What would George do? (part 9)

G. H. Morling on suffering, healing and glory

 

These nine posts make a small contribution to Christian commentary on the appearance of Covid-19 and the experience of individuals and communities to the pandemic. Since I began writing the posts, we have learned a great deal about the virus, about appropriate public health responses, and about the fickleness, duplicity and selfishness of the human heart even in the face of life-threatening disease. And there is much that we have yet to learn. 

The posts are not about the pandemic but about how Christians make sense of suffering and evil. Previous posts in the series discussed various possible causes of suffering (see part 1part 2part 3), and purposes of suffering (see part 4part 5), in relation to the writings of Australian Baptist theologian G. H. Morling.

I reflected on Morling’s thought regarding the providence of God and the experience of suffering (part 6), the role of prayer in responding to suffering (part 7), and the relationship of suffering to grace (part 8). 

This final post in the series addresses Morling’s thought on healing prayer, and the relationship of suffering to glory.

 

Miraculous healing in the New Testament and today

A recent book-length study by English Baptist pastor and writer Peter Hicks on the subject of God and suffering comes to similar conclusions as those of Morling. Hicks claims that those who follow Christ have no need to be anxious about anything (Matt 6:25-33; Rom 8:31; 2 Cor 4:17). The reason for this confidence is, for Hicks, the foundational biblical conviction that,

faced with an evil and hurting world, God has acted … [in Christ, and] we do not have to face evil and suffering on our own, as though there were no God, or as though God were absent …

So the Bible’s call is to a deep relationship and a full commitment, both to the truths of God’s revelation and to God himself, and its teaching on evil and suffering is directed at those who have responded to that call. When it tells us not to be anxious, it presupposes that we have accepted God as our heavenly Father; when it speaks of the Spirit helping us in our weaknesses, it presupposes that we have opened our lives to the grace and power of the Holy Spirit.

The key to joy and peace in the middle of adversity is the presence of Christ as Lord of our lives … Living under his lordship means having his mind [1 Cor 2:16], being close to his heart, responding to evil and suffering as he did.[1]

Morling too addresses his discussion of God and suffering to a Christian audience, emphasising the path to relief from anxiety, the ministry of the Holy Spirit, and what he calls “threshold grace,” which parallels Hicks’s comments on Lordship and Christlikeness.

But Morling also specifically linked suffering with fitness for service, and with glory. In previous posts, I discussed the association with character development (part 5), and with Christian service (part 7). Here I want to conclude the series of blog posts with a further comment on suffering and prayer, and a short reflection on Morling’s thought regarding suffering and glory.

In The Holy Spirit, a 32-page booklet published in 1972, Morling addresses the subject of miraculous healing in the context of controversy surrounding a contemporary upsurge in manifestations of “sign gifts” (speaking in tongues, supernatural healing, and other miracles).[2] He begins by recounting his near-death experience in 1965, and the death of his two daughters from cancer. He warns against “the shipwreck of faith” arising from despondency in regard to unanswered prayer.

Morling affirms his belief that miraculous healings occurred in the New Testament period, but describes these as “special temporary ministries” not to be confused with “normal abiding ministries.” He is convinced that miraculous healing may be sought but is not normative.[3] Yet Morling also asserts that “the Gift of Healing has not been withdrawn (1 Cor 12:7-9).”[4] He claims that Christians may ask God to heal, by miraculous or non-miraculous means, but should not demand healing.

As for the claim that the atonement of Christ includes a promise of physical healing, based on a reading of Isaiah 53:4f,  Morling argues that “Sickness does not need atonement … When the Gospel is set forth in all its fulness as in Romans there is no mention of healing.”[5] He notes that the New Testament letters describe Paul, Timothy and Trophimus as ill at one time or another, and Paul was certainly not healed from a debilitating problem despite having repeatedly prayed for relief (2 Cor 12:7-9).

Moreover, echoing ideas he had previously articulated, Morling states that “At no time except in our Lord’s ministry have all been healed. God’s will may have a higher expression than healing. It may be the Father’s will to receive the one for whose healing we pray, into the bliss of heaven … [or] God may have a ministry of suffering for the one for whom we pray.”[6] He concludes with three points of pastoral advice:

    1. Prayer for healing should be definite, in fellowship with others, and as a normal practice rather than an emergency measure.
    2. Such prayer should be made in faith that God will heal if it is God’s will.
    3. One should expect results “in scriptural proportion – sometimes instantaneous healings, … sometimes progressive healings, … and then, so often, some lovely providential intervention that fills one’s heart with praise.”[7]

He does not elaborate as to what this might entail.

