VIII. Christ as Savior and Pattern (Continued)

C. Scandal and Suffering

When one first begins to reflect upon Christianity it must certainly have been an occasion of scandal to one before one enters upon it.... That is why one is sickened by all the chatter of fussy go-betweens about Christ being the greatest hero, etc., etc.1
For, to say it short and sharp: this is the very definite utterance of the New Testament, that Christianity, and the fact that one is truly a Christian must be in the highest degree an "offense"' to the" natural man, that he must regard Christianity as the highest treason and the true' Christian as the' most scurvy traitor against humanity.2
One may learn more profoundly and more reliably what the highest is by considering suffering than by observing achievements, where so much that is distracting is present.3
The situation is this: the more thou hast to do with God, and the more He loves thee, the more wilt thou become, humanly speaking, unhappy for this life, the more thou wilt have to suffer in this life.4

The themes (or moods) of scandal and suffering that pervade both the Brethren and the Kierkegaardian literature are undoubtedly to be understood as derivatives of the concept of following Christ who is the possibility of offense--this coupled with the doctrine of nonconformity to the world. But however derived, the sectarian parallel is unmistakable.

Regarding the scandal of Christianity, the first document of Brethrenism, the open letter inviting participation in the inaugural baptism, stated:

For the world, however, Christ and His disciples are a stumbling block and an annoyance, and it takes offense at the Word on which they are founded.5

The preface to the first Brethren hymnal, compiled in Germany, referred to the fact that the Christian must be willing to bear "the shame of Jesus with the people of God."6 And Mack Senior answered one of the Radical Pietist queries with these words:

[Christ] does not say that men will flock to his gospel by the thousands in such miserable times as these are, unfortunately, when love has grown cold in many hearts. Indeed, even the well-meaning souls do not come very willingly to the discipleship of Jesus, where all must be denied if Christ is to be followed rightly. 7

Although there would he no point in doing so, we could document this sense of scandal for the remaining eighty years of our period just as extensively as we have done for the first twelve. The Brethren well understood that Christianity appears scandalous to the eyes of natural man.

The theme was, if anything, even stronger in S.K. The whole of Part II of Training in Christianity is a detailed study of the sources of offense that are inherent in Christ and Christianity, and the notes echo throughout S.K.'s religious works. He could put the matter into the strongest language possible:

Everywhere where these words [i.e. Christ's warning about being offended] do not resound, or at least wherever the statement of Christianity is not at every point permeated by this thought-there Christianity is blasphemy.8

But the most pertinent aspect of S.K.'s thought on this subject was the emphasis that present-day acceptance of Christianity is actually an aggravation of the scandal and not a mitigation of it:

But although by taking away the possibility of offense men have gotten the whole world Christianized, the curious thing always occurs--the world is offended by the real Christian. Here comes the offense, the possibility of which is after all inseparable from Christianity. Only the confusion is more distressing than ever, for at one time the world was offended by Christianity--that was the intention; but now the world imagines that it is Christian, that it has made Christianity its own without detecting anything of the possibility of offense--and then it is offended by the real Christian.9

S.K. never wrote anything more sectarian in tone than these words which many of the classical sectaries could have documented out of their own experience.

A close concomitant of Christianity as scandal is the suffering the Christian must endure for his faith; and early Brethrenism was just as completely pervaded with this theme as with the former. The anonymous Brethren tract Ein Geringer Schein gave major attention to the theme of Christian suffering and related it in an interesting way. The tract points out that Christ's baptism--and so ours--was threefold: (i) by water; (2) by the Spirit (symbolized in the dove); and (3) by suffering (symbolized in the cross). Christ called his suffering a baptism and predicted the same for his disciples, which they experienced in due course. The first Christians fulfilled this baptism with actual martyrdoms;

but those who have not come to an outward martyr's crown even so have here carried the death of Jesus in their bodies and are also, through an inner martyrdom, sharing in a crucifixion of their lusts through the baptism of blood.10

And a poem by Mack Junior pointed up an important aspect of the Brethren emphasis:

And what is the difference, if one learns
 Out of bitterness to make sweetness
And on the cross's beam
 To laugh with weeping eyes!
Thus the spirit will be strengthened,
 And the soul acquire,
Through Him who died for it,
 That which the whole world does not note.
When grief makes us ill,
 Let us earnestly think
That He who guides all things
 Will also guide our hearts
That through His grace we may
 Endure in grief
And wisely learn to sow
 The noble seed of tears.
We have while here
 No other joy for which to hope
Until our tribulations
 Reach their proper goal
When we are reconciled with God
 Through the death of His Son,
See our misery demolished,
 And are trained to love correctly.11

It should be noted that an emphasis on Christian suffering does not necessarily imply morbidity or joylessness; indeed, it is precisely through suffering that one overcomes the world, and this is a source of tremendous satisfaction and hope.

There probably is no author in Christian history who has written on the theme of suffering more extensively, more profoundly, and with more feeling than Søren Kierkegaard. He wrote one series of seven discourses under the title The Gospel of Suffering (originally part of a larger collection) and another series of seven entitled "Exultant Notes in the Conflict of Suffering" (Part II of Christian Discourses); and by collecting scattered discourses on the theme, one or two more such series could be compiled. Major discussions regarding the relation of suffering to religion and Christianity put in their appearance far back in the pseudonymous literature,12 and almost every major work thereafter at least touches upon the subject. Beyond doubt, S.K.'s personal temperament and the fact that he was himself an authentic sufferer go far in explaining the presence and extent of this emphasis; but at the same time, it was an inherent and natural part of his total religious perspective, just as with the Brethren.

