It is already plain to us that the sorrows and sufferings of the present life are, without doubt, the result and consequence of sin. That we should pass our mortal days so full of pain and tears, that our fellow-man, that the beasts of the field and the elements, which we need and use as helpers and servants, and most of all that our own nature, with its passions and evil tendencies, should rise up against us and oppose us, was assuredly not a part of the original plan. As a wise and all-powerful Designer and Creator, God founded the world after a masterful fashion -- devoid of evil, free from defect, perfect according to the plans framed in Heaven. The hills and mountains He founded and set on their bases; the streams and rivers and valleys He formed, all rich and lovely, intended for the comfort and happiness of man; the blue deep He constructed and beautified with its millions of shining wonders; and in all these stupendous creations, in all the diverse works of His mighty, omnipotent hands there was in the beginning no trace of fault, of defect, of error or sin. The upheaval came when man disobeyed and wrought the commencement of all our woe. And hence it is to man's first disobedience and the fruit of that forbidden tree, that we owe all the evils from which our nature suffers and to which our flesh is heir.
But although we know the source of our sorrows and feel the guilt of our sins, this does not make our burden lighter or shorten the path of our pilgrimage. We are confronted by the problem of labor and suffering as soon as we enter the world. No one is entirely exempted; and, strange as it is, we see that it frequently happens, that those are most afflicted who are farthest removed from the wickedness of the world and purest in the sight of God. |Many are the tribulations of the just;| and how true is it that the very fidelity of the servants of God is often an occasion of their sufferings! It is not wonderful that sorrow and fear should be the portion of sinners throughout the length of their days, for |contrition and unhappiness are in their ways, and the way of peace they have not known;|(48) but that all, even the saints of God, should suffer alike and be oppressed with miseries is, at first sight, a problem and a baffling mystery.
It is something, indeed, to feel in our suffering that we are paying the debt of our sins, whether personal, or original, or both; it is much to know that our crosses, severe and inevitable as they are, are a curb to our wayward nature, and a restraint against further sins; it is assuredly a great privilege and a high honor that we, unworthy and unfaithful servants of our Master, should, through our tears and sorrows and sufferings, be enabled to conform our poor lives to the tearful and sorrowful life of our Saviour; it is a comfort that words cannot tell to be assured by our faith that in the midst of pains and perils the Shepherd of our souls is ever near to shield, to guard, and to save -- all this is surely much -- enough to encourage and strengthen us daily to take up our cross and joyfully follow our Redeemer, even to the hill of Calvary, even to the death of the cross. But this is not all. A deeper meaning lies hidden behind the veil of tears, beneath the cloak of pain and sorrow. The miseries of life are not a mere inheritance, neither is their value of a purely negative character. We instinctively feel that somehow, somewhere beyond the scope of mortal ken, there is a higher explanation and a more valid justification for all the failures and pains and sorrows of life, than that which appears on the surface of things, or issues in results that are only negative. Suffering for its own sake was never intended; and we were not made to suffer. We were not created for misery, but for happiness; not for failure, but for victory; not for death, but for life; not for time, but for eternity. And hence there is a deeper meaning, a higher explanation for all the failures and miseries of the present life than those that are apparent to the casual observer.
In the title of this chapter the Psalmist, referring to the shepherd's care for his sheep, says: |Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.| The staff the shepherd uses, as already explained, is to assist the sheep along their perilous journeys, and the rod to protect them in case of attack. The rod and the staff are necessary for the welfare of the flock, necessary to guide and shield them in their wanderings, and to bring them safely home. So too, it is with us, the children of God. To be properly protected and guided to our happy end we have need of the rod of affliction and adversity, and likewise of the staff of mercy.
Although human miseries -- pain, poverty, suffering and death -- are, as we know, the consequences, just and equitable, of original sin, it is a shortsighted faith and a defective vision that find in these crosses only chastisement for sin. Truly, they should not have been, had we never sinned; but as God, in His mercy, draws good out of evil, so has He made these inevitable results of our transgression serve a higher purpose and minister to noble ends. The Saviour came that we might have life, that we might progress and advance to ever fuller and more abundant life.(49) His aim, and the aim and purpose of His heavenly Father, since the very dawn of our creation, has been to lead us to happiness -- to perfect, abundant, eternal happiness. It would be of little account to be happy here, unless we are also to rejoice eternally. It would be a poor exchange and a paltry satisfaction, to be present at the feasts of men, only to forfeit our place at the banquet of angels. But our heavenly reward and our celestial crown are to be merited and won here below; they are to follow upon our earthly labors. |Only he shall be crowned,| says St. Paul, |who has legitimately engaged in the battle.|(50) And did not the Master say Himself, |Let him who wishes to come after me deny himself and take up his cross and follow me?|(51) Did He not declare that we must die to live? that we must surrender our life here, if we would keep it eternally? |Amen, amen, I say to you, unless the grain of wheat falling into the ground die, itself remaineth alone. But if it die it bringeth forth much fruit. He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world, keepeth it unto life eternal.|(52) We cannot serve two masters, we cannot serve God and mammon. If we would seek to avoid all pain and sorrow, and spend our lives in the pleasures of sense, we must be prepared to forego the future joys of the soul; if we would pass our days indulging the flesh and chasing the phantoms of time, we must needs make ready for the death of the spirit and the forfeit of all that is lasting.
