“Christ and Human Suffering” speaks across the years if COVID-19 calls us back to who we are in Christ and what we are called to do. Are we still the church when we cannot gather to sing, pray, and worship? Is the gospel still good news in a hurting world? Do we still serve a risen Savior even when church doors are closed on Easter Sunday? For those who surrender to the unchanging Christ at the head of an unshakable Kingdom, to ask it is to answer it.
– Mark Suter, Pastor, Martinsville First United Methodist Church, Martinsville, Indiana
Foreword by Mark Suter
My first E. Stanley Jones book was a well-worn paperback copy of “Abundant Living” I borrowed from my father’s bookshelf. As a young student pastor, I was drawn like a magnet to the simple, yet profound, expression of the gospel, the Kingdom of God, and Jesus the Word made flesh. I felt that I had touched middle C or found the answer key to life—Jesus. Just Jesus—not a Bible story, a theology, not a church or religion, but the very essence of reality itself. In Jones, I had discovered worldview thinking long before I knew what it was.
But what does a young pastor do when life isn’t all that “abundant”? When called to mediate a crumbling marriage? When a mother weeps over a wayward son and asks why? When spouses are killed instantly in a head-on collision on the way to Sunday dinner? When a pillar of the church drifts away into dementia? When a young mother loses a long battle with cancer? When suffering souls look to you for answers and you know you’re in over your head?
Perhaps that’s why this book was one of Jones’s earliest. As all pastors soon discover, the question of suffering, or what C. S. Lewis called the “problem of pain,” is inescapable. Does the Christ of the Indian road, the Christ of every road, and the Christ of the Mount really know the road of suffering that everyone travels sooner or later?
Before there’s any abundant living, the question of suffering and pain would have to be faced. “Did the Christian gospel have a clear answer?” Jones asks. “And one that would work?” As with all his writing, he determined not to “write this book as theory. It must be a working way to live.”
Thus, Christ and Human Suffering is not a simplistic three-step solution or a resolution of competing theologies. Stanley Jones would never settle for “the Word become word.” We must instead have something actual and adequate to offer people and children sinking in stress, sickness, struggle, and suffering. Will our gospel be truly “good news” or turn out to be only “good views”? Is it the Word become word, or the Word made flesh? Is it just one of many equally valid options, or is it the only workable way to live in this world? Is it merely “a” way, or is it “the” Way?
The only way to know is to “put it under life,” even in the hardest places and the darkest moments of life. We cannot live on answers that “keep the word of promise to our ears and break it to our hope.”
The gospel more than meets the challenge and life’s demand. God spoke his clearest word in the Word made flesh, in Jesus. He took on all that humanity is and does and knows, even full identification with the sin and suffering of humankind, even numbering himself with all transgressors at the cross.
His method, however, was not just to endure or bravely bear suffering as a martyr, but to take the absolute worst and make it serve his ultimate purpose—the redemption of fallen men and women. Just so, the only way to take the sting and pain out of life’s inevitable suffering and struggle is to transform it and use it for a higher purpose in the same way God met our wounds in the wounds of Jesus, the Son—using the worst man could do to achieve the most God could do.
Christ and Human Suffering, then, is not so much an answer to a question as a way through a wilderness—a “working way to live.” It is the way of so many faithful saints and seekers I have known and admired over my years of ministry.
A woman virtually homebound with arthritis could not straighten out her fingers and labored mightily just to get across a room. Several of her joints had been surgically replaced. But when asked, she never failed to smile and answer, “I’m doing just fine!” And she was, “in spite of”. She turned her pain and limitation into a powerful prayer partner and card writing ministry—even managing to write on a typewriter.
In a testimony service at Thanksgiving, a husband and wife began by giving praise and thanks to God with a genuine smile from a heart overflowing with God’s Spirit, made even more remarkable by the knowledge that their daughter and two grandchildren had some years earlier been killed in a car crash.
A woman found herself alone and abandoned by an unfaithful husband, yet today is a powerful prayer warrior, still serves on mission teams around the world, and has led many to faith in Christ through her overcoming witness.
A church leader with an exceptional gift of encouragement was taken down by cancer and given just a short time to live. His last days saw a steady procession of so many coming to thank him for lifting them up and to witness the victorious way he faced sickness, treatment, and decline, to the last giving away more than anyone could ever repay.
I think of a young pastor and wife who traveled this road of making pain and suffering serve a higher purpose. Their life struggle was a daughter born with severe physical and mental handicaps. Their journey became a testimony of the Spirit of Christ shining through their brokenness, living the gospel as much as preaching it. Along the way, she spoke with Stanley Jones at an Ashram who counseled surrender and trust in God’s larger purposes. Part of those larger purposes was their influence and mentoring of my parents in their early Christian walk, part of which was a gift of Jones’s book, How to Be a Transformed Person. It became the beginning of my precious collection of all of Jones’s books and my conviction that his grasp of the timeless truth of Jesus is still true and cries out to be heard in our time.
