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SUFFERING THE SCHOOL OF OBEDIENCE,
“Though He were a Son, yet learned He obedience by the things which He suffered.”
ALTHOUGH we are taught that the godhead and manhood were so united in the person of our blessed Lord as to be absolutely one, there yet remains unrevealed a wonderful mystery respecting the conditions of His human nature; as, for instance, where He said of His second coming, “Of that day and that hour knoweth no man; no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father.”7575 St. Mark xiii. 32. How did He not know? How should any thing be hidden from “the Son of Man, which is in heaven?”7676 St. John iii. 13. All that we can say is, that in these words He declared to us that the mystery of His incarnation was in some way ordered by the laws and conditions of our manhood. We have another example of this kind in the text: St. Paul here tells us that Christ Himself “learned obedience by the things which He suffered.”
And, first, this may be understood of the passive nature which, by taking upon Himself our humanity, He assumed into His divine person. As God He was impassible, immortal, incapable of being tempted by evil; infinite, and therefore unchangeable: neither growth, nor weariness, nor faintness, nor thirst, nor hunger, could reach the Eternal. He was above the conditions of a creature; but by the mystery of His incarnation, what things before could not reach or fasten upon His divine nature, were admitted to His manhood. He, therefore, took on Him our flesh and blood, that He might come under the dominion of suffering and mortality, of spiritual warfare and bodily infirmities. As He assumed the passive conditions of humanity, so He partook of the susceptibilities of its several ages. And therefore we read that “Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man.”7777 St. Luke ii. 52. And these words are no mere economy or condescension, as when we read of God’s repenting, or awaking, or plucking His right hand out of His bosom; but deep mysterious realities, as plainly to be taken and understood as the Word being made flesh, and weeping at the grave of Lazarus, and being nailed upon the cross. Such was the humiliation of the Eternal Son. He was made man, not only to suffer, but to learn; He assumed the imperfections of His creatures, and “compassed” Himself “with infirmity;” that, as before there was nothing in Godhead which was not in Him, so -afterward there was nothing in manhood, sin only excepted, of which He did not partake. It is plain, then, that He “learned obedience” in the very truth of our nature, even as we learn it; that is, by measure and degrees, and by discipline, and in time.
And this brings us to one more truth. There are different ways both of knowing and of learning. A large part of our knowledge is either intuitive and ideal, residing in the pure reason; or speculative, that is, gathered by deduction and mental inference: and this is one kind of knowledge, and one way of learning. Another kind is learned by what we call life; by experience, personal trial, entanglement with events, struggles in doing and suffering: and what we learn in this way, we know with a depth and familiarity far beyond all other knowledge; it is a part of our living energies and powers, and dwells in our very being. Not only is its stamp imprinted on us, but it so passes into us as to blend with our whole inner nature. We are what we have done and suffered. And this is what we commonly call “experience.” Now, if we consider that the impassible Word took on Him our passible nature, we shall see in what sense even He “learned obedience by the things that He suffered.” As there is a difference in kind between the knowledge we possess of those things which we have, and those things which we have not, learned by experience; so the same is true also of His perfect manhood; and more visibly true of the knowledge of an omniscient impassible Being compared with the experience of suffering humanity. It is a mode and kind of knowledge which could not otherwise consist with the perfections of the Godhead.
