefulness of prayer. Philosophical attempts to solve the riddle of suffering understandably smack of complacency, and offer little if anything in terms of a compassionate response to human need.

By contrast, Jesus demonstrated profound sympathy and compassion for those experiencing suffering, as individual persons rather than a class of sufferers. He also made a consistent and sometimes costly effort to alleviate human suffering, and he frequently encouraged others to do likewise, through stories and actions.

Moreover, as theologian M. A. Rae observes, the messianic manifesto announced by Jesus at the synagogue in Nazareth, at the commencement of Jesus’ public ministry, “has the relief of suffering as a central feature of the coming kingdom of God” (Luke 4:16-21).[1] In the New Testament, “Jesus responds to suffering by entering into the midst of it, shouldering its burden, and by becoming active against it.”[2]

Pastoral advice in times of suffering

Although Morling trained to be a pastor, first at the Baptist Theological College of Victoria, then at the NSW equivalent in its first year of operation (under inaugural Principal Rev Alexander Gordon, who later defected to the Congregationalists and left the way open for Morling to succeed him in 1921), he was arguably better suited as a biblical theologian. Certainly, his intellectual qualities suited him to theological education, and few others among NSW Baptists were so suited at the time.

Yet Morling possessed the warmth and passion typical of a professional pastor, and this emerges from time to time in his writing. His mastery of the New Testament documents, especially the Gospels, and deep reflection on the practical import of such writings, along with his own life experience, prepared him well to offer timely guidance on pastoral matters, including guidance in regard to the personal experience of evil and suffering.

For example, in The Quest for Serenity, Morling includes a section on “Adjustment to life’s burdens.” He recommends the application of “threshold grace” to meet the psychological needs generated by “our going out into the ‘loud stunning tide / of human care and crime’.”[3] He observes that the Gospels portray Jesus as “supremely reposeful. All the paths of the Master were paths of peace,” despite the fact that he lived “strenuously … intensely … dangerously.”[4]

How does one encounter, or draw on, this “threshold grace,” this capacity to balance the strong demands of ministry and mission with the freedom of repose? In his book, Morling suggests three practical “secrets” :

    • an absence of self-interest, and in its place careful attention to others (p. 41);
    • an absence of self-sufficiency, and in its place an experimental dependence on God (p. 44);
    • an absence of self-will, and in its place a quiet submission to God’s will (p. 48).

These are hard-won qualities, perhaps unnatural, but one of the resources God has given us to develop such qualities is prayer (Matt 6:9-13; Eph 6:12, 18).  In biblical times, and in our own times, suffering and prayer often go together. Jesus too received grace to suffer through prayer, in his Gethsemane experience (Luke 22:39-46). Commenting on Hebrews 5:7, Morling writes, “If these lines meet the eye of a sufferer, let that one remember that prayer to the Father will always bring grace to endure with courage and sweetness.”[5]

For Morling, the New Testament books of John and Hebrews were among his most treasured, despite the irony that, while the Fourth Gospel is well known for its “mystical” outlook, the letter to the Hebrews has almost no mystical content. Yet it is Hebrews that most clearly portrays the post-resurrection ministry of Jesus as High Priest to his people. God is most intimately revealed through God’s indwelling Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, and in this manner the Triune God fulfils a sacred pastoral function:

The Holy Spirit is God within the redeemed human spirit … It awes us deeply to consider that God the Holy Spirit enters our inmost heart. In the secrecy of our inmost heart we may share with Him our loneliness, our troubles, our confessions, our longings.[6]

Further, says Morling, in words that apply to both the high points and the lowest in human experience,

There are times when I have turned from thinking about Christian experience to thinking about God. Thinking about experience turns our eyes upon ourselves, because experience is ‘my’ experience. And there is always the danger of experience becoming its own enjoyment and its own end … If you seek a richer experience, contemplate God.[7]

Why this focus on the contemplation of God? Why the apparent dismissal of the reality and seriousness of attention to experience as we negotiate troubles in life? Perhaps because such spiritual discipline is proven to cultivate the three qualities mentioned earlier: an absence of self-interest, self-sufficiency, and self-will. In such an intentional space, and with such a surrendered and willing personality, God may minister divine grace to help in our time of need.

As we pray, we may be sure that God hears and understands. In a 1993 Christianity Today article titled “Do I matter? Does God care?” author Philip Yancey concludes:

Because of Jesus, I can trust that God truly understands my pain. I can trust that I matter to God, and that he cares. When I begin to doubt these things, I turn again to the face of Jesus and there I see the infinite, personal love of a God well acquainted with grief … Jesus, who presumably could have chosen to have his resurrection body look any way he wished, [chose] one complete with scars, souvenirs of his stay on planet Earth.[8]

Perhaps Morling had similar thoughts in mind as he wrote pastorally, to an earlier generation, on the experience of suffering and grace.