In another place, Morling outlines two personal convictions drawn from his own experience of suffering and prayer for healing – what he calls “the Scriptural perspective” – which summarise his familiar biblical-experiential position on the issue:

    1. God does heal miraculously today just as He did in the Person of His Son in New Testament times. Whatever else needs to be said, that must be said, and said with forthright confidence …
    2. God does heal in answer to the importunate prayer of fellowship. God wrought the miracle in my case [in 1965] through prayer offered by a large affectionate fellowship and offered importunately. Let that fact be raised into perspective. ‘Whether we understand it or not,’ said Spurgeon, ‘prayer is a law of the Kingdom.’[8]

A later expression in the same document suggests that Morling was reacting to pressure from non-cessationists to normalise the so-called “sign gifts” in the regular life of NSW Baptist churches. Hence his nuanced or mediating position. He says, in relation to his preceding discussion on suffering, providence and prayer:

These words are addressed to intelligent people whom I am urging to preserve scriptural proportion and will understand that, in the Word of God, there are paradoxes which faith accepts without confusion.

I urge finally that the attitude to spiritual healing should be strongly positive. God does heal. We should take our physical problems definitely and boldly to Him always against the background of the ‘prayer within prayer’: ‘Thy will be done,’ itself offered not weakly in indolent submission but in active, expectant cooperation. Whatever the issue of such prayer the soul will have ample reason to bless the Lord for His great goodness.[9]

 

Suffering as an opportunity for creative witness

In his undated lecture notes on the Gospel of John, to which I have referred previously, reflecting on the sixth sign (Jn 9:1-12), Morling says that “there is no answer in the realm of the intellect” to the problem of suffering. Instead, in the story, 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).

Morling acknowledges “a deep connexion between sin and suffering,” citing John 5:14 and Matthew 9:2, but counsels against attributing suffering in the life of a Christian to divine disapproval, citing Philippians 1:29 and Colossians 1:24). He writes, “Let the Christian, therefore, take this high view of suffering, accept it positively and use it creatively, ever making it a platform of witness.” Later he adds a handwritten note to the typescript of the lecture notes: “c.f. Andrews, With Christ in the Silence, suffering for Christ’s sake (limited to consecrated people) the highest form of ministry.”[10]

At one point in The Quest for Serenity, Morling opines about “triumphant sufferers,” similar but not identical to the “great souls,” providing perhaps the best summary of his thought on suffering from a theological perspective. He was 60 years old at the time. He writes:

As I read the stories of triumphant sufferers, I find that, by faith they do three things that enable them to rise superior to their pain. In faith they accept their trial. They do not exhaust their energies in futile questionings, nor do they become resentful. They take, instead, an attitude of positive acceptance. It is the positiveness that makes the difference. They go even beyond resignation in regarding their trouble as being in some way, they know not how, within the scope of God’s plan and, as such, something to be accepted, not merely endured …

I find, too, that triumphant sufferers find relief from their pain in making their experience minister to others. They convert their own loss into gain. The positiveness of their faith leads on to creativeness … Faith accepts positively; acts creatively; then, as its crowning expression, acquiesces restfully. Having been active, it becomes passive and leaves its problems quietly to God. I have found that the noblest sufferers have been able to do this the more readily when it has been borne home to their hearts that God has also suffered and still suffers.[11]

Morling then adds an extended quotation from Presbyterian churchman and theologian Patrick Simpson Carnegie (1865-1947), and concludes the section of his book by quoting Psalm 138:8a: “The Lord will perfect that which concerneth me.”

 

Suffering and future glory

What is it that motivates or empowers such confident trust in God that suffering may be calmly accepted, inspire creative action in service to others, and find its “crowning expression” in restful acquiescence with uncomfortable or undesirable circumstances?

The secret is Morling’s deep understanding of the doctrine of union with Christ and all of its practical spiritual benefits. Of particular importance are his awareness of the significance of adoption into the family of God, and the prospect of justification and sanctification resulting in glorification as the end of redemption.

Morling addresses these matters briefly in the lecture notes to his Public Bible Class on the Holy Spirit, dated 1953. Discussing Romans 8:9-11, and indeed the whole of Romans 8, he speaks of the Spirit of adoption “inspiring the Spirit of Anticipation” (Rom 8:18-25). Sonship implies heirship, and because of the Christian’s union with Christ, “there is for us a future of glory which we shall share with the risen, exalted Saviour (Jn 17:24).”

He refers to “the ‘ascending scale of salvation,’ vv. 28-30 (the so-called ordo salutis), but adds that “to share Christ’s glory is more than to be glorified. Consider Col 3:4.” Morling argues here that to share Christ’s glory implies sharing in his sufferings (Rom 8:17); and he makes two observations regarding the sufferings of Christians:

    1. They are sufferings in union with Christ … [which] surely include sufferings both physical and spiritual. Give careful attention to Php 1:29; Col 1:24; Mt 5:10-12.
    2. Such sufferings are a sure indication that glory will follow ( 18-25).

Morling quotes from a commentary on the passage by Sanday & Hedlam, “Present suffering actually points forward to glory … It is nothing short of a universal law that suffering marks the road to glory.”[12] He goes on, again quoting from Sanday & Hedlam:

All the suffering, all the imperfection, all the unsatisfied aspiration and longing of which the traces are so abundant in external nature as well as in man, do but point forward to a time when suffering shall cease, the imperfection be removed and the frustrated aspirations at last crowned and satisfied. This time coincides with the glorious consummation which awaits the Christian.[13]

Then Morling refers to “a still greater and more satisfying experience of the Holy Spirit,” the “harvest” which inevitably follows the “first fruits” of Romans 8:23:

This richer experience of the Spirit will be associated with the manifestation of the sons of God, v. 19, at the Lord’s return. Then not only will the Lord Jesus be manifested but we shall be seen as we really are. Our lives are now ‘hidden,’ Col 3:3. They will then be fully manifested. The two magnificent passages Col 3:1-4 and 1 John 3:1-3 should be studied in this connection. Then will be experienced the ‘redemption of the body’ v. 23 and ‘the liberty of the glory of the children of God,’ that is, freedom from our present state of dissolution and decay.

Probably also Paul has in mind the spiritual ills which find encouragement in the body. See Rom 7:24.[14]

The passage in 1 John 3 was one of Morling’s favourites. From such biblical texts about the hope of glory, and its subtle prefiguring in present experience, he draws comfort and strength for ministry. Indeed, he is convinced that “It is part of life’s highest wisdom to know where we belong in the ordering of Providence, to accept the situation gladly and to serve Christ in it.”[15]

But beyond humble service in this life is an unexplored ontological reality and an unimaginably glorious future prospect for which Morling yearns: “We become like what we contemplate. To see ourselves in holy imagination as we shall be when grace has done its perfect work is infinitely stimulating.”[16]

Suffering ends, and the rest is music.


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]      Peter Hicks, The Message of Evil and Suffering (Nottingham: IVP, 2006), 240.

[2]      G. H. Morling, The Holy Spirit (Sydney: Baptist Union of NSW, 1972).

[3]      Morling, The Holy Spirit, 16.

[4]      Morling, The Holy Spirit, 16.

[5]      Morling, The Holy Spirit, 17.

[6]      Morling, The Holy Spirit, 17.

[7]      Morling, The Holy Spirit, 17.

[8]      G. H. Morling, “God and physical healing,” in E. Ron Rogers, George Henry Morling: The Man and His Message for Today (Forest Lodge, NSW: Greenwood Press, 1995), 91.

[9]      Morling, “God and physical healing,” 99.

[10]    G. H. Morling, “John’s Gospel,” 60pp. typescript, n.d., 37. The reference is to Charles Freer Andrews, Christ in the Silence (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1933).

[11]    G. H. Morling, The Quest for Serenity (Sydney: Young & Morling, 1951), 58f.

[12]    Morling, The Holy Spirit, 20.

[13]    Morling, The Holy Spirit, 21.

[14]    Morling, The Holy Spirit, 21.

[15]    G. H. Morling, “The Song of Songs,” The Australian Baptist, 2 Nov 1983, p. 10.

[16]    G. H. Morling, “Great themes of the Epistle to the Ephesians. Study No. 2: The riches of grace in Christ,” Bible Studies , n.d., 80.

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