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The Christian Answer to Suffering

Editor’s note: Stanley Jones (1884-1973) served much of his life as missionary to India, ministering among the most disenfranchised—members of the lowest castes and the outcastes. Known affectionately as the Billy Graham of India, Jones sought to present the gospel disencumbered from Western ideologies, looking for means of translating Christianity in South Asian cultural terms. This work gained Jones inroads to the higher castes, including students and academics, and made possible interreligious lectures that he delivered throughout the continent. His most important writing is The Christ of the Indian Road (1925), which sold over one million copies.

by E. Stanley Jones, Asbury College Radio Program

Audio available here

I’m going to talk to you this morning about the Christian answer to suffering, merited and unmerited. It’s a world of suffering and getting worse. It’s going to steal into many a heart and embitter it, and we have to be able to answer this question. Suffering, not answer it as a verbal thing but as a vital thing. I can understand merited suffering. It’s a world of moral consequence. I am free to choose, but I am not free to choose the results of my choosing. Those results are in hands not my own. It’s a world where I don’t break the laws of God; I break myself on the laws of God. Action is followed by reaction, and it’s according to the quality of the action that determines the quality of the reaction. I can understand that I must reap what I sow. If I do wrong, the consequences of that wrong are going to come back on me, unless of course God steps in and takes it on himself and bears it and delivers me of the consequences of my wrong through forgiveness and the new birth. I can understand merited suffering, but what about this unmerited suffering? Why should people suffer when they don’t do wrong? Other people do wrong, and the consequences of that wrongdoing hit the innocent. Why should little children suffer? This war, very few people chose it, and yet here we are in a world of suffering because of the sin of not many but a few. It’s at the place of unmerited suffering that the mind of man reels and sometimes rebels.

Differing systems coming to this whole question give differing answers. One answer is the Greek answer, the Stoic. He said, “My head might be bloody, but it will be unbowed under the bludgeonings of chance.” He would match his inner courage against the circumstances of life. It was a noble creed. Good, but not good enough. Then there’s the answer of Omar Khayyam, the great Persian poet. He said he’d like to take the steam of things entire and smash it and remake it according to the heart’s desire. It’s lovely poetry, but you and I can’t take hold of the steam of things entire and smash it. We have to work out our destiny under things as they are in large measure. Margaret Fuller once said, “I accept the universe,” and Carlyle’s comment was, “Gad, she’d better.” There’s nothing else to be done.

The ancient Buddha had his answer. He sat under the Bodhi tree at Gaya and pondered long and deep upon the problem of suffering and came to the conclusion that existence and suffering are one. As long as you’re in existence, you’re in suffering. The only way to get out of suffering is to get out of existence, and the only way to get out of existence is to get out of action. The only way to get out of action is to get out of desire. At the root of desire, even for life, as we stop the weed of existence from turning round, and then you go out into that passionless, actionless state called Nirvana, the state literally of the snuffed out candle. I asked a Buddhist monk once whether there was any existence in Nirvana. He laughed and asked, “How could there be? There’s no suffering, and if there’s no suffering, there can be no existence.” In Buddha we get rid of the problems of life by getting rid of life. We would get rid of our headaches by getting rid of our heads. Too big a price.

The Hindu has his answer. He says that the thing that comes upon you from without isn’t from without really. It’s the result of your sins of a previous birth. They’re finding you out now. Whatever is, is just. So where there is suffering, there has been antecedent sin. A Hindu said to me one day Jesus must have been a terrible sinner in a previous birth because he was such a terrible sufferer in this one. According to the strict law of karma, that’s right. But I would suspect a premise that brought me to that conclusion.

The Mohammaden has his answer. He says that which comes from without is the will of God. Everything that happens is God’s will; bend under it. Islam literally means submission to the will of God. But I question whether everything that happens is the will of God. If so, what kind of a God is there? His character is gone. When I turn to the Old Testament, I find several answers. One is, “No plague will come neigh your dwelling. Only with your eyes will you behold and see the reward of the wicked.” In other words, the righteous will be exempt. The Old Testament prophets had difficulty in fitting that in with the facts of life. They saw that the righteous did suffer. They were puzzled.

When we come to the New Testament, a great many Christians give the Mohammaden answer: “It’s the will of God, bend under it. Accept it as the will of God.” Others give the answer that the righteous will be exempt. Oh, I grant you that they are exempt from a good many things that come upon other people. They know how to live better in a universe of this kind. They’re not breaking their shins on the system of things all the time. They know how to live better in a universe of this kind. But they’re subject to other sufferings which do not come upon the unrighteous. The world demands conformity: if you fall beneath its standards, it will punish you. If you rise above its standards, it will persecute you. It demands a grey, average conformity. But the Christian is a departure upward. His head is lifted above the multitude. Therefore, that head gets whacked. And if it doesn’t get whacked, well, it’s not above the multitude. “Woe unto you,” said Jesus, “when all men speak well of you.” You’re like them. If you’re different, you get hurt.

A man said in one of my roundtable conferences in India, he said, “You know I’ve lost my faith. I asked God for something anybody could have answered. My brother was wounded in the last war. I prayed that he might get well and might be spared. And when he wasn’t spared and he died, my faith died too.” A professor walked across the street in Chicago and was knocked down by a motor truck, leg broken. After many weeks in the hospital, he came back to the university chapel service and said, “I no longer believe in a personal God. Had there been a personal God, he would have whispered to me when he saw me in that danger. But he didn’t whisper to me, so when my leg was broken, my faith was broken.” These converge upon one idea, namely if you’re only righteous, you’ll be spared. And when they weren’t spared, their faith crashed.