Grace to persevere

Speaking at the annual Katoomba Convention in 1962, Morling told a story of an old man named Arthur Harvey, whom he had met many years before at the Pymble Baptist Church before accepting the appointment as second Principal of the Baptist Theological College of NSW in 1921.

Harvey apparently offered the relatively young Morling strong moral support as he adjusted to his new and demanding role, and Morling discovered that Harvey had been sent out to Australia by the English Army on account of his tuberculosis. Morling describes him as “a real saint of God.” Years later, Harvey was dying in great pain and called for Morling’s presence. Morling recalls one of the events of those last days:

I sat by his bedside for many an hour. He said to me one day when I went to him, “I had a terrible battle last night. Satan came into this room and said, ‘Your heavenly Father can’t love you, or he wouldn’t let you suffer like this. He doesn’t love you.’ And he said, “For a moment I was tempted, and then I had strength to rise upon my pillow and say, ‘Get out. My Father does love me. Get out.’ And he got out.”.[9]

Morling uses this story at Katoomba to illustrate the point that a Christian must not only “grow in grace” (2 Pet 3:18) but “fight the good fight” (1 Tim 6:12) – principally through prayer, and right to one’s dying breath. At all times, the grace of God is available to sustain and inspire.

Morling was a speaker at Katoomba Conventions, and the equivalent meetings at Upwey in Victoria, as early as 1932. He was a member of the Katoomba Convention Committee from 1932 to 1955, a period of 23 years. In 1937, he spoke at Katoomba on Acts 2:1-4, on “the fulness of the Spirit” – one of his favourite topics. In those days Katoomba meetings were modelled on those of the holiness movement, in particular the Keswick movement in England.

To those present who had “entered into a new experience of Christ during the days of this Convention,” Morling had five brief points to share:

    • the fulness was given for the purpose of effective witness;
    • the fulness is associated with commonplace service;
    • the Spirit-filled life is empowered to suffer well;
    • Spirit-filled men [and women] have a magnanimous character;
    • there may be occasions when the Spirit-filled man gives expression to indignation.[10]

On the third dot point above, Morling refers to Stephen (Acts 7:55), who “was filled with the Spirit in order that he might suffer in a Christlike way.” Morling applies this principle to suffering in general, saying,

Normally the heart rebels against pain or trial or sorrow which so often seems to be meaningless. At the best, natural resources will enable us to endure affliction with a stoic fortitude. But when the heart has this Divine empowerment, suffering is accepted as a ministry and, as impossible as it may seem, even as a privilege.[11]

He quotes Philippians 1:29, “For it has been granted to you on Christ’s behalf not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him.” Morling describes this experience as “one of the highest achievements in life.”[12]

Let me stress that these sentiments are those of Morling, and may be difficult or impossible for some readers to accept. I understand that. This is his understanding of the world in which he lived, based on his theology of suffering, his observation of those around him, and their testimonies, and his own experience of grace. In other places he tempers this view by observing that human suffering is transitory (1 Pet 1:6; cf Rom 8:18), and that Christian hope “has present fruitage in a present victorious joy and trial.”[13]

In my next, and last, post in this series I will discuss Morling’s thought on suffering, healing and glory.


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]      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), 878.

[2]      Ibid.

[3]      G. H. Morling, The Quest for Serenity (Sydney: Young & Morling, 1951), 37. The quote is from a poem by John Keble, “St Matthew,” first published in 1789.

[4]      Ibid., 38.

[5]      G. H. Morling, “Studies in the prayer life of our Lord,” typescript notes for five lectures, Baptist Theological College of NSW Bible School, n.d. [1947] (doc 24), 6.

[6]      G. H. Morling, “Who is the Holy Spirit?” repr. in E. Ron Rogers, George Henry Morling: The Man and His Message for Today (ed. Bruce Thornton; Forest Lodge, NSW: Greenwood Press, 2011), 65.

[7]      Ibid., 66.

[8]      Philip Yancey, “Do I matter? Does God care?” Christianity Today, 22 Nov 1993, 23.

[9]      G. H. Morling, “Holiness is by faith,” in Katoomba Christian Convention Addresses (Stanmore, NSW: Gospel Tape Ministry, 1962), 74.

[10]    G. H. Morling, “The fullness of the Spirit,” in Katoomba Convention Council, Christ Pre-eminent: The Book of the Katoomba Convention January 1937 (Glebe, NSW: Australasian Medical Publishing Co., 1937), 89-91.

[11]    Ibid., 90.

[12]    Ibid., 90.

[13]    G. H. Morling, “The Christian hope,” in The Incomparable Christ: Selected Scripture Studies (ed. Bruce Thornton; Macquarie Park, NSW: Baptist Historical Society of NSW, 2010), 358.

Image source: freepik.com

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