OUR age has an opportunity and a duty, superior to that of any moment of the world's past, to understand and master the mystery of suffering, for we in a supreme sense are being tried as by fire. May we so walk in the midst of the burning, fiery furnace that the men of to-morrow will be able to say that we came out of it purified and refined. In unprecedented volume and with unwonted fury, hot blasts of pain are sweeping over mankind in swift succession, sparing few and menacing all. There is no abatement in the operation of those cosmic processes which have made for suffering since the beginning of time, and whose origin does not spring from human sources. Then, too, the average amount of trouble clearly traceable to the weakness and wickedness of individuals and the plottings of groups of men continues. Super-added is this stupendous war which, drunken with the wine of young men's blood, infamous with its atrocities, foul with its corruptions, is engulfing mankind from east to west and from pole to pole. Its massed suffering is colossal, so that the sensitive nature which opens its doors to it through fellow-feeling, understands more fully than ever before the meaning of the Atonement. There is no corner of being which it does not besiege and mutilate and destroy. Minds, characters and bodies are smitten and tortured out of human semblance. The tempest of battle is continuous and knows no rest. The world is writhing with pain. Every bullet that stills the beat of a soldier's pulse, speeds on until it reaches the heart of wife or mother, half the world away, and puts out the lamp of joy in many a life. The infamous, brutal abominations which enslave nations, torture men, ravish women, and, worst of all, despise and violate the sanctity of child-life, are mixing with the lives of myriads near and far, so that the vicarious suffering is as deep as the direct pang which shivers through its immediate victim. To-day every man but the arrant coward is suffering, not merely with his own petty aches and ailments, but more still with the writhing agony of the human race.
Now let us be honest with ourselves--indeed, how dare we be anything but honest in the face of such horrors? Any claim that we, of any race of people whose heritage for generations has been one of privilege and illumination, are without culpability for the present chaos and its super-pain is as foolish as it is untrue. There are degrees of guilt, and whole nations have slowly risen from a position of neutrality or doubtfulness to a flaming conviction, finding flaming utterance, as to where the major responsibility lies. The super-man is the super-criminal. But this does not absolve us from recognizing and correcting our own grave defects. The fact that your neighbour is a highwayman and murderer does not justify you being a braggart and a snob. The pride, the boastfulness and, that most sinister of qualities, the snob-ishness of us Anglo-Saxons, have been and are active factors in world confusion. While reprobating and resisting unto death the unmeasured and immeasurable injustice which is endeavouring with fiendish persistence, and also with the impotence of an Instans Tyrranus, to squeeze out the life of Belgium and Serbia, and to annihilate the Polish and the Armenian races, let us abjure self-righteousness and court self-criticism concerning our own faulty career.
Behind and at the root of the fiery trial of the moment are national and individual faults of temper, which leave us guilty before the bar of God and of history. They are so grave that, as in the past they have brought great democracies to the verge of open conflict, so in the future they will actually precipitate and invite the scourge of war unless we deal with them in unsparing fashion. Democracy is not and cannot be its own security. Its very existence depends upon the character and temper of the people who compose it. It is nothing but a single principle. Used aright it is a unitive force and a friend of liberty, but in the hands of an unenlightened and selfish people it is a menace of major proportions. Of all corrupt governments, there is nothing equal to the corruption of a corrupt democracy.
This is no digression. It is pertinent to the moment and to the discussion. We are seeking a way to preclude the repetition of such horrors as those which are now our daily diet. We are determined upon eliminating war from the scheme of life. Democracy is the watchword of the day. But in itself and by itself it can do nothing but disappoint our hopes, unless we briskly set to work to clean its skirts from the stains which defile it--its hypocrisies, its venalities, its corruptions, its graft, its aristocratic spirit, its self-righteousness. Democracy as it has been is a pale ghost of what it must become if it is to bar the door of mankind to war.
Nor may we wait till to-morrow, when at last peace lets her gentle mantle fall upon the maimed and panting world. There can be no days of reconstruction which have not their roots deep in the present. There is no moment like now in which to get rid of patent national vices, like covetousness expressed in legislation, getting revenue from vice, mitigating and permitting graft for the sake of political ease, grinding the faces of the poor and all the while prating about liberty, condoning vice because it is gilded.
These are the most important days of reconstruction, and unless national democracies mend their ways a world-wide democracy can be nothing better than a doubtful blessing. Each new epoch has had its panacea for the major ills of the human race, from the establishment of the Holy Roman Empire to the Reformation, and from the Reformation until now. There is no panacea but wholeness, in which impartial recognition is given to the entire wealth of God and His purposes. Let us pursue the development of democracy by all means, but let us pursue it as a single factor in a whole army of principles of equal cogency.
