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The Ministry of Suffering
“Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me.” (Psalms 23:4)
“The inner side of every cloud
Is bright and shining.
I therefore turn my clouds about
And always wear them inside out
To show the lining.”
Here is a great truth, not only in the natural but in the spiritual world. However dark the clouds of heaven the inner side is ever bright and shining. From God’s viewpoint there are no dark clouds, for on the sunward side all clouds are a blaze of glory. Earth alone sees them. So of the psalmist’s word, “Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me.” It is easy to see the comfort in the rod and staff as symbols of protection and care from God. But there is also a suggestion of discipline and suffering in the text. And can such be a “comfort”? Can God bring blessing out of suffering Are the clouds of human sorrow and afﬂiction ablaze with glory from the God-ward side? Can God overrule the sorrow and suffering which sin has brought into this groaning world and make them part of the “all things” which “work together for good” to them that love Him? He surely can. He did not send suffering. “Through one man sin entered, and death through sin.” Death with all its sombre train of suffering and sorrows followed in the wake of sin. “An enemy hath done this.” But God can and does overrule suffering to the purifying and perfecting of His saints upon earth. How does He do it ? And what is He bringing forth for His children from this ﬁery furnace of suffering and afﬂiction? We answer, ﬁrst
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Suffering is the testing-room of God.
I stood once in the test-room of a great steel mill. All around me were little partitions and compartments. In each one was a piece of steel. It had been tested to the limit and marked with ﬁgures that showed its breaking point. Some pieces had been twisted until they broke and the strength of torsion was marked on them. Some had been stretched to the breaking-point and their tensile strength indicated. Some had been compressed to the crushing-point and also marked. The master of the steel mill knew just what these pieces of steel would stand under strain. He knew just what they would bear if placed in the great ship, building, or bridge. He knew this because his testing room revealed it.
It is often so with God’s children. God does not want us to be like vases of glass or porcelain, which shatter at the mere touch of temptation. He would have us like these toughened pieces of steel, able to bear twisting and crushing to the uttermost limit without collapse. He wants us to be, not hothouse plants, but storm-beaten oaks; not sand dunes driven with every gust of wind, but granite rocks withstanding the ﬁercest storms. To make us such He must needs bring us into His testing-room of suffering. It is there He tries out the stuff of which He would have us be. The Spirit, Himself, says of our own dear Lord that “Though He were a Son, yet learned He obedience through the things which He suffered.” If Jesus Christ, Himself, entered into such a school as this, how much more do we who are God’s frail children need to learn the lessons which come only under such a schoolmaster. Many of us need no other argument than our own experience to prove that suffering is indeed God’s testing-room of faith.
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Through suffering we are brought into dependence upon God.
As you climb the stairway of one of the world’s most famous art galleries you come face to face on the landing with a great Greek masterpiece of sculpture, the “Winged Victory.” It is a superb work of genius. The ﬁgure is that of a woman beautiful in form and outline, majestic in stature. Critics suppose it to have been the ﬁgurehead adorn- ing a Greek trireme, rushing through the sea. The sense of action in the statue is wonderful. The ﬁgure leans slightly forward as though it would fore-run to the conquest even the swift rush or the speeding trireme. A few strokes of the chisel of genius have created a ﬂowing drapery streaming in the wind so vividly that it would seem impossible to express it in marble. The whole picture of onrush and progress is graphic beyond words. You can almost see the on-moving boat: almost hear the song of the rowers: almost feel the wind in your face as the boat with its eager goddess of victory rushes toward the unseen approaching foe. Yet this wondrous ﬁgure with all its power, beauty, and rush of action is minus a head, has no arms, and is broken and splintered in body and wing. A marred, ant mutilated statue, yet the magniﬁcent symbol of exultant victory I Oh what a lesson is here! “This is the victory that overcometh world even our faith.” But faith is dependence upon God. And this God-dependence only begins when self-dependence ends. And self-dependence only comes to its end with some of us when sorrow, suffering, afﬂiction, broken plans and hopes bring us to that place of self-helplessness where we throw ourselves upon God in seeming utter helplessness and defeat. And only then do we wake to ﬁnd that we have learned the lesson of faith: to ﬁnd our tiny craft of life rushing onward to a blessed victory of life and power and service undreamt of in the days of our ﬂeshly strength and self-reliance. Oh, the victory of what the world would call a broken life! Broken in self-strength to ﬁnd the strength of God: broken in fortune to ﬁnd the riches of God: broken in earthly pleasure-quests to ﬁnd the joy of God.
