MLK on Engaging Suffering and Unearned Pain

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Did you remember Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. today?

Maybe you liked some MLK quotes on Facebook. I did that. Then I enjoyed King’s voice in his Mountaintop speech (“Only when it’s dark enough can you see the stars.”) and these voices singing We Shall Overcome. After that I took notes on this podcast. In it, author Collin Hansen interviews Mika Edmondson on how King handled “unearned pain.”

The podcast is a gem for all of us who face “unearned pain.”

For all of us.

Hansen: How did King account for this suffering that he pursued but did not deserve?

Edmundson: He believed that it could be engaged for good. Suffering is an evil that can be engaged in such a way so that the Lord could work to bring about his good purposes. It must be engaged with love. Then it can be redemptive. The Messiah did not revile when he was reviled.

MLK grappled with the question of why an all-good, all-powerful God would allow African-Americans to suffer so much in America…He believed that Jesus showed the way to engage suffering redemptively, and that God had especially and providentially prepared African-Americans to bear suffering as a witness to the overcoming power of the Gospel in America and as a witness of what the Gospel is and can be…

God has a purpose in allowing his people to engage suffering to the glory of God. This is not to say suffering is good or that somehow God smiled about slavery. I am not saying that at all. It is a terrible, horrible thing and yet God is sovereignly and graciously able to uphold his people so that their oppression does not have the final say; just like at the cross, where injustice and the worst oppression coming upon the Messiah.

But the Resurrection proves that oppression and injustice do not have the final say.

Hansen: Why didn’t this view lead to passivity?

Edmundson: King’s theodicy [his answer to the question of why a good, powerful God allows suffering] did not lead to passivity because he understood that God works through means. He knew that God works through the faith and energy and efforts of God’s people. We don’t just sit and wait passively for the Lord to bring this about. He will bring it about through his people.

King understood divine concurrence: that we can be at work and at the same time God is at work. Christianity holds out for us hope…that even if we don’t win in our lifetime, we will win. Even if we don’t see the ultimate victory, we know we are part of the winning cause…. There’s something about being a part of a hopeful cause that goes beyond ourselves.

Jesus did not shrink back, nor did he respond with violence. His life was not taken from him.

Martin Luther King, Jr. redemptively engaged in suffering to the glory of God. Responding ‘agapically’ to unjust suffering is… identifying with Christ and knowing that he is at work and that ultimately we will have victory. It does not guarantee physical safety or financial success, but neither does the Gospel.

Hansen: As a black man, what does it mean to trust the Lord through your tears?

Edmundson: It means that Christ will not allow me to suffer in vain and…that everything that he allows to come my way has a redemptive purpose around it. It means ultimately I am swept up in his purpose and I’m swept up in his victory and it means that I have hope.

Practically, it means that there is there is no room for despair and no room for bitterness and hatred. It means that I am not ultimately defined by my oppression but I am defined by Christ’s victory and by his victory in and through me to overcome the instances of suffering that come my way.

King’s theodicy affirms the dignity of those in the crucible of oppression. They are not just victims, they are overcomers

For everyone born of God overcomes the world.

This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith.

1 John 5:4

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Romans 12:21