We have no choice, then; if we would succeed eternally, we must follow the way of the cross. This is the only way to life -- to that abundant, celestial life which our Creator has wished us to live. And it is the bearing of our cross, patiently and resignedly to the will of God, together with our other good works, that enables us to merit, in so far as we can, the joys of the kingdom of Heaven. But the sufferings and labors, so inevitable and necessary to our earthly state, which serve as a means to supernal rewards, have still another, deeper meaning, and serve another purpose. We cannot evade them, we must encounter them. They are not only unavoidable, but necessary to our dearest interests, as we see, since they are strewn as thorns and brambles all along the narrow way that leads to eternal life. We cannot choose them or lay them aside at will. We may, indeed, if we be foolish and impious enough, refuse to walk the narrow way of the just and choose the broad road that leadeth to destruction; but we shall not even thus escape the pains and perils inseparable from this mortal life. Or again, we may, in our folly, rebel against the crosses and labors that confront and pursue us; but whether we go this way or that, whether we will it or not, we can no more eschew all the evils of life than escape from the air that we breathe. The pressure, it is true, is not always upon us; we are not, without ceasing, weighed down by our labors and groaning to be delivered from the body of this death. There is interruption, there is passing pleasure, a rift in the clouds and a smile of the sunshine even for the darkest and poorest life. And yet withal, we know and we are conscious that we are ever under the sentence of death, that life is a fleeting shadow, that like
|A flash of the lightning, a break of the wave,
Man passes from life to his rest in the grave.|
There is no evading the conclusion, therefore, that the days of man in this world are few and full of miseries. |The life of man upon earth is a warfare, and his days are like the days of a hireling. He cometh forth like a flower, and is destroyed, and fleeth as a shadow.|(53) |For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory thereof as the flower of grass. The grass is withered, and the flower thereof is fallen away.|(54) To the natural man all this is appalling, and how frequently it finds its solution in unbridled self-indulgence, in mental unbalance, and self-destruction! But the saints, and all the truly wise, have viewed the problem of human suffering in a vastly different light. They have discerned it, first of all, as really distinctive of the road to Heaven, and as essentially pertaining to the royal way of the cross. They have understood that it extinguishes the wrath of the heavenly Father, that it atones for sin and makes the soul conformable to our suffering Saviour, and therefore have they loved it. And more than this, those who have been led by the wisdom of God have found, not only that the crosses of life are essentially connected with the way of salvation, but that by them and through them alone we are often positively driven to God. We may try to avoid them, and at times, perhaps, succeed; we may flee from them or endeavor to still the voice of their pain; or, when unable to escape them, we may, in our wrath and desperation, rise up against them and rebuke them: but they persistently remain, they continue to haunt, as if to woo and to win us to penetrate their deeper meaning, and discover the treasure that in them lies concealed. The very breakdown of human things, the severing of human ties and relationships, the loss of health and wealth, of treasures and friends, and of all that life holds dear, are really meant, in the deepest sense, to drive us to the divine. This is the meaning of those tears and sorrows, those pains and sufferings, that loneliness, that grief, that agony of heart and soul which belong to this world of tears. All these are intended to teach us that here below, on this crumbling shore of time, we have no abiding city, or home, or life, or love; but seek a city, a home, a life, a love that hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God.(55)
We need God, we were made for God, and our nature, with all its longings and powers, cries out for Him. And therefore has God so arranged the world, in spite of all its evils, and in spite of all our sinfulness, that, if we do not prevent it, it will lead us out to happiness -- lead us out to Himself. It was our sin that despoiled the face of the world; but God, in His mercy, has drawn good out of evil, He has made the effects of sin minister to our advantage, if we will but have it so. We may, forsooth, refuse, because we are free; we may object, and rebel, and oppose our lot; we may take our destiny out of the hands of our Creator and attempt to shape it for ourselves; we may deride and despise the humble, the lowly of heart, the patient, the mortified and the suffering; we may upbraid the Providence of God and its workings, and refuse to submit to the rule of the Creator; we may hold in derision and contempt the little band that is sweetly marching the way of the cross, preferring for ourselves the company of the multitude that knows not God -- all this can we do, because we are free; but if such be our choice, and if we persevere in it, our portion is fixed, and we shall have at last only to say with the wicked: |Therefore we have erred from the way of truth, and the light of justice hath not shined unto us, and the sun of understanding hath not risen upon us. We wearied ourselves in the way of iniquity and destruction, and have walked through hard ways, but the way of the Lord we have not known. What hath pride profited us? or what advantage hath the boasting of riches brought us? All those things are passed away like a shadow, and like a post that runneth on.|(56)