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Through suffering we are brought into the service of God
Down South where his memory is still revered they tell you this story of the late General John B. Gordon. Years after the Civil War, Gordon was a candidate for the United States senatorship. The day came when his name was to be put in nomination in his state legislature. In that body was a man who had been a comrade of Gordon during the war. But for some reason the latter had incurred his resentment and the man had decided to vote against the general. When the time came, the roll was being called for the voting. Presently this old soldier’s name was reached, and he arose to cast his vote against the man with whom he had fought all through the great struggle of four years. General Gordon was seated at the time upon the Speaker’s platform in full view of all the legislators. As the man arose his eyes fell upon a scar upon Gordon’s face, the mark of his valor and suffering for the cause to which he had literally given his life-blood in battle. Immediately the old soldier was stricken with remorse. As he saw this token of the sacriﬁce and suffering of the man by whose side he had himself fought he cried out with great emotion: “I cannot vote against him; I had forgotten the scar-I had forgotten the scar;”
Some of us have forgotten the scars. We have forgotten the sacred brow dripping crimson from under its thorny crown. We have forgotten the wounded side where the savage Roman spear drank deep of the costly libation of His blood. We have forgotten the hands and feet pierced with the nails and stretched and torn with the weight of the precious body of the Suffering One. We have forgotten what a claim these scars constitute upon every life they have redeemed from death, and the tender appeal of their mute lips as they cry unto us, “I beseech you by the mercies of God present your bodies a living sacriﬁce.” And to us, forgetting this, God lets suffering and sorrow come and do their work. We sit in anguished silence looking into the faces of our dead, and life takes on a new and solemn sacredness. We awake to ﬁnd ourselves stripped of fortune and fame, and the riches of God become real as never before. We come face to face with bafﬂed plans and blasted hopes only to have the veil of our blindness torn from our eyes and behold God’s will with its blessedness of service and its far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory to follow. Lest we forget God lets us come into that pathway of suffering where the things of the ﬂesh that have been making us forget are forced into the background and Jesus Christ becomes the true center and passion of our lives. This is what suffering has meant to some of you, nor would you recall it-even if you could.
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Through suffering we come to know the life of God.
In the South in the great pine forests the oncoming spring ﬁnds much accumulation of rubbish. The ground is littered with the pine needles, scattered oak leaves, dried underbrush, the fragments of fallen branches. Underneath the rubbish the earth is pulsing and throbbing with the new life of Spring. But it cannot break forth. The waste and rubbish cover, and smother and hinder it from breaking through into life and vegetation. So the husbandman does a seemingly strange thing. He sets ﬁre to the forest. That is he ﬁres the ground which is littered with the waste. Roaring and crackling the leaping ﬂames sweep through the great pine woods consuming the rubbish as in a ﬁery furnace, but leaving the stately trees untouched, under the careful guarding hand of the husbandman. The whole great carpet of earth in the spreading forest lies a blackened, smoking waste. Then a rain falls and in an astonishingly short time the whole scene has undergone a magic transformation. Freed from their suffocating shroud of rubbish, millions of stiﬂed life-germs underneath the surface leap up into life and beauty and the whole forest is carpeted with living green of the shoots of tender grass. A million spears of grass have risen from the gloom and corruption of their tiny tombs because the purging ﬂames of a forest ﬁre have set them free unto resurrection.
Is not this nature’s parable of your life as a believer? It is overlaid with the rubbish, of the ﬂesh. “The cares of this world, the deceitfulness of riches, and the lusts of other things” choke it, says the Master. Underneath is the Christ-life, struggling for utterance, expression and fruit-bearing. But wordly desires, self-centered purposes, trivial aims and aspirations, self-indulgence and indifference to the things of God and His kingdom, and a score of other deadly foes are stiﬂing the life of the indwelling Christ, and hindering God’s great purpose “that Christ may be formed in you.” So God lets the purging ﬁres of some great bereavement, sorrow, or temporal loss sweep through your ﬂeshly life. And when it has done its work that life seems to you to lie like a scorched and blackened waste, in utter ruin and desolation. But it has all been “for our proﬁt that we might be partakers of His holiness.” And up from the blackened waste springs the verdure, bloom, and beauty of a new life to which we were but strangers before. We have become “Subject unto the Father of spirits” and we “live” (Heb. 12 :9) as we never lived before; for now indeed do we live unto Him who loved us and gave Himself for us.
The Lost Sorrow
I once heard a man speak of lost sorrow. At ﬁrst blush I did not know what he meant. But his thought quickly emerged and I saw it all. A lost sorrow was a sorrow out of which a man failed to get the blessing which God meant to come out of it for him. Out of every sorrow God means there should come submission; a drawing nearer to His own great heart of love: a new vision of the shallowness of worldly streams and the depths of divine ones: a closer devotion to Jesus Christ than ever before known; a loosening of the grasp on time, and its tightening upon eternity. Now for the man who failed to get these blessings out of sorrow: the man who allowed afﬂiction to embitter his life, deaden his faith, chill his devotion to God, engross his heart in the selﬁsh nursing of his own grief while the world about him was dying for lack of the help he might give-to the man who thus so utterly failed to receive the blessed ministry God had for him in sorrow, that afﬂiction was a lost sorrow. For in very truth a lost sorrow is a most solemn testimony against you. It is a silent witness that God’s most heart-searching means of drawing you close to Himself has failed because you grow bitter and are refusing to receive from it what God is so tenderly seeking to bring forth from it for your life. Oh, so many of us are bemoaning to-night our lost investments; our lost treasure ships which never made port; our lost hopes that found no glad fruition in realization! But do we mourn too for the lost sorrows which have swept through our lives leaving no enrichment of soul because we have hardened our hearts under them!
Do not grow bitter against God, my friend, because of your sorrow. Do not set your forehead as brass against His loving dealing with you. Do not push away the most mysterious tool in the Divine Graver’s hand, yet the one by which He chisels out the ﬁnest tracery of the Christ-image in your shrinking soul. For it is a solemn fact which some of us know all too well that sorrow leaves us either closer to God or farther away. It is a double- edged tool. It either scars or beautiﬁes. By our resistance we may make it a head-wind bafﬂing and driving our tiny craft back from its destined haven of rest. But by our submission God will make it to be a favoring one to waft us onward into the safety and tranquil rest of His perfect will.
A booklet by James McConkey