Reprinted from When Thou Sittest In Thine House, by Abraham Kuyper, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan. 1929. Used by permission of Eerdmans Publishing Co.
Do not quarrel about it. Every one of us must carry his own burden, must carry his own cross. And this burden of suffering is measured out to you not according to your faith, far less according to your merit, but almost exclusively according to the sovereign counsel of God.
It is not denied, therefore, that patient discharge of duty produces results that make for happiness of life; and that throwing oneself away in sinful pursuits in the end makes the reckless one pay dear. But this contrast, without more, does not explain the very unequal division of life’s happiness, nor the every time surprising inequality between the cross laid on one and that laid on another.
Once, in the day of judgment, as our sense of right spells out to us and as God’s Word prophesies the same to us, this inequality which is so offensive to us shall be straightened out, when all that have died or are yet alive shall appear before the judgment seat of Christ, and shall carry away according as they have done in life, whether it be good or evil.
But in expectation of that great and illustrious day, here in this earthly dispensation with respect to the mystery of suffering it remains a criss-crossing of two altogether divergent lines.
On one side the line of Sinai, i.e., the line of provisional retribution here and now, as when he who will not behave goes under in the social struggle, while he who orders his way aright makes notable advances.
And on the other side the line of Golgotha, i.e., the mystery of suffering, which foretells the cross to the righteous and makes worldly godlessness to triumph over the Man of Sorrows.
Yea, even in nature you see these lines go athwart one the other.
On one side a God who makes His sun to rise over evil and good, and rain to come down upon righteous and unrighteous. And on the other side a neglected field that makes its owner suffer hunger, over against a vine or olive-orchard that makes the diligent farmer dwell in peace and prosperity under his own vine and fig tree.
Always these two.
On the right a rule of retribution that weds suffering to sin; but toward the left a rule that mocks every idea of retribution, and erected for the only one who, born of a woman, was spotlessly pure, a tree of shame, and on that accursed tree still held Him up to scorn.
This antithesis is not explained from the blindness of human unrighteousness, for God hands Job over to Satan; and now sickness and death, which so often darken the path of the righteous by somber shadows, still come not from human failure or caprice, but from the sovereign counsel of the Eternal.
When you ask whether it is given us, already here, by the light of the Word, to solve that bitter struggle, which has weighed heavily upon the faithful of all ages, it certainly behooves us to confess that we know more than the friends of Job, and more than the Preacher of Jerusalem. For Gethsemane and Golgotha, which then were yet to come, now lie behind us. But then every one of us is ready at once to offer the remark that, at Golgotha, worship is so much easier than understanding.
So much only is clear, that the solution of the struggle between the rule of Sinai, which makes the godless suffer, and the rule of Golgotha, which makes the righteous suffer, is to be looked for in a third rule, which interprets the mystery of love and which speaks of a suffering by one in the stead of the other; of a going under and sinking away in vicarious suffering; of a coming of the soul of one into the place of the soul of the other.
For though at first hearing this sounds oracular, and though Job, who was the first to suggest it, speaks of it vaguely (16:4), we ourselves well know this golden rule from our own soul’s experience.
We have known, we have lived through, the sacred moments, when the sorrow of another weighed so painfully upon our own soul that sometimes we were depressed and bowed down under it more than the sufferer himself.
And also, they are not strange, but from memory familiar, those blessed sensations, when it seemed to us as though the sorrow dropped from our shoulders because real sympathy on the part of another caught our sorrow of soul from beneath.
Both times it was vicarious.
Once, when you removed the cross from the shoulder of others, to carry it yourself in their stead, to their relief. And again, when someone took it from your shoulder and by fellowship of love and thanks to the communion of saints carried it in your stead.
It is true, this was not yet the highest, nor yet the full application of the golden rule of vicarious love.
That shone only and alone on Golgotha.
But Simon of Cyrene was there, who took the cross from Jesus, and carried it after Him, and dragged it to the cross-hill in His stead.
