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Sensibility to Suffering

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”—ST MATTHEW 5:7.

The taint of religious persecution which rested upon the Christian religion from Constantine to the French Revolution, in the teeth of the commands and in defiance of the spirit of the Master, has, as we saw last Sunday, cost her dear. The presence or absence of pity or compassion gives an easy test for the ordinary mind to apply to an institution like the Christian Church; and applied it has been, and is, far more widely than we suppose. Sensibility to suffering has greatly increased in modern times. It is possible that in these days you might get an assembly to witness, without a strong sense of repulsion, the atrocities of the amphitheater; and there still lingers in some quarters a trace of bigotry which would not, I think, to use an almost historical phrase, “hesitate to burn,” but insensibility to suffering is certainly not the mark of our time; it lingers only in the worst social element of our day, it will be found, for the most part, among the idle and unproductive in all classes of society. Idleness always does, in every class of life, seem to harden the heart, to render it insensible to the claims of suffering; while work, of any kind that can be called work, seems to exercise a powerful influence indirectly over the sympathetic element within men. The danger of our day seems to be rather in the direction of a morbid sentimentalism. It shows itself by attempts to impute our own feelings to those who have no experience of them, even to the extent of executing a kind of transference of our feelings to animals. To encourage within oneself sensibility, to try to find out what others feel, and feel with them, is one thing; to indulge in sentimental imaginings is quite another. Broadly, the difference seems to be that in the one case you consider others, and try to find out what they are feeling and suffering; and in the other you are so absorbed in yourself, that your only idea of feeling with others is transferring to them your own sensations, and pitying them as you would pity yourself. There is a new sentimental school of poets and prose writers which is saturated with this spirit. They brood over their own feelings and fancies which are generated by the unhealthy atmosphere about them, till a fume of false and mawkish sentiment is thrown off their lives, with which they immediately attempt to credit others, unconscious of the fact that they who live healthy lives have no such ghastly experiences. Writers who must be resuscitated satyrs, represent everyone as devoured by animalism, and as leading intolerable lives owing to the absence of satisfaction. We need to clear our minds of the modern cant which dubs anonymous pruriency as “courageous,” and sickly sentimentalism as “subtle;” or dignifies the filthy animalism of a certain school (which has formed itself into a kind of mutual admiration Society, and poses as very advanced) as “a new disclosure of the heart and centre of things,” or as “looking facts in the face.” By all means let us look facts in the face, but we need not make an excursion to the nearest sewer in order to do so.

Sensibility to suffering and pain, such as Christ pronounces blessed,—the pity, the compassion, and the sympathy of the Christ-like man,—is as different from these travesties of it, as the air of a mountain is from the atmosphere of a pesthouse. Its characteristic is that it tries to get inside others, to feel what they are feeling, to suffer with their sufferings, to see with their eyes and feel with their hearts. It does not impute its own feelings to them. No real pity can ever rise within a man, unless he has thought long and seriously about others. The selfish man, who never considers others, really only pities himself in them. The utmost he can rise to is the thought that if these things happened to him he would be miserable, and in that way he pities himself in others. He forgets that “the heart knoweth its own bitterness,” and that, whereas to him some physical inconvenience seems an unendurable torment, a brave and self-controlled nature hardly feels it.

Today let us consider Christian pity in one only of its aspects, as regards its dealing with sin, reserving sorrow and suffering for other occasions. Blessed are the pitiful, most of all blessed in their attitude towards wrongdoing and its consequences. The worst of all evils is sin, because all other evils are outside our very inmost selves; and sin is in our very inmost selves, in the will. Everything else that we endure—the pain that racks us, the doubt that tortures us, the heart-pain that numbs us—is quite different from sin, not in its degree, but in its kind, for it is not part of our very inmost lives; and this is what sin seems to become. At any rate, we have the feeling that what we will is entwined with ourselves in some closer fashion than what we know and what we love. Sin is in the will, and if we resolve everything into its ultimate analysis, will is the mainspring. And this causes the soul agony, which is no feigned thing, but the deepest reality. To choose the wrong—to choose it, not in a momentary manner, from want of thought, and then to repent, but to deliberately say to evil, “come and live in me and with me”—this is the misery within, with which no other misery is comparable. “There are only two real evils,” says De Pocqueville, “remorse and disease,” and of the two remorse is the natural consequence of sin.

Christian pity finds its highest exercise in its attitude towards sin. It finds its model and its inspiration in the Son of Man. Blessed are those who in their pity for sin are Christ-like. Blessed are those who pity human wrongdoing as Christ pitied it. It is impossible to help feeling the contrast between the strong, gentle pity which, while it stretches out its hand, never lets its condemnation of evil be unfelt, with much of the sentimentalism of our day, which professes to pity the sinner while it paints evil in fancy colours, and treats it rather as a subject of interest than of blame. For let us be sure there is a pity for sin, which is not Christlike, which would leave men and women to lie in the dust and the slime of sin and would only make excuses for them and gloze over their shame, or even paint it with fine words. There is a false pity which is really, as I have said, disguised selfishness, which has no strong Christ-like touch about it, no trace of the “go and sin no more,” which is morally enervating in its effects, which leaves the harlot in her harlotry and the drunkard in his swineyard. It has no feeling for the shame that haunts the libertine, or for the sense of degradation that tortures the drunkard; no strong, kind, tender power to take them by the hand and say, “Go, sin no more.” It has a weak, miserable idea that excuses for wrongdoing are the only contribution it can make towards its cure—excuses that the sinner really spurns even at the very moment of his accepting them. No one who has “sinned hard enough,” who has defied conscience enough, does not feel the weakness, the helplessness of such an attitude as I have described.