Sufferings, therefore, are common to all, to the good and the bad, to the wise and the foolish, to the children of light and to the children of darkness. But only those who are directed by grace and light from above are able to pierce the deeper meaning of the cross. All have to bear it, but not all understand it; all feel the weight of it, but all do not know the power of it. Like fortune, it knocks at every door, into every heart it endeavors to enter and make known its deeper significance, its hidden secrets, lest any of us should suffer in vain, and our lives be altogether a failure. To be able to suffer patiently and gladly for God's sake, is thus a great wisdom; it is a sign of future blessedness. It is the wisdom of God, which is foolishness to men. |If thou hadst the science of all the astronomers,| says Eternal Wisdom; |if thou couldst speak and discourse about God as fully and well as all angels and men; if thou alone were as learned as the whole body of doctors; all this would not bestow on thee so much holiness of life as if, in the afflictions that come upon thee, thou art able to be resigned to Me and to abandon thyself to Me. The former is common to good and bad, but the latter belongs to My elect alone.|
We know that our Saviour took upon Himself the cross of sorrow and suffering, not alone that He might satisfy for our transgressions and be our ransom from bondage, but also that He might be unto us an example and a leader. And knowing that our unfaithfulness had incurred severest maladies from which none could escape, He bore our infirmities and carried our sorrows for us, in order that we, in our time, might bear our inevitable afflictions for His sake, for love of Him, and thereby attain to unending glory with Him. |For the spirit himself giveth testimony to our spirit, that we are the sons of God. And if sons, heirs also; heirs, indeed of God, and joint heirs with Christ: yet so, if we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified with him.|(57) |If you partake of the sufferings of Christ,| says St. Peter, |rejoice that when his glory shall be revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy.|(58) The chains of sorrow which bind us here below, our Shepherd thus would turn to golden cords of love, which draw and hold us to Himself. We cannot, as we see, ascend to Heaven, rise to blessedness, except by the way of the cross. And our degree of glory in Heaven, the eternal happiness which we shall enjoy, will be in proportion to the degree of charity or love of God which our souls possess at death; and this divine charity, which is to measure our future beatitude, is acquired and augmented by faithfully doing the will of God -- by patiently and lovingly bearing the cross of life. Sacrifice is the test of love. And hence the more we do and suffer for Christ's sake, the more we prove our love for Him and the greater shall be our happiness in the kingdom of His Father. All holy writers, all the masters of the spiritual life agree in teaching that God particularly chastises those whom He loves with a special love. He proves the elect to find if they are worthy of Himself.(59) He does not spare them now, that He may spare them hereafter; He tries them for a time, that He may reward them forever; He seems harsh with them here, during the time of probation, only that He may draw them closer to Himself everlastingly.
The devoted friends of God and the ardent lovers of things spiritual have deeply pondered these momentous truths. They have realized that our days here, though few and fast-flying, are really to determine our lot and condition throughout the eternal years. They have known that the passing present is the price of the lasting future; that this is the seeding time, and hereafter the harvest. And because our future happiness is to be in accord with our merits here acquired, jealously have they sought and embraced every present occasion to increase their merits and their worthiness for the glory that is to come. This is why they have loved the cross, the symbol of salvation, the emblem of victory; this, too, is why they have felt disturbed and full of fear when the cross was absent from them. Unlike the unenlightened sufferer, who sees only punishment in his pains, the saints of God have ever accepted their crosses as a sign of special love, a divine visitation, a preparation for the great communion.
We see now how it is that the rod of chastisement and the staff of mercy are able to give joy and comfort to God's chosen friends; and thus are they designed to console and comfort everyone who is truly led by faith and love. Sufferings are really a blessing, but the eye of faith alone discerns it. They keep us from present pleasures, from hurtful occasions, from alluring vanities; they direct us into the way of salvation, they drive us to God, they increase the glory of our eternal blessedness. What are the trials of earth when compared with the joys of Heaven? Rather, how precious are they! since, if we use them aright, they lead us out into a higher life, to a closer friendship with God. And if, through the mercy of our heavenly Father, we permit the cross to lead us to His knees and enrich our lives with His love, who can speak its infinite value? What treasure can be likened to it? Surely nothing that we know can surpass it in worth. We might, indeed, enjoy all that life can give; we might possess all riches, all health, all success; we might have honor, fame, glory, power; the praise and love of men, the treasures of earthly friendship and earthly affection -- the whole world we might gain and enjoy; but if through all these, or in spite of all, we should not be led to the love and friendship of God, we should know only vanity, and life for us would in its issue be nothing but a dismal failure.
But if, on the contrary, through the sufferings and losses, the deficiencies and limitations of life, we have been led to make God our dearest friend, if we have been taught, by the coldness and harshness of men, to take refuge in His love, how blessed are we! how cheaply the purchase has been made, even though it has meant the loss of every passing good, of all that the world can give, even the pouring out of our own life's blood!
Teach me, O my Master, in the day of sorrow and tribulation, to understand the meaning of the cross, to know the value of my sufferings, to grasp the power and the secret of Thy rod and Thy staff. Assist me to see Thee through the darkness that surrounds me; and give me to feel, in the midst of loneliness and perils, amid pain and desolation, the nearness to my soul of Thy loving-kindness, and the strength of Thy merciful presence.