Malcolm Muggeridge had a lot of wise words to say about suffering:
For two thousand years all committed Christians have known about the incalculable value of suffering. It may not be pleasant, and we need not go out of our way seeking it, but it seems to be an essential element in spiritual growth, and it is of course the way of our Master – the Suffering Servant.
Sure, there have always been a few foolish and even dangerous aberrations, such as the recent American-based Health and Wealth Gospel, which recklessly claim that Christians should never suffer – at least except for persecution. I have addressed that erroneous view often, including here: billmuehlenberg.com/2010/09/30/suffering-in-the-new-testament-part-one/
And the Christian view of the value of suffering follows on from the Hebrew Scriptures. Whether we look at the book of Job, or the lament Psalms, or the book of Lamentations, we see suffering often discussed in the Old Testament. As but one passage, the psalmist could say this in Psalm 119:
Verse 50 My comfort in my suffering is this: Your promise preserves my life.
Verse 67 Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word.
Verse 71 It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees.
Verse 75 I know, O LORD, that your laws are righteous, and in faithfulness you have afflicted me.
But let me here appeal to just one recent Christian thinker: Malcolm Muggeridge. Having just written a piece about his life and thought, it is worth taking this even further. That earlier piece can be found here: billmuehlenberg.com/2021/07/17/notable-christians-malcolm-muggeridge/
Muggeridge often spoke about suffering and affliction. It was a major theme of his, along with the futility and vanity of human civilisations, including Western civilisation. So let me here simply offer a few choice quotes of his on this important subject. I will present them roughly in the order of their appearance in the Muggeridge canon.
At the end of his 1969 book, Jesus Rediscovered, Muggeridge includes “A dialogue with Roy Trevivian”. The 50-page interview is well worth following. If you do not have the book, you can find the full discussion here: www.worldinvisible.com/library/mugridge/jred/jredch23.htm
In it we have this exchange:
R.T. How do you reconcile your belief in the loving purposes of God with the birth of Mongol children and mentally defective children. We have just heard that Helen Keller has died who was born deaf, dumb and blind. Do you think that these tragedies are due to the stupidity of man at some point?
M.M. Not at all. I think it is part of the pattern of life. What’s more I think it’s an essential part. “Imagine human life being drained of suffering! If you could find some means of doing that, you would not ennoble it; you would demean it. Everything I have learnt, whatever it might be – very little I fear – has been learnt through suffering….
M.M. All we can say is that it’s part of the experience of living, and, like all other parts, it can shed light or it can shed darkness. Suffering is an essential element in the Christian religion, as it is in life. After all, the cross itself is the supreme example. If Christ hadn’t suffered, do you imagine that anyone would have paid the slightest attention to the religion he founded? Not at all.
R.T. But it is a mystery that the only way in which God can make us grow up, or help us to grow up, is through suffering.
M.M. It’s a mystery in a sense, but just imagine the opposite. Suppose you eliminated suffering, what a dreadful place the world would be! I would almost rather eliminate happiness. The world would be the ghastly place because everything that corrects the tendency of this unspeakable little creature, man, to feel over-important and over-pleased with himself would disappear. He’s bad enough now but he would be absolutely intolerable if he never suffered.
His autobiography, Chronicles of Wasted Time, speaks of suffering in various places. As he says early on:
Learning from experience means, in practice, learning from suffering; the only schoolmaster. Everyone knows that this is so, even though they try to persuade themselves and their fellows otherwise. Only so is it possible to understand how it came about that, through all the Christian centuries, people have been prepared to accept the Cross, ostensibly a symbol of suffering, as the true image and guarantee of their creator’s love and concern for them.
In his 1978 volume, A Twentieth Century Testimony, he said this:
Contrary to what might be expected, I look back on experiences that at the time seemed especially desolating and painful, with particular satisfaction. Indeed, I can say with complete truthfulness that everything I have ever learned in my seventy-five years in this world, everything that has truly enhanced and enlightened my existence, has been through affliction and not through happiness, whether pursued or attained. In another world, if it ever were possible to eliminate affliction from our earthly existence by means of some drug or other medical mumbo jumbo, as Aldous Huxley envisaged in Brave New World, the result would not be to make life delectable, but to make it too banal and trivial to be endurable. This, of course, is what the cross signifies. And it is the Cross, more than anything else, that has called me inexorably to Christ.
And in an interview with William F. Buckley that was recorded on September 6, 1980 in his home in Sussex, England, Muggeridge had this to say:
Bill, looking back on one’s life, it’s one of the things that strikes you forcibly – that the only thing that’s taught one anything is suffering, not success, not happiness, not anything like that. The only thing that really teaches one what life’s about – the joy of understanding, the joy of coming in contact with what life really signifies – is suffering, is affliction….
In every time and in every age, this is demonstrated to us, and I think in our time, it’s been marvellously demonstrated by Solzhenitsyn and the other heroic people from the Soviet labour camps, all of whom say the same thing – the ones that have achieved spiritual perception through it – that there they learned this point, that it’s through the affliction that you can see reality and that, therefore, as Solzhenitsyn himself says in his Gulag book, “Thank you, prison camp, for bringing this illumination into my life which otherwise I would have lost.”
More helpful thoughts are found in a speech he gave on March 28, 1985 entitled “The True Crisis of Our Time.” In it he said this:
God did not retreat back into Heaven when the fateful words “It is finished” were uttered on Golgotha. The Word that became flesh has continued and continues to dwell among us, full of grace and truth. There are examples on every hand; we have but to look for them. For instance, the man in Solzhenitsyn’s labor camp who scribbled sentences from the Gospels that he pulled out of his pocket in the evening to keep himself serene and brotherly in that terrible place. Then, Solzhenitsyn himself – a product of this world’s first overtly atheistic materialist society who yet can tell us in shining words that “it was only when I lay there, on rotting prison straw, that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either; but right through every human heart and through all human hearts. So, bless you, prison for having been in my life.” What insight, what wisdom, acquired in a Soviet prison, after a Marxist upbringing!
Yet in Christ, whoever cares to can find freedom, the glorious freedom of the children of God, the only lasting freedom there is. To quote once more St. Paul: “Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.” Again, it may well be that Western man has turned away from the Cross in favor of an illusory pursuit of happiness. Yet, if the preaching of the Cross is indeed “to them that perish foolishness,” to those who believe it continues to be the power of God whereby affliction is seen as part of His love; and out of a public execution burgeons the most perfect hopes and joys the human heart has ever attained. What then, is there to fear or dread?
Some of the closing words of his little 1980 book, The End of Christendom, will serve as a fitting conclusion to this piece. They offer the bigger picture, and bring in the other Muggeridge theme I mentioned – that of civilisational decline, even though it seems for a while the kingdoms of men might prevail over the Kingdom of God:
We become forgetful that Jesus is the prophet of the losers’ not the victor’s camp, the one who proclaims that the first will be last, that the weak are the strong and the fools are the wise. Let us then as Christians rejoice that we see around us on every hand the decay of the institutions and instruments of power, see intimations of empires falling to pieces, money in total disarray, dictators and parliamentarians alike nonplussed by the confusion and conflicts which encompass them. For it is precisely when every earthly hope has been explored and found wanting, when every possibility of help from earthly sources has been sought and is not forthcoming, when every recourse this world offers, moral as well as material, has been explored to no effect, when in the shivering cold the last faggot has been thrown on the fire and in the gathering darkness every glimmer of light has finally flickered out, it’s then that Christ’s hand reaches out sure and firm. Then Christ’s words bring inexpressible comfort, then his light shines brightest, abolishing the darkness forever.