He made trial, then, in a passible nature, of human suffering. He learned, by actual partaking of sorrow, what is the power of sin over mankind. Into His pure manhood the guilt of sin could no more enter than into His eternal Godhead: but the sinless infirmities of our fallen state, and its large capacities of agony, He took; and, girded about with them, He offered Himself to the strife of evil. He obeyed, in that He stood in the place of a sufferer. And in it He learned in very deed, by feeling and tasting, the nakedness and the bitterness of the fall of man. What was impossible to the Godhead, He as man endured in the wilderness, suffering the suggestions and solicitations of the Evil One; so likewise in the garden, He passed through an agony which cannot be uttered; there lay on Him a crushing burden of fleshly and spiritual woes, the like of which never man yet bare. In the betrayal, and in the judgment before Annas, and Caiaphas, and Herod, and Pilate, and by the way-side, and in the ascent of Calvary, and upon the cross, He learned a mystery of suffering, of pangs and agony, such as no son of man had ever known. Into all this the Eternal Word entered, through His passive nature as man. Strange words, yet most true, though so awful to the ear as almost to make us fear to speak them. He that suffered the rack of the spiritual cross, and the unutterable torments of bodily pain, was God. He to whom all mysteries lie open as the light of noon, learned, by the things which He suffered, what as God He could never taste. Through that life, short in days, but in sorrows above all measure long, through humiliation, and peril, and contempt, and cold, and fasting, and weariness, and thirst, and hunger, and faintness, and ingratitude, and contradiction of sinners, and treachery, and false-witness, and unjust condemnation, and buffetting, and spitting, and mockery, and the smiting of the reed, and the crown of thorns, and the vinegar and gall, and the rending cross, and the hiding of His Father’s face,—He the Eternal, the Word of God, the everlasting Son of the Father, learned the mystery of suffering. What, then, was it that He learned? St. Paul says, obedience: that is, by trial, and discipline, and self-denial, He took the will of His Father for His own. All the assaults of the tempter, whether by allurement or by opposition, could not move Him from His loyalty; all the long lingering daily toil, and all the piercing agonies of His passion, could not withdraw so much as a thought of His heart from His Father’s will. Even though He, the great and true Melchisedec, “in the days of His flesh,” made oblation7878 προσενέγκας. of “prayers and supplications, with strong crying and tears, unto Him that was able to save Him from death, and was heard in that He feared;”7979 Heb. v. 7. yet the prayer of His heart was, “not My will, but Thine be done;” and He was heard, yet not so that the cup should pass, but that His will should yield to His Father’s, and become one with it. This, then, He learned even as we: as He hungered like us, and wept like us, so, by trial and discipline, He learned to bear the sufferings of our nature. All through His humiliation, He was realising, by actual energy and patience, the pledge He gave of old: “Lo, I come to do Thy will, O God.”
And in thus learning obedience, He learned also to enter by sympathy into the sorrows of those that suffer: “We have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.”8080 Heb. iv. 15. For in that “He Himself hath suffered being tempted, He is able to succour them that are tempted.”8181 Heb. ii. 18. All divine as He was before, and therefore infinite in love and pity, He has yet condescended further to our fallen state, and interposed, between His eternal mercies and our imperfect being, the tender sympathy of His own crucified humanity; as if it were not enough that He should pity us “like as a father pitieth his children,” but that He must feel with us in our sorrows even as one of ourselves. And for this cause He suffered, that He might learn to sympathise with those that suffer through obedience. He has made full trial of all; there is no posture of the afflicted soul with which He is not familiar; no measure of bodily or spiritual sorrow which, “in the days of His flesh,” He endured not to the uttermost; and what He endured in the weakness of humanity, passed into the depths of His divine compassion.
Though He was God, yet was there something still to be learned for our sakes; though He was a Son, yet were there deeper mysteries of obedience which He must needs learn through suffering. All holy even as man, altogether obedient to His Father’s will, yet, by some law which governs the realities of the spiritual world, there were deep things lying hid in the nature of sorrow and pain, and in the energy and patience of the will, which were yet to be learned by warfare and by agony; and for this end He was made flesh, and bowed Himself to the cross of our humiliation; and was made not only like us, but one with us; so that it was our mingled and sensitive being which in Him suffered, and was taught and disciplined in the relation of a creature to his God, and of a sinner to his righteous Judge.