It is not at all surprising, then, that this reissue of Christ and Human Suffering comes as the world is grappling with the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. E. Stanley Jones had the gift of articulating the distinction between the eternal and the temporal, the universal and the particular, the unchanging and the unpredictable, and the Kingdom of God and the Christian Church. So it is, Christ and Human Suffering speaks hope and possibility even in a worldwide pandemic decades after he wrote.
If the Christian way of meeting suffering is not merely enduring it, but making it serve the higher purpose of the Kingdom of God, then the current COVID-19 crisis presents today’s church with both a problem and a possibility.
The sudden emergence of an invisible, insidious virus of unknown scope and severity came as a shock to the system, both personally and corporately. Churches were suddenly closed and declared forbidden zones. Any sense of community and togetherness was shattered and shuttered within our homes. Mere survival was, for a time, an open question.
For the Church, along with its pastors, the enforced isolation and extended closures have become a defining moment forcing us back upon the first questions of faith and life. Who am I? What do I really believe? Who am I trusting? What are we living for?
Who are we together when we cannot even be together? How do we function as the church of Christ amid suffering, fear, and isolation? How do we care for the sick and hurting among us? What can we offer a world grasping for answers? What does a preacher do without a congregation?
As Paul reluctantly learned with his thorn in the flesh, the prolonged pain of the pandemic may not be soon eased or eliminated. The Church has been profoundly, and most likely permanently, changed.
However, Christ and Human Suffering still speaks across the years if COVID-19 calls us back to who we are in Christ and what we are called to do. Are we still the church when we cannot gather to sing, pray, and worship? Is the gospel still good news in a hurting world? Do we still serve a risen Savior even when church doors are closed on Easter Sunday? For those who surrender to the unchanging Christ at the head of an unshakable Kingdom, to ask it is to answer it.
The soul-searching shaking of a global pandemic of unknown origin and extent can become the church’s finest hour. It can draw us to deeper devotion to the person of Christ apart from the program of one’s church. It can shake us out of the doldrums of church maintenance and forever majoring on the minors. It can unite the Body of Christ as we long for the touch and closeness we are missing. It can open our eyes to a world of hurting neighbors and hungry souls just beyond the walls of our buildings and sanctuaries. It can ignite healthy change and creativity in how we communicate and connect with an online world. It can open new doors for our gospel of hope and transformation.
Unless suffering is allowed the last word, even a painful season of purifying and pruning can be taken up into God’s larger work of making his Church even more fruitful and molding his people into the likeness of Christ.
This is a book for our time because the questions and the heartache of suffering and pain are perennial and eternal. With great understatement did Jesus tell us ahead of time, “In the world you will have trouble.” Our own stories, tragedies, hurts, doubts, fears, unanswered prayers, and unanswered questions would fill many pages.
But it is also for our time because what Jones offers here is nothing more or less than the overcoming gospel of Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen One, the unchanging Person and Lord of an unshakable Kingdom. “Be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.”
Pastor, Martinsville First United Methodist Church
Whenever I think of my childhood and my parents, I think of their intimate association and loyalty to the Mar Thoma Church in India; going to the Maramon Convention in the late nineteen-forties with my father to listen to Dr. Stanley Jones, the author of this book, is part of that pleasant recollection. In 1960, I had the good fortune to attend Dr. Jones’ seminars at Waltair, in Andhra Pradesh, in a small group of less than fifty people. I was a student at that time of the Andhra University. At Maramon, I heard him at a great distance, but at Waltair I heard him at very close quarters like a professor giving an intimate tutorial, and I vividly remember him saying that when he was seventy years old he asked God confidently for ten more years to do God’s mission, and he was grateful for the life and experience that he had in his journey of life with Christ. He was 76 at that time and lived fruitfully for another thirteen years and died in his beloved India in 1973. Then in 2015, I came across a memoir of him by his granddaughter, Dr. Anne Mathews-Younes, and I was able to publish it as a four-part series in the Internet Journal, ‘Diaspora FOCUS’. Therefore, I was greatly surprised, but very grateful when Dr. Anne Mathews-Younes asked me to write a foreword for the new edition of ‘Christ and Human Suffering’, which was initially published in 1933, five years before I was born.
This ‘Missionary Extraordinary’ understood India as no other could. He established the ‘Christian Ashram Movement’ and provided spiritual strength and guidance during the freedom struggle as a dear friend of Gandhi, and other national leaders. Human sufferings and misery of all kinds including individual, communal, national, and global were depressing. No one could see an end. Christ and Human Suffering was Jones’ answer to find a way-out, using Christ as a guide.