Well, let’s look at it. Suppose that were true, what would happen? First of all, to religion. Well, we’d take out religion, as you’d take out a fire insurance policy. You’d say, “I want to get through the fires of suffering, and therefore, I’ve become religious to be exempt.” And religion would be degraded to the level of a fire insurance policy—no more, no less. Besides, what would happen to the character of the universe? The universe would soon become an undependable universe. You wouldn’t know what to expect. If a good man leaned over the parapet too far, the law of gravitation would be suspended. If a bad man leaned over too far, he would need an operation. You wouldn’t know whether the laws of nature would be in operation or suspension because you wouldn’t know the character of the person concerned. Now I know if I lean over the parapet too far, the law of gravitation isn’t going to ask whether I’m good, bad, or indifferent; it’s going to pull me down. So I don’t lean over too far. It’s a hard school, but I know the rules.

Suppose it could be proved that motor trucks would not knock you down, what would happen to the character of the righteous? Well they’d become the champion jaywalkers of the world. They’d roam around amid the traffic meditating and vegetating. And that quickness of decision which comes from a world of chance and circumstance would be taken away, and that elimination would be their exemption. Now when I walk across the road, I know if I don’t belong to the quick, then I will belong to the dead. So I watch, both ways. I belong to the quick. No, that’s not the answer. If that were the answer, the righteous would be the petting child of the universe, and the petting child is always the spoiled child.

What, then, is the Christian answer? It’s none of these. But it’s more wonderful than all of these put together. It’s this. That you can take hold of suffering and sorrow and frustration and injustice and not bear it, but use it. Almost everything beautiful in the pages of the New Testament has come out of something ugly. Almost everything glorious has come out of something shameful. They don’t ask to be exempt. They don’t ask to be taken out of suffering. All they ask is inner soundness of spirit so they can take hold of the raw materials of human life as it comes to them—justice and injustice, pleasure and pain, compliment and criticism. And they can take it up into the purpose of their lives and transmute it and make it into something else. That is an open possibility of living—in spite of.

I know a man who went out to China on an adventure of service and love for his master, he and his family. And they came back from China a shattered, battered remnant of that campaign for Christ. The father caught an infection of the eye, which left him blind. The mother died of a painful illness, cancer—long, lingering illness. One son died of Addison’s Disease; another got an abrasion upon the heel on a sports field and died from that infection. The daughter was stricken with infantile paralysis and hobbles around on crutches. The only remaining son had to give up his course at the seminary to undergo a major operation. But on an airfield in Miami, Florida, at midnight, he took me by the hand and said, “I’m proud of my family.” And well he might be.

What happened to that family? The only two remaining ones at home were the father, blind, and the daughter, a cripple. Between them, they had a seeing-eye dog and a pair of crutches to come back to life with. Were they beaten? Oh, no. The father has a church where he is on the pastorate, preaches all over the country evangelistic sermons with his seeing-eye dog. And the daughter organizes the games of the church, hobbling around on crutches, and keeps house for her father, still hobbling on her crutches. Between them, they have a seeing-eye dog and a pair of crutches. Oh, no. They have an unconquerable spirit. No wonder that boy at midnight said to me, “I’m proud of my family.” Well he might be. You see, they’ve taken hold of injustice, apparent injustice, and turned it into victory.

General Chiang Kai-shek and Madame Chiang are wonderful people. I was talking to Madame Chiang one day in China, and I said to her, “Is General Chiang a real Christian?” She said, “Yes, he is. He reads his Bible every day and prays, gets strength from God.” But then she turned to me and said, “You must remember that he’s only a babe in Christ.” It was interesting. He was seated right there, and his wife was saying that he was only a babe in Christ. How did he become a Christian? Three influences really helped him to be a Christian. One was his mother in law. You can chalk that up in favor of the mother in laws who are so often maligned. Sometimes we should call them mothers in love. The second influence was a Negro evangelist who prayed for a child in that home where Chiang Kai-shek was, and the child was healed. . . . And the third influence was a doctor.

When Chiang Kai-shek’s army swept across that country, in the early days, there was a communist left wing, and they looted a hospital belonging to a missionary left with a shell, his life work went to pieces. But he followed after the army and tended to their sick and their wounded. When Chiang Kai-shek heard about it, he said, “What makes that man follow after and tend to the sick and wounded of the very people who looted his hospital? What makes him do it?” And they said, “He’s a Christian. That’s why he does it.” Then said Chiang Kai-shek, “If that’s what it means to be a Christian, I’m going to be a Christian.” Then, in the midst of an anti-Christian movement that was sweeping that country, to the astonishment of everybody, Chiang Kai-shek announced that he was a Christian. That doctor had calamity come upon him, but through that calamity, he showed his spirit. And through the revelation of that spirit, he won one of the greatest men of this age. And through him, it may win a great nation. You see, he took hold of injustice and turned it into something else. He had mastered a way to live. And it may be that through your suffering and frustration and defeat, you can show a spirit, and that spirit will do far more work than all your years of work. They’ll look through that little revelation, and they’ll see something eternal abiding in that moment. That’s the Christian answer. The Christian answer is to take hold of everything and make it into something else. That is victory.

Image: “Pain” by H. Amir. CC License.