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

Abraham Lincoln, Overcomer: Why Our 16th President Would Have Worn Nikes

Abraham Lincoln, Overcomer
Lincoln, at age 48. “The picture…is, I think, a very true one; though my wife, and many other do not.” Lincoln wrote. “My impression is that their objection arises from the disordered condition of the hair.” (Lincoln: A Photobiography, p. 40, R. Freedman)

On this day, 210 years ago, an overcomer was born. And, for the record, to be an overcomer, you’ve got to overcome. There’s no easier way.

Abraham Lincoln overcame.

By these three character traits our 16th President became more than a conqueror and overcame. It was not despite, but because of the constant barrage of criticism, confusion, and conflict that he did.

There are plenty more, but here are three traits that reveal how Lincoln overcame:

  1. Patience- Exhibit A: How he persevered and embraced marriage to a very trying Mary Todd Lincoln.
  2. Kindness- Exhibit B: How he looked hard for any excuse to pardon a deserter named Henry M. Luckett. 
  3. Humility- Exhibit C: How he wrote a letter admitting I was wrong, you were right to General U.S. Grant.

Patience, kindness and humility served Lincoln- and our united nation- well. Since I’ve already written about them, I thought I might forgo the Lincoln post this year.

Then I heard what Stanton said.

Gorilla Warfare

Edwin, “Mars,” Stanton was President Lincoln’s Secretary of War. Stanton was a sharp, biting critic of Lincoln early in the war.

He called Lincoln a “gorilla.”

Yes. He did.

Stanton publicly declared that it was foolish to go to Africa in search of a gorilla when “the original gorilla” could be found in Springfield, Illinois! Then, six months before he was appointed to the Lincoln’s Cabinet, Stanton wrote former President Buchanan:

“The dreadful disaster of Sunday [Battle of Bull Run] can scarcely be mentioned. The imbecility of this administration has culminated in that catastrophe, and irretrievable misfortune and national disgrace are to be added to the ruin of all peaceful pursuits and national bankruptcy as the result of Lincoln’s ‘running the machine’ for five months.”

Scathing words, those.

But somehow Stanton transformed into a strong supporter of the President.

If Stanton Said I Was…

But