Every word that has been said about the wholeness of democracy is true about the Church. In plain language, she is at war within herself. Much of the anguish of soul, of the doubt, of the alienation of men from the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, lies at the door of the broken condition of the Church, her uncath-olic temper, and her apathetic acceptance of the divisions which rend her as though they were not her own fault. It is encouraging to find that there is an increasing discontent with the intolerable conditions which obtain, and a feeling after the remedy for our provincialism and incompleteness. We needed this monstrous war to purge the Church of her belligerency and dilettantism. It is forcing us to a recognition of unpalatable fact.
We must not take for granted that this premier, or any outstanding, trial by fire is going to do any good unless we deliberately will that it should, and line up our activities with our purpose. "If when silence comes down on a decimated, an exhausted, a bankrupt world, the old ways are sought out again and men go on as before, then the myriad lives and the dreary rain of tears are indeed a vain oblation, and all will be to do over again. God sets no lesson that need not be learned, and unless out of it all comes an old heaven and a new earth, then the lesson is set again, as time after time it was set for imperial Rome, until a century of war and pestilence and famine broke down her insolent pride and made from the ruins of her vain glory a foundation for a new civilization in the strength of the Christianity she had denied." We want the fire to burn, we beg of it to burn, we put ourselves in the way of the burning, that the unclean in us may be cleansed, and that the steel in us may be tempered like a Damascus blade. Suffering is ready to be milked by courageous and steady hands, but it will not yield a drop of nourishment to the dilettante or the coward.
There are few of us who have not learned by experience the remedial value of suffering when we have used it as a sacrament. It is astonishing how evanescent the memory of pain is, both in its acute and in its more prolonged forms, and how living a thing is the deposit made by a right correspondence with the opportunity hidden in the heart of suffering. This latter softens the disposition of that which at the moment seemed like unrelieved disaster and, as we look back, gives a benign expression to its severe countenance. To the growing character all his past suffering is a distinct asset, and from none of it would he be separated. He would not, if he could, eliminate a single pang.
The memory of past suffering and its deposit is varied. First and highest stands the vicarious suffering by which we lived in the lives of others and, without fault ourselves, shared the shame and sorrow of others, or else entered into the rich experience of blameless sufferers. Perhaps there is no pain quite like it for intensity. Then there comes the sharing of the common lot in which we receive our due portion of harsh treatment at the rough hand of those relentless forces which are resident in the nature of which we are a part. Some, many, there are who appear to be afflicted beyond measure and without apparent reason. The disparity of suffering is one of the most baffling features of the mystery and would be a fatal one were it not that the most perfect, the one altogether perfect, representative of the human family was afflicted beyond His brethren of every age, and not only took no hurt but even reaped a golden harvest for the world from the field of His suffering. With His stripes we are healed.
And then there are the pangs which we can trace directly to our own fault, and which are nothing more or less than the chastising of the benignly austere hand of God. It is an indignity to the character of God as love to separate penalties for wrong-doing from His direct, purposeful operation. I would rather take a thousand lashes from the hand of love than a single stroke from Fate or mere Justice. The lash of love has wholeness for the culprit as its aim. Fate hits blindly and without purpose. Mere Justice exacts retribution.
It is a puzzle to me why men should assume that pure love is without pain and does not inflict pain. We can know love as it is only by examining it as it reveals itself in the manifestations of God in our own sphere. It is unscientific of science to study love as a theory apart from the data in hand. If we resort to speculative thought, I can dimly see how in an eternal character the counterpart of pain or the reality of which pain is the shadow and symbol is a necessity, but it is so bound up with the whole that every pang is an ecstatic note in joy. It is the lack of immediacy, the discipline of waiting, that pain of pains, which casts doubt over the function of suffering. When the imagination soars above time, which after all is only the standard of measurement in terms of a planetary system, of a part instead of the whole, it is quite possible to think of all the cumulative suffering of the ages of mortality becoming a glittering ray of joy, as the sun, the responsible agent of time, winds up his affairs and hands his record to God.
The sign of the Cross is eternal and can never be wiped out. The Lamb slain from the foundation of the world is inherent in Godhead. There is a timeless element in suffering. Even here and now we have moments of joy which are so intense that they shiver with pain, and in retrospect we find it hard to separate the pain and the blessing into which the pain eventually resolved its discord. Studied as a thing apart, as an entity in itself, as a mere ingredient of time, pain is an evil. But give it its proper place in the whole scheme of love and it becomes not only bearable but also desirable in the process making for completeness.