Suffering is an inevitable concomitant of Christianity, made so by the very nature of the gospel and of the world:

What is the Christianity of the New Testament? It is the suffering truth. In this mediocre, miserable, sinful, evil, ungodly world (this is the Christian doctrine) the truth must suffer, Christianity is the suffering truth because it is the truth and is in the world.13

At times S.K. did direct his attention to how the Christian should meet suffering in general, but primarily he was concerned to preserve Christian suffering as a distinct--and indeed, unique-category:

The decisive mark of Christian suffering is the fact that it is voluntary, and that it is the possibility of offense for the sufferer.14 To suffer in likeness with Christ does not mean to encounter the unavoidable with patience, but it means to suffer ill at the hands of men because as a Christian or by being a Christian one desires and strives after the Good, so that one could avoid the suffering by ceasing to will the Good.15

And thus S.K. was particularly incensed against the sort of preaching that is quick to credit the patient endurance of every affliction and inconvenience as being Christian suffering.

Although the point has not been well heeded by his critics, S.K. was at some pains to make it clear that his doctrine of suffering did not imply melancholy (S.K.'s own melancholy was a personal accident which he strove to overcome, not a theological conviction he strove to defend). He was ready--with the Brethren--to follow the biblical injunctions to "Count it all joy ..." (Jas. 1:2) and "Rejoice and be exceeding glad ..." (Mt. 5:12). As the melancholy Kierkegaard himself said:

After all, Christianity is not a melancholy thing, on the contrary it is so glad a thing that it is glad tidings to all melancholy men; only the frivolous and the defiant can make it gloomy."16

How these seemingly contrary propositions regarding Christianity as suffering and as joy are to be reconciled, S.K. answered with a very effective figure of speech:

In reality the star is situated high in the heavens, and it is no less high for the fact that seen in the ocean it seems to be below the earth. Likewise, to be a true Christian is the highest exaltation, although as reflected in this world it must appear the deepest humiliation. Humiliation is therefore in a certain sense exaltation As soon as you eliminate the world, the turbid element which confuses the reflection, that is, as soon as the Christian dies, he is exalted on high, where he already was before, though it could not be perceived here on earth.17

In emphasizing suffering to the extent he did, it was inevitable that S.K. would run a great risk, namely the temptation to value suffering in and of itself, for its own sake. Although often accused of doing just this, the charge is not justified--except, as we shall see, during the very last, "black cloud" period of his life. Actually, S.K. himself saw the danger and took pains to avoid it:

One must never desire suffering. No, you have only to remain in the condition of praying for happiness on earth. You must certainly dare, for to dare (for the truth, etc.) is Christianity.... But if suffering cannot be, humanly speaking and understood, avoided, and you nevertheless understand yourself before God in being obliged and willing to dare: yet suffering itself must never be the telos, you must not dare in order to suffer, for that is presumptuous, and is to tempt God. To expose yourself to suffering for the sake of suffering is a presumptuous personal impertinence and forwardness towards God, as though you were challenging God to a contest. But when it is for the cause--even though you see that suffering is humanly speaking unavoidable, just go on and dare. Do not dare for the sake of suffering, but you dare in order not to betray the cause.18

This journal entry is dated 1852, which is quite late in S.K.'s career, following the close of the authorship proper and antedating only Attack upon "Christendom." And it would seem to be the case that anything S.K. said about suffering up until this time--no matter how strongly he may have insisted upon its inevitability in the Christian life, its propriety in the Christian life, and even its value as an indicator that one's actions are indeed Christian--anything he said could yet be reconciled with the above statement. However, after this time, within a period hardly longer than a year preceding his death, along with the hints of misanthropy which we have already noted there is evidence (although only scattered evidence) that S.K. was succumbing to the very temptation he had countered so effectively as late as 1852. We quote but one frightening instance:

When one is able to endure the isolation involved in being a single individual, without the mitigation of any intermediate terms, without the alleviation of any illusion, alone in the endless world and the endless world of men--out of a million men 999,999 will lose their senses before they attain this isolation--alone before the face of God--then the fact of loving God and being loved by God will appear to him so blessed that for sheer happiness he must say: O, my God, now I have but one wish, one prayer, one desire, one passion, that I may experience suffering, become hated, persecuted, mocked, spit upon, put to death.19

"Now cracks a noble heart!" What agony of soul S.K. must have been enduring at this writing and what was its portent regarding the progress of his life and thought, we know not. The statement is not at all typical, even of his last years, and is completely contradictory to the Kierkegaard we have seen heretofore. Here he perverted den Enkelte into a solitary atom, denied the equality of all men before God (if it be that only one in a million can endure the relationship), and actually prayed for suffering. It is, of course, not this Kierkegaard who was sectarian; that, rather, was the one who held Christian suffering in dialectical balance with "the joy that was set before him."

Copyright (c) 1968