If your soul were in my soul’s stead harmonizes of course with the opposite: If my soul were in your stead.
This operation of love goes over and back.
It is mutual.
From one to the other, and from the other to one.
But always with the mysterious effect that the burden of the cross is transferred, and that with one the burden is lightened and with the other it is made heavier.
Thus, you will say, this operation of love serves no purpose.
What good is it, when A suffers, that B assumes that suffering, to relieve A? Should not, by this same rule, A take his suffering back again from B, so that in the end he has his own cross back again? Yea, more yet, is it not love’s claim that you hide your suffering, so as to keep the other from entering into your sorrow?
Indeed, this would be so, if both times this suffering were borne in the same way.
When you perceive that it comes to this, you do better when you keep it to yourself, and hide it from the knowledge of your best friend, in the outpouring of your soul to make known your complaint to your God and your Lord alone.
But when it becomes a suffering of love, because you “put your soul in the stead of his soul,” no, then that transfer, that exchange of cross, that vicarious suffering of love, serves a purpose.
For see, the man who bore the sorrow, because God’s counsel brought it upon him, was burdened by it, threatened to succumb under it, and was going down in it. But when by the urge of love you take that same cross from him, it works the opposite effect with you. Through love, that same cross elevates you, enriches you inwardly, and allows you moments of blessed, soul-felt happiness.
For yours is at once the reward of your suffering, when you see that, by you, the sorrow of the other has been softened.
More familiarly we call this: ability to imagine ourselves in the condition of the other.
Surely, much love can operate in this, and hard will be the judgment of the man who knew so little save his own self, and thereby was never able to understand others in their suffering.
But yet, to imagine yourself in the other man’s condition is something far more general and superficial.
It is more general, for to think oneself in the condition of the other is of use in almost every relation of life.
No fathers or mothers can be good trainers unless they are able to put themselves in the place of their children. No teacher can teach unless he can enter into the condition of his pupil. No preacher can preach unless he enters sympathetically into the condition of his hearers. No nurse can care for the sick unless she can enter into the condition of her patient.
“To think oneself in the condition of others” is the general rule of all effective and fruit-bearing treatment of other people.
But the rule which governs the mystery of suffering aims far higher, because it does not remain on the surface but enters into the reality.
When I hear of a terrible shipwreck, I can imagine myself in the midst of the dreadful scenes which, before the ship sank away into the watery depths, were enacted on the sinking wreck; but this is pure representation; and even where I am moved by it, it is no deeper emotion than is stirred by reading Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
But here it is far more, and something altogether different.
Not thinking oneself in and imagining the condition of another, but taking one’s stand in his place; entering into what he is going through; taking the cross from him, and carrying it in his place and in his stead.
This is what, in fullest sense, and with perfect releasing effect, has actually taken place on Golgotha alone.
There He bore the punishment that brings us peace. The curse that lay on us He took away from us and bore it Himself.
And of course, so to take the cross away from the brother is to us, children in love as we are, not granted. For this you would have to be, as Jesus, altogether holy.
But walk in the shadow of love, thank God, yea, that we can do. Not by artificial intent, but as real love poured out in our heart by the Holy Ghost.
Then soul enters into soul. Then we do not regard ourselves but forget ourselves, so that we enter into the hidden sanctuary of the other person’s sorrow. And at the altar of his grief, which then smokes with such leaden-gray clouds, we kneel by the side of him, bear him up from underneath, and take the weight of his sorrow upon ourselves.
Better still, for even that would be too much. Oh, the strength of our love is so small. But He whose divine beauty glistens most brightly in the sympathy of compassion, brings our soul, more deeply than we ourselves know, into the sorrow of the brother, and in the stream of this holy sympathy brings the overwhelmed heart of the brother toward us.
This then does not last long. We can neither retain nor lengthen this sacred moment.
But it has been there, this one indivisible moment, when, in the place of our brother, our soul suffered what he battled against, and his was the balm of comfort.