Ask the Belgian whether, in the light of subsequent events, he regrets that he refused to lie down in passive slavery to the infamous demand of Teuton ambition, and what will he say? His triumphant No climbs to the stars and shakes heaven itself. Men are already saying that the two great events of the war are the resistance of Belgium, and Gallipoli, where the immortal will of man willed to dare an undertaking beyond its power and honoured itself in the failure. Gallipoli was the Charge of the Six Hundred multiplied by a hundred.
Ask the women of Portsmouth who, when it was announced that all but a handful of their husbands and sweethearts had gone gallantly to God by way of the sea, broke spontaneously into Rule, Britannia!--ask them if they would call their heroes from the ocean depths in order that their lives may be easier and smoother? Their negative will have no tremor in its trumpet note.
Ask America as she feels the iron entering into her soul if she wishes to draw back or whether she will go on with invincible spirit laying her best on the altar of sacrifice. Her answer is embodied in her unswerving course toward the goal. If she has any regret it is that she chose the common lot of her Allies late rather than early. And so it goes. Even in time there is enough of the eternal to enable us to see in retrospect--also in anticipation--that pain is an asset too precious to be separated from.
The mystic sense or element in man is not the property of a few. All of us have it. It is the heart and soul of idealism. The prospect of adventure, and of trouble, and of suffering, does not deter the youth of our day from advancing in cohorts upon the hosts of evil. Dimly in most hearts, clearly in some, exultantly in a few, our lads stream out to war not to destroy the power of a visible foe alone but to smite a vicious principle. They know that their wrestling is not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world-rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Consequently we must not preach to them democracy alone as though that had sufficient inspiring force, or nationalism, or internationalism, or a sectarian Church. They are ready for something greater and grander, and if the demand is made of them they will put on the whole armour of God, and having done all will stand.
It seems almost like saying that blindness is a vantage ground for the exercise of sight to claim that never in human experience had an age the chance to see and measure realities like that which we have. But it is so. The illuminating power of trouble and suffering make it a very mount of vision.
The things which can be shaken are shaken and the stable and unchangeable abide. The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews could never have produced his understanding treatise on suffering and God's relation to it except from the house of pain and during an age of palpitating uncertainty. His picture of victory by faith is in every line of it the child of pain. Nor, I am convinced, could the disciple whom Jesus loved have made his spiritual pilgrimage as recorded in the Revelation had his lot been one of home comforts and freedom from anxiety. His exile in the lonely isle of Patmos gave him the rich opportunity which his rich nature seized, and he made the desert to blossom as a rose.
Our Lord seems to lay down the principle that spiritual vision is in inverse ratio to the ease and calmness of prosperity and peace. Its height is reached when the confusion of the universe excels what we ourselves are familiar with. After a description of horrors which spread over the face of earth and sky he says: Then shall they see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. But when these things begin to come to pass, look up and lift up your heads; because your redemption draweth nigh. If I interpret this aright, it means that we of to-day have a chance to get into intimate relationship with the living God in Jesus Christ such as cannot well be surpassed. In part it is that we are driven by the stress of the moment away from that which is unstable to that which is secure, and that being stripped of the veil of material comforts and lifted out of the fog of side issues we are in a clear and unimpeded air in which the heavens press themselves on our gaze. At any rate, whatever the metaphysic of it all be, the day is one of fine and true idealism which enables us to endure because of the joy that is set before us.
I am not trying to deal exhaustively with suffering, or to speculate on how much superior a world God would have made if He had only waited for some of the modern rationalists to advise Him. I am trying to reach fundamental principles that may prove solid ground for slipping feet. The great mass of unmerited and meaningless pain which belongs to the human race cannot be dealt with in detail. But of it may be said two things. First, supposing men go under from the excessive weight of suffering, what then? The bruised reed will He not break, the smoking flax will He not quench. For every pang of seemingly wanton or unmerited pain in time, God has double compensation in timeless-ness. The sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed in us. The sufferings are outward, the glory is inward. You cannot consider the question of suffering except in relation to God's whole self and whole scheme. In the second place--and this is the all-encompassing argument, the irrefutable logic, which enables us to accept what we cannot understand--the pain Giver in Jesus Christ reveals Himself to be the pain Bearer. God thus stoops His shoulders to His own austerities and learns, through suffering, obedience to His own laws. If He, then why not we?
O what great troubles and adversities hast Thou showed me! and yet didst Thou turn and refresh me: yea, and broughtest me from the deep of the earth again. Praised be God for His disciplines! It is good for me that I have been in trouble. Thy terrors have I suffered with a troubled mind, but out of the austerities of Thy love have come visions of hope and encouragement. I thank Thee that Thy fire is a purifying fire and that Thou dost not chastise to destroy, but to build up and save to the uttermost.