Now there is one broad and obvious truth flowing from what has been said: namely, that suffering is the school or discipline of obedience. In His wisdom and power, God has laid even upon sorrow the destiny of fulfilling His purposes of mercy. In the beginning, sorrow was the wages of sin, penal and working death; by the law of Christ’s redemption it is become a discipline of cleansing and perfection. God permits it still to abide in His kingdom, but He has reduced it to subjection. It is now changed to be a minister, not more of His severity than of His mercy. To the impenitent, and such as will not obey the truth, it is still, as ever, a dark and crushing penalty: to the contrite and obedient, it is as the refiner’s fire, keen and searching, purging out the soils, and perfecting the renewal of our spiritual nature. It is the discipline of saints, and the safest, though the austerest, school of sanctity; and that because suffering, or, as we are wont to say, trial, turns our knowledge into reality. God has many ways of teaching us; and from our childhood we are ever learning, from parents, and teachers, and sermons, and books; from the holy Scriptures and the sacraments of the Church, and from the changes and chances of the world: all these form the habit of obedience in faithful minds. But a season of suffering is beyond them all. When pain searches into the body or the spirit, we feel as if we had awoke up to know that we had learned nothing really until then. There is laid upon us a mighty hand, from whose shadow we cannot flee. All general truths teem with a particular meaning, and speak to us with a piercing emphasis. God is come nigh to us, and is dealing with us at last, one by one. It is our turn now; and we feel as if we saw the tokens of His presence shaping themselves for a moment to our sight, and then withdrawing themselves again; coming and going in an awful way, as if to gaze upon us, and search out our very thoughts: we feel as if the prophet’s words were in some way true of ourselves: “In the year that king Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne high and lifted up, and His train filled the temple.”8282 Isaiah vi. 1. Something is before the eye of the soul; what it is as yet we cannot clearly see: but we are conscious that we are brought in contact with the order of the eternal world; and that God has turned His hand upon us, to make us meet for His kingdom; that henceforward it is most likely that our trials will follow quickly, one upon another; and that there is no other rest in store for us until we put off this body, and pass into the realities of the world unseen. Such are the effects wrought by sorrows, sicknesses, bodily pains, anxieties, and the like. They seem to take away the imaginative and visionary parts of our life, and to turn it into a severe and impressive reality: they make all our past life appear as a mere day-dream, as if we had never been in earnest till now. We have heard of submission, and resignation, and giving up of our own will; but it has been as yet little more than hearsay. At last we find these things required at our hands. We must give more than words now: God is exacting realities. And then there comes down upon the mind, as it were, a full stream of words and sayings, which we have heard or read in time past, and only half understood, and well nigh forgotten. They have lain pent up in the hidden recesses of our memory, not altogether forgotten, and yet hardly remembered: like dormant truths, which lie in the reason of children, ready to start into vivid life when wisely touched, and yet sometimes never elicited, and therefore never known; so the things which we understand not when we first hear or read, rise up as lights “in the day of visitation;” half-truths unfold their full outline; scattered truths draw together into an expressive context; and we seem to hear a voice saying, “Why would you not understand this before? Why make all this necessary? It is not spoken out more plainly now than it was years ago; but you would not understand.” Equally true this is, also, of all bright and blessed truths: they also are quickened with a living energy. The promises of heaven, and the times of refreshing, and the rest of the saints, and the love of God, and the presence of Christ, which we have so long thought of, and talked about, and felt after, and yet never seemed to grasp,—all these likewise become realities. They seem to gather round us, and shed sensible influences of peace upon our suffering hearts: and this is what we mean when we say, “I have long known these things to be true, but now I feel them to be true.” As Job, after his trial, said, “I have heard of Thee by the hearing of the ear, but now mine eye seeth Thee.” He had learned obedience through suffering.
And, in the next place, sufferings so put our faith on trial as to strengthen and confirm it. They develop what was lying hid in us, unknown even to ourselves. And therefore we often see persons, who have shewn no very great tokens of high devotion, come out, under the pressure of trials, into a most elevated bearing. This is especially true of sickness and affliction. Not only are persons of a holy life made to shine with a more radiant brightness, but common Christians, of no note or visibleness, are changed to a saintly character. They wrestle with their trial, as the patriarch with his unknown companion, and will not let it go without a blessing; and thereby the gifts which lie enwrapped in a regenerate nature are unfolded into life and energy. Perhaps almost every one is able, in looking back on his life past, to fix on the seasons which gave his character some new and determinate cast. He can look back, perhaps, and say, “Until such a time I lived without real thoughts of God; and then such a sickness gave my mind a startling check; and after that I lived inconsistently, between right conviction and unamended habits, until such an anxiety spurred me to take a decided line; but even then I had only selfish thoughts for my own salvation, without care for others, until another trial came; and then, too, I remember that, for a long time, I had only the active and exciting parts of obedience, I had none of the passive features of faith, no meekness nor patience under wrong or slights, nor willingness to be overlooked and forgotten, and to die to the world, until a great sorrow came, and changed the whole current of my will. There have been stages and resting places in my course; and I have moved at an uneven pace, sometimes faster and sometimes slower, according, as I see now, to the trials which came upon me; and all the deeper and more decided changes of my character are dated from the heavier and sharper visitations of suffering. How little did I once know of what I see now with a clear insight! What I used hardly to reason out, is now an intuition. Had I been left to myself, I should have known none of these things. They would have continued to be as shadowy and unreal as they were in childhood, and all my character would have been straitened and stunted. I have been almost passive, while He has been working out His will in me: He has chosen, and gone before me, and guided me by the rod of His chastisement. Little as I know even now, yet all I know I have been taught by trials: I have learned obedience by the things which I have suffered.” Now, I say, perhaps every man will be able to trace out a coincidence between these words and some part at least of his past life; and what does this shew, but the fact that God has been teaching him through the discipline of trials; making him to realise his knowledge, and unfolding his character into form and energy?
Once more: nothing so likens us to the example of Christ as suffering. It seems to be an inevitable law, arising out of the fall of the old, and the perfecting of the new creation—first, that the second Adam should be a “Man of sorrows;” and next, that we should be conformed to Him in this aspect of His perfection: “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.”8383 Heb. ii. 10. And it is not more in relation to sanctity than to sufferings, that St. Paul says that we were predestinated “to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren.”8484 Rom. viii. 29. And therefore, in another place, he asks, “What son is he whom the father chasteneth not?” and argues that to be free from chastisement is an awful exemption, rather to be feared than coveted, as clouding the bright, though keen tokens of sonship, which are seen in those that suffer. There is a breadth and universality in this reasoning, which seems to force upon us the conviction, that no true member of His body who was made perfect through sufferings, shall pass out of life without at some time drinking of the cup that He drank of, and being baptised with the baptism that He was baptised with. And, indeed, if we look into the lives of His saints, we shall see that this is simply true. All that suffer are not therefore saints; alas! far from it, for many surfer with out the fruits of sanctity; but all saints at some time, and in some way and measure, have entered into the mystery of suffering. And this throws light on a very perplexing thought in which we sometimes entangle ourselves: I mean, on the wonderful fact that oftentimes the same persons are as visibly marked by sorrows as by sanctity. We often see the holiest of Christ’s servants afflicted with a depth and multiplication of sufferings beyond other men. They seem never to pass out of the shadow of affliction; no sooner is one gone off than another has come up; “the clouds return after the rain;” sorrow gathers into sorrow; sickness gives way before sickness; fears are thrust out by fears; anxieties are only lost in anxieties; they seem to be a mark for all the storms and arrows of adversity; the world esteems them to be “stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted;” even religious people are perplexed at their trials. When we see eminently holy persons suddenly bereaved, or suffering sharp bodily anguish, and their trials long drawn out, or multiplied by succession, we often say, How strange and dark is this dispensation! who would have thought that one so pure, so patient, and resigned, should have been so visited and overwhelmed by strokes? If they had been slack, or lukewarm, or backward, or self-willed, or entangled in worldly affections, we could better read the meaning of this mysterious trial; but who more earnest and useful in all good works; who so advanced in holiness, so near to the kingdom of heaven, as they?—And yet all this shews how shallow and blind our faith is; for we know little even of those we know best; we readily overrate their character; at all events, they are far otherwise in the esteem of God than in our judgment: our thoughts are not His thoughts; we set up a poor, dim, depressed standard of perfection; and we should miserably defraud even those we love most, if it were in our power to mete out their trials by our measures: we little know what God is doing, and how can we know the way? and we often think that the sorrows of the saints are sent for their punishment, when they are sent for their perfection. Either way we are greatly ignorant. They may need far more of purification than we think; they may be suffering for an end higher than purification; for some end which includes purification, and unknown mysteries besides. We forget that Christ suffered, and why; and how He learned obedience, and what that obedience was. He was all-pure; suffering could find no more to cleanse than sin could find to fasten upon. The prince of this world “had nothing” in Him; yet whose-sorrow was like unto His sorrow, “wherewith the Lord afflicted” Him “in the day of His fierce anger?” and that, great as the mystery must ever be, not only and altogether as a vicarious suffering, but that in the truth of our manhood He might learn “obedience by the things that He suffered.” He was made “perfect” by sufferings; and that “perfection,” whatsoever it be, has an ineffable depth of meaning. It was not only a sacerdotal perfection by consecration to the priesthood of Melchisedec, but something of which that was the formal expression and manifestation; a great spiritual reality, a perfection of holiness, knowledge, obedience, will, and sympathy; this was the perfection in truth and spirit of “the one Mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus.” And of this perfection, after the measures of a creature, and the proportions of our mere manhood, are the saints made to partake; they are purified, that they may be made perfect. And therefore the sorrows of the holiest minds are the nearest approaches to the mind of Christ, and are full of a meaning which is dark to us only from its exceeding brightness. Our weak faith, which can read the earthlier teaching of affliction, goes blind when it follows the mystery of sorrow upward to the perfection of Christ. We know not what things they learn,—things which it is riot lawful for a man to utter; and therefore their words are often to our ears incoherent, and we are ready to say, “What is this that he saith? . . . we cannot tell what he saith.” It may be, that suffering plants the mind of man at a point of sight in the spiritual world, from which things altogether hidden from us who stand by and see his afflictions, and until then even from himself, become visible; such, for instance, as the nature of evil, of temptation, of disobedience, of the fall of man, of our birth-sin, of death, of the striving of the Holy Ghost with the unholy in the mystical body of Christ, of responsibility, and of a crucified will: such also, as the counterpart of these realities, the nature of regeneration, and of Christ’s presence in the Church and holy sacraments and in the heart of the faithful, and the beauty of holiness, the resurrection of the body, the bliss of heaven, and the like. Now it must be remembered, that all these things we know from childhood; but suffering may be the necessary condition to our feeling them. If we would learn these things, it may be, we have need to be made like to our Lord, not only in His purity, but in His passion; for they are learned not so much by being presented to our minds, as by the posture of the will, and the attitude of the spiritual being, wrought through the discipline of suffering. We must be changed, before even what we see will be seen, or what we know will be known, aright. And, it may be, that anguish of soul, or pain of body, is that which alone can transfigure our inward being. And this throws light upon the whole subject of fasting, and self-affliction, and of the ascetic life, which are but lesser forms of the discipline of sorrow: but of this we cannot now speak. I will only add, that if we ponder on the incomprehensible nature of pain, mental and bodily; of its invisibleness, its vividness, its exceeding sharpness and penetrating omnipresence in our whole being, of its inscrutable origin, and the in dissoluble link which binds it to sin; and, lastly, of its mysterious relation to the passion and perfection of our Lord,—we shall see reason to believe that a power so near and awful has many energies, and fulfils many designs in God’s kingdom secret from us.
And therefore, when we look at the sufferings of pure and holy minds, let us rather stand in awe, as being called to behold, as it were, a shadow of our Redeemer’s sorrows. The holier they are that suffer, the higher is the end for which they are afflicted. It may be, they are learning inscrutable things of the same order with those which the apostle saw in ecstacy. Even with bleeding hearts and deep-drawn prayers for their consolation, let us try to believe that God is endowing them with surpassing tokens of love, and with pledges of exceeding glory.
And for ourselves, let us be sure, when we suffer, that for chastisement and for purification we need more a thousand-fold than all He lays upon us. The heaviest and the sharpest of our sorrows is only just enough to heal us: “He doth not willingly afflict.” If any thing short of our present trial would have wrought His purpose of love to us, He would have sent the lighter, and kept back the heavier; He would have drawn over our hearts a smooth rod of warning, and not a sharp edge of correction. But nothing short of what we have would do; any thing less, perhaps, would have been a shadow of eternal misery, woe without repentance. Let us remember, too, that sufferings do not sanctify: they are only the sea sons of sanctification; their end will be for good or ill, as we bear and as we use them; they are no more than times of invitation to diligent toil, like the softness of the earth after a keen and penetrating shower. They hold in check, for a time, our spiritual faults, and prepare our hearts to receive and to retain deeper and sharper impressions of the likeness of our Lord. Let us count them precious, blessed seasons, though dim and over cast; seasons of promise and of springing freshness; tokens of His nearness and purpose to cleanse us for His own. “Blessed are ye that weep now.” He that is greatly tried, if he be learning obedience, is not far from the kingdom of God. Our heavenly Father is perfecting the work He began in holy baptism; laying in the last touches with His wise and gentle hand. He that perfected His own Son through sufferings, has brought many sons to glory by the same rough road, even by the “way that is desert.” He is now bringing you home to Himself. Do not shrink because the path is broken and solitary, for the way is short, and the end is blessed.
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