Spectators and Sufferers

From “God and the Fact of Suffering,” The Strong Name, 150-153 (1941)

The problem of evil is raised far more often by the spectators of life than by the actual combatants. You will nearly always find that the loudest voices railing against providence and the universe — the voices which keep crying out noisily “How can there be a God and life so tragic and unjust?” — belong to the spectators of life’s sufferings, and not to the sufferers themselves. You will hardly ever find that the great sufferers are the great skeptics. Quite the reverse. It is the spectators — the people who are outside, looking on at the tragedy — from whose ranks the skeptics come; it is not those who are actually in the arena, and who know suffering inside.

Indeed, the fact is that it is the world’s greatest sufferers who have produced the most shining examples of unconquerable faith. It is precisely from the company of the sons and daughters of affliction that the most convinced believers of all ages have sprung. Who are the men whose names stand on the dramatic roll-call of the faithful in Hebrews? Are they men whose days were happy and unclouded and serene, soulds for whom the sun was always shining and the skies unvisited by storm or midnight? If any one imagines that such is the background of faith, let him listen to this: “They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword, destitute, afflicted, tormented; they wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.” That, declares the New Testament, has been in every age faith’s heredity!…

What can be the reason? Must it not be this, that suffering initiates the soul into secrets which the mere onlooker can never know? Here at any rate it is not true to say that the spectators see most of the game. They see less than half the game. They see the clouds and darkness and mystery and tragedy, and so they bombard heaven with their petulant accusations and shout at God their resentful “Why? Why? Why?”

But the sufferers themselves are not like that; they are not caring to raise the question, for they have made discoveries — through their sufferings — which are better than any answer.

I walked a mile with Pleasure.

She chattered all the way,

But left me none the wiser

For all she had to say.

I walked a mile with Sorrow,

And ne’er a word said she;

But, oh, the things I’ve learned from her,

When Sorrow walked with me.

I want you to verify this from your own experience. If some recording angel of God were to visit all our homes today, and were to ask us individually to name the experiences which have blessed and taught us most, the influences which have brought the greatest enrichment to our spirits, would it be the happy, carefree hours that the majority of us would mention first?

Surely that angel’s book, when he had finished with his task, would tell a very different tale. It would tell, of course, of enrichment brought by God’s great gifts of love, and home, and nature, and the beauty of the world; but page after page there would be to tell how trouble, and difficulty, and bereavement, and bitter disappointment, and hopes frustrated, and dreams that flickered out and died — all the things which hurt and leave a mark — had brought blessing by imparting new depth, new insight, into the soul. And these words that stand written in our text of God’s first-born child Jesus, God himself may be using as he looks upon others of his children here today: “Son though he was, yet learned he by what he suffered.”

Is not this the great transfiguring discovery, that pain can be creative? You do not just have to bear it negatively. You can use it positively. You can force it not to subtract but to add on something to your total experience. You can take what has all the appearance of being an ugly implement of destruction and transform it into the loveliest weapon in all your armory for the good fight of faith…You can realize, like Paul, that the “thorn in the flesh,” the thing which you feel inclined to call (as he did, to begin with) “the messenger of Satan to buffet me,” is really not that, but Christ’s own angel in disguise.

By the grace of God, you can compel the darkest, bitterest experiences to yield up their hidden treasures of sweetness and light. And be very sure of this — no sorrow will have been wasted if you come though it with a little more of the light of the Lord visible in your face and shining in your soul.

James S. Stewart (1896-1990) was a Scottish Presbyterian minister and professor, who taught New Testament for many years at the University of Edinburgh, and was moderator of the Church of Scotland in 1963. He was considered one of the greatest preachers of the twentieth century and wrote several books on the subject. The Strong Name was the first collection of his sermons to be published, the fruit of his work at Ediburgh’s North Morningside Parish Church.

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