No: by a paradox we must say that judgment, strong, clear, moral judgment, goes hand in hand with Christian pity, that we can never say, “neither do I condemn thee,” till we also can say all that is implied in saying, “Go and sin no more.” “It is sin, and you did it, and it was wrong, and you knew it, and you must pay for it, somehow, in a moral hell within you; it is going to work itself out whether others condemn you or not.” There is in the highest natures a perpetual balance of judgment and mercy; we find it exemplified in those wonderful letters of the late Dean of St Paul’s, or in his account of the Oxford Movement; there is judgment of men and things, strong, clear, quick, sharp, but we never feel a doubt about his sympathy, or his desire to make allowances. The combination in him was so strong. We, who knew him, all felt it. So it is always. The movement of Christian pity is a balanced movement; it dare not say “what you have done does not matter,” it cannot say that it has not consequences; it must say—even with infinite self-condemnation—it must say, ‘It was wicked’; it must learn to judge while it learns to console, otherwise it never gets below the surface, its accents fall on the ear but they tell no truth to the heart. Only those who go deep enough to judge can go deep enough to console. The surface apologists, the light and airy excusers have no real Christian pity within them, they have not diagnosed the torments of remorse; how can they feel with the sufferer?

*If there is one balanced law in the natural world, one law that lights up all states, physical, moral and mental, it is the law of balanced movement. Vibration we know makes up the physical universe; the swing creates light for the natural eye. So it is with the soul, the swing creates the light. The alternate movements of expansion and contraction present truth to human vision. It is a lying spirit—it is the same spirit that said of old, “Ye shall be as gods,” which says to men and women, ‘pause here, and take a large and all-embracing view of the moral world.’ God alone can do that. He alone sees at once what man sees in successive moments of vision, that wrongdoing is at once a subject for blame and a subject for pity. No heights accessible to mortal will ever give us a single and complete view; it is in preserving the balance that our usefulness consists.

To preserve that balance in relation to wrongdoing is the only way to earn the blessing of the pitiful. We must judge. Men are slower to exercise this faculty than women, because they know its difficulties better. But men and women alike must judge. It is an influence conservative of everything that is good in life. The Master Who bid us not to judge motives, nor to judge according to appearances, bids us “judge righteous judgment.” Bad people ask nothing more of good people than to let them alone, and in some respects the greatest wrong that we can do is to cease to condemn wrong. The frequency of any wrongdoing must not let us lower our moral standards. Nor must our own personal consciousness of wrongdoing stifle our utterances. Those who really try to exercise this faculty of judgment are most aware of its incompleteness, and for that reason they pity. They are fully aware that, when they say of an action ‘it is wrong,’ that they have not said all that can be said about it. Till that has been said nothing else can be said, and nothing else is ever true, if that is forgotten; but when that is said no one may dare refuse to pass to an opposite point of view, to preserve the balanced movement. From one end we see an action as sin calling for judgment, from the other as wretchedness appealing for pity. Either is false when we regard it as complete. God alone sees both at once; we have to see things in succession; and yet there is a pause which is fatal, as fatal in morals as in physics. The appeal is made often to those who have been deeply injured, ‘Forgive and forget,’ when it is as useless to do the one as it is impossible to do the other. Those who ask forgiveness lightly do not know what it means really to forgive, and this it is that makes the outward expression of forgiveness often perilous.

“Who can put into words intelligible to the understanding what that is which he seeks who says ‘forgive’? We can only say what it is not—we can only say that no one who has ever in earnest breathed this prayer into human or Divine ears has only meant by it, ‘Let me off, remit the penalty, help me to escape the suffering.’ At any rate, it is something none can confer who is not also capable of condemnation.” “There is mercy with Thee: therefore shalt Thou be feared.”

Into this Divine pity, then, there enter the two elements of judgment and compassion. If we preserve the balance between the two, it prevents us from condoning and thus adding to the sin of the world, for we dare not think of any wrongdoing save in a double way. But when once this law of balanced movement is established within us, we can, everyone of us, recognize the greatness of the cry of the world’s wretchedness. We are fellow-sinners with all, and the best of us need stoop but a little way to reach the worst. Though it is the will that sins, yet the surroundings of the will, so to speak, the home, the upbringing, the hereditary tendency, the circumstances, all claim our consideration. We do not know how it would have been with us had our lot been like theirs. All this—which may lead us wrong; may lead us into mere weak apology and increase of wrongdoing, unless it is balanced by our faculty of judgment—all this, when it is so balanced, goes to produce within us some resemblance of the Divine Compassion. We too have to “bear their sins,” we are on a level with them; they have missed their ideals, so have we: they have failed, so may we; they need the mercy of God, so do we. The particular actions sink into insignificance before this; we become fellow-sinners with the drunkard, the publican, and the harlot. “Our Father,” we cry, taking them with us, “Our Father,’ we have sinned, “forgive us.” They need the Divine forgiveness, “Father, forgive them,”—yet who are we that we dare to say that we need it not too?

Ah, yes, in and through the sense of that Divine pity and compassion we learn the beauty of mercy, we understand how Christian pity must be Christ-like, and being Christ-like, must win for itself from Christ Himself that which it bestows. We learn, in showing pity to the fallen who are our fellow-fallen, how blessed are the pitiful, i.e., all those who, knowing their own need and their own sin, are at once honest to blame and strong to pity.

* I owe this illustration to an article I once read in the Spectator.

Eyton, R. (1896). The Benediction on the Merciful (II). In The Beatitudes (Second Edition, pp. 83–92). Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co. Ltd. (Public Domain)

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