It is clear that Jones knew it would be a risky expedition as he wrote in the introduction: “. . . to write on such a subject is to walk on holy ground, hallowed by the tears and blood-stained footsteps of many wearied one. To bungle here would be serious. To raise hopes in a suffering breast that could not be fulfilled would only add pain to pain. I hesitated. But objection after objection seemed to be swept away, and I came to my final condition and took my stand there, refusing to go on unless I could be assured at this point: I cannot write this book as theory. It must be a working way to live”.
As a skilled physician of the soul, Jones’ diagnostic expertise is exemplary. The remedy he prescribes in Christ and Human Suffering is equally impressive for the conditions that he witnessed. Christ and Human Suffering remains a useful guide today for addressing evil and suffering in the way of Christ. As we face poverty, mass migration, fear of nuclear war, pandemics, trade wars, religious intolerance, gender bias, racial intolerance, violence of all kinds, suicides and suicide-bombers, global warming, and related ecological issues, Jones advises us to follow St. Paul’s advice: “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way, you will fulfil the law of Christ” (Galatians 6: 2).
The overall organic unity of Jones’ writings clarifies often confusing religious and secular ideas about suffering and God’s presence or absence in protecting people from it. The idea that calamity only strikes the wicked and the righteous would be spared is questioned. The Christian solution to suffering is not based on such a favourable selective and preferential action of God. Jones sums it up for us by saying, “Christ being what he is, and the Christian being what he should be is bound to know suffering as the result of following that Christ”. I found his comparisons of the Christian view of human suffering to those of other world religions were enlightening and thought provoking.
Jesus’ way of meeting suffering, pain, and injustice is a central theme we can carry forward in our own lives. Christ and Human Suffering teaches us how to transform suffering and tragedy into something useful for the glory of God. Jesus showed us how to shine by self-sacrifice and Jones’ many examples from the Gospels describe how life can become luminous as we face tragedy, and how the cross gives birth, second chances, and new beginnings.
Jones shows us how opposition can become opportunities’, and how our sufferings can become songs. He has a way of communicating the integrity of the Christian faith in simple practical ways so that these important truths become life principles such as:
“Christianity is the only religion that throws nothing away––including frustration, pain. and suffering. . .. He redeems not only human souls but also fragments that remain when life goes to pieces under the blows of suffering and sorrow and frustration”.
“Prayer should take us out of the dark corners and help us to turn our infirmities into ladders that reach to heaven here and now”.
“The Christian has sufficient resources to meet life no matter how hard the game of life is played against him”.
I am very glad Dr. Jones did not leave out thoughts about human suffering in society, as we are certainly surrounded by it. He deals with this subject in a straightforward manner and enlightens us about society’s attitude toward suffering. His point that suffering arises from the actions of the individual and from the collective action of society helps us understand that transformation should affect both the individual and the society. The suffering of the individual must be looked on and felt as the failure of the whole society. A Christian must work to remove the causes of suffering without considering its cost.
As a physician, I was grateful for how Jones used the cleansing ministry of Jesus for character formation. Jesus cleansed their ideas of God; he reoriented the concept of man; he cleansed life; he cleansed religion; he redefined power; he cleansed suffering and taught vicarious suffering is a gift of God. He emphasised that ‘suffering in God is not marginal and accidental, but inherent in the very nature of God as love’. Jones says, “God never takes a thing from our hands without putting something better in its place”, and he quotes Clements of Alexandria: “Christ has turned all our sunsets to sunrises”. I am grateful for this and hope that this thought comforts all readers as well.
The new world-order Jesus is asking us to help build is founded on love, sharing and brotherhood. The Christian hope emerging from this new world-order is that sin, suffering, and death will be banished from the universe with the ultimate triumph of the kingdom of God.
Jones knew that suffering is part and parcel of life. Therefore, Christ and Human Suffering is about living with individual sufferings––innocent, self-inflicted, and inflicted by other individuals, groups, society, and governments. It is about dealing with personal suffering and having empathy and compassion for others who are suffering, all the while growing with Jesus Christ to overcome. Jones believed in what we read in Johns’ Gospel: “I have said you these things, so in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16: 33).
I have dealt with pain and suffering all my professional life––yet gained more profound understanding of it from this book. It is a good companion for everyone and particularly for those who are involved in the ministry of healing. Let us leave the last word to the Indian woman who was asked to follow the way of Christ; she followed the way and shouted: “It works! It works! I tried it. Someone slapped me in the face today and I didn’t even want to slap back. Something within me has changed, it works!”
Yes, indeed this book works!
Dr. Zac Varghese, FRC Path
Royal Free Campus, UCL,