Tag Archives: Books published in 1959

Review: The Mystery of Suffering

Rating: ★★★★

Author: Hugh Evan Hopkins (1907-1994) was an English preacher, missionary and the author of several books. He was educated at Cambridge and became a member of the Dohnavur Fellowship founded by Amy Carmichael. After six years in India (1931 to 1937), he was sent home for health reasons. He served Inter-Varsity Fellowship, and later went overseas to Kenya (1947 to 1955). He was awarded OBE in 1955 and had a very long and active writing and preaching career before and after his retirement.

Hopkins’ books are listed here because it was difficult to obtain information about them:

  • Henceforth: The Meaning of Christian Discipleship (1942),
  • The Inadequacy of Non-Christian Religion (1944)
  • The Mystery of Suffering (1959)
  • Morning and Evening Prayer (1963)
  • Charles Simeon of Cambridge (1977)
  • Understanding Ourselves: Some Personal Christian Insights into Temperament, Depression, Fear, Inability to Believe and the Mystery of Suffering (1983)
  • Sublime Vagabond: The Life of Joseph Wolff, Missionary Extraordinary (1984)
  • A History of the Church of St. Edward, King & Martyr, Cambridge (1989)

Overview

Hopkins begins by discussing how different world religions have different answers to suffering, and why the Christian answer is the best. This was a unique approach. In looking at this, Hopkins is trying to explain the “link between the sins and the sufferings of the world”. Sin is a general explanation for suffering, but may not always be the personalized explanation (as in a system of karma).

When he moves into the Christian answer, Hopkins seeks to do so in a way that continues to acknowledge that evil is not easily explained away. In the words of N. T. Wright, “Evil is still a four-letter word.” In fact, Hopkins strikes a chord that resonates with N. T. Wright’s Evil and the Justice of God. Both write that we should not treat human suffering as only an intellectual knot to be untied.

We must beware lest familiarity with the existence of suffering in our present age make us insensitive and merely curious.

Hopkins seeks a balance between the fatalistic pat answer that “everything happens for a reason” and the sometimes man-centered answer that says we can “pray ourselves up by our bootstraps” (my idiom, not his). On the fatalistic answer, Hopkins writes that it is common enough to speak of our sufferings as a God-ordained “cross to bear”, but “there is actually nothing in the Bible to suggest that God works in this way” (p. 54).

Hopkins writes that “taking up your cross” means discipleship, not suffering:

Firstly, the cross [Jesus] was speaking about was something to be voluntarily undertaken, and secondly it is an essential part of our Christian discipleship. There is nothing arbitrary about bearing a cross. God does not lay it on one and not on another. Every true Christian should be bearing his cross every day, and doing so by choice and gladly as a sign of his devotion to his Lord. (p. 54)

This does not mean, though, that Christians never suffer, as some have it. Though an Anglican in the 1950s, Hopkins has some awareness of Charismatic healing literature and the idea that God wants to heal all diseases. He tries to explain these in context with other prayers that go unanswered. He concludes that “it is not possible to say that God always wants his children to be insulated from suffering” (p. 75). We should learn this much from Gethsemane: Sometimes suffering is God’s will.

A quotation from P. T. Forsyth is a great explanation of Hopkins’ point in juxtaposing sin and suffering:

The cross of Christ can submerge suffering, and make it a means of salvation, but with sin it can make neither use nor terms; it can only make an end of it. God in Christ is capable of suffering and of transmuting sorrow; but of sin he is incapable [of transforming], and his work is to destroy it. (cited as The Justification of God, p. 138; qtd, on p. 63)

He gives Amy Carmichael, who he worked with, as an example of the right attitude in suffering. Carmichael had lifelong bouts of neuralgia that sometimes left her bed-ridden for long stretches. Hopkins writes that she hated to be referred to as “removed from combat”; rather, she was still in combat in her sick-bed. “Much of the suffering we endure is surely permitted in order to be attacked and overcome.” (p. 57) (Carmichael herself wrote a book on suffering, Rose from Brier.)

In the chapter, “How Can Pain Glorify God?”, Hopkins evinces the choice of Dietrich Bonhoeffer to stay in America as an example of a God-glorifying choice to suffer (p. 106). God invites us to enter the kingdom through many tribulations. and to endure suffering as a soldier. For Hopkins, this is part and parcel of discipleship and mission, and that in itself is part of the explanation of suffering.

To suffer as a Christian means always willing the best for your persecutors. The author remembers kneeling with three Kikuyu men in Kenya and praying for their persecutors, following the examples of Jesus and Stephen. This is another way suffering glorifies God.

Hopkin concludes by contemplating the cross of Jesus Christ. “The Bible makes it clear that the problem of man’s sin, and therefore of his sufferings too, was dealt with on the cross.” (p. 109) If Christ’s suffering can glorify God, so can mine. We don’t explain suffering; we use it as an opportunity to glorify God, and in doing so, we transform it.

Hugh Evan Hopkins is an able and balanced writer with a wealth of experience. I highly recommend this book and look forward to reading others from him.