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The Mystery of Suffering.
DIFFICULTIES OF THE SUBJECT.
“ It became Him, for whom are all things, and by whom are all
things, in bringing many sons unto glory, to make the Captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings.”—HEBREWS ii. 10.
OUR line of thought in the previous sermons
has been that the existence of suffering, so far as it tends to the perfecting of character, is not an argument against, but an argument for, the beneficence of God. It must be admitted, however, that all suffering does not appear to have this beneficial tendency. It may have occurred to some of you already, that suffering sometimes seems to have a hardening, rather than a softening, effect; in some cases it seems not to improve, but rather to deteriorate, character. Upon this point I would offer two remarks.
First, the man who is apparently injured by suffering may be in reality benefited. He may seem, to the careless observer, to be very harsh and bitter; but those who know him more intimately may discover an infinite depth of tenderness, underlying this superficial cynicism. A striking example of this was afforded by the late George Dawson. He had experienced the severest trials, the greatest of all being this, that his only daughter, who as a child had been brilliantly clever, became at the age of twenty, owing to over - study, very nearly an idiot. Well, one Sunday, he astonished his congregation, who were accustomed to clever sermons from him, by preaching a peculiar discourse, consisting of the shortest sentences and the simplest ideas, fit only for an infant class. The explanation was this: his daughter was at church that morning, and her mind happened, as he knew, to be less obscured than usual. The sermon was addressed to her. The text was, “Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear Him.” Now the man who could do this must have been possessed of the very rarest tenderness; yet if you had met him only casually, you would have said he was the most cynical and misanthropical person you had ever known. So that, I say, suffering, even when it seems to have injured any one, may, after all, have had the opposite effect.
But, secondly, I do not deny-I acknowledge that suffering does occasionally deteriorate character. You remember the words which Shakespeare puts into the mouths of the two murderers in · Macbeth. The first of them says,
“I am one, my liege,
The second says
“And I another
It is in the moral as in the physical sphere; the self-same causes will produce, under different circumstances, totally different results. The most useful agents in nature have sometimes the most deadly effects. The atmosphere, which is essential to life, is the chief source of putrefaction and decay. The sea, which bears one mariner safely to the desired haven, buries another in a watery grave. Electricity, which carries a message across the world at the bidding of one man, strikes another dead. So the very circumstances of which
a good man makes stepping-stones to heaven, a bad man will turn into a pathway to hell. The responsibility for this, however, rests not with God, but with men. As we saw in considering the origin of evil, we must be free, or we should not be moral agents; and being free, it is for us, not for God, to decide how we shall deal with our opportunities and temptations.
But further, it must be acknowledged that there is an immense amount of suffering in the world, the inevitable tendency of which is to de· velop evil and to stifle good. Thousands at home and abroad are brought up in the midst of filth, obscenity and blasphemy, so that for them health, virtue and religion are impossibilities. Justice seems to demand that these men and women should not be made to suffer in the future for the sins which were unavoidable in their case in the past; and that, somehow and somewhere, they should receive compensation for all the calamities which they suffered here on earth. If there be a future life where compensation can be made, then this suffering, horrible as it at first sight appears, does not necessarily tell against either the power or goodness of God. Even these hapless souls may by and by be able to say that it was “good for them to be afflicted.”
But what shall we say in regard to the sufferings of the brute creation ? Ages before man appeared on the earth, animals were “groaning and travailing in pain together,” having to bear the pangs of disease and death, and in most cases being preyed upon and devoured by creatures stronger than themselves. They will probably continue to suffer long after human life has become extinct upon our planet. Their sensuous suffering is at least as great as ours.
“The poor beetle, that we tread upon, In corporal sufferance finds as great a pang
As when a giant dies.” And they have few of the reliefs of suffering which we enjoy. They seldom get the benefit of medical advice or surgical skill. They do not often, except when we choose to make pets of them, meet with manifestations of sympathy. They have no mental resources, as we have, for alleviating physical pains. They cannot, like Pascal, cure the toothache with mathematics. They cannot, like you or me, forget their troubles by taking up an amusing book or resorting to cheerful society. If, when they die, they die for ever, it follows that, in being deprived of the pleasures of sense, they lose their little all. What have they done to deserve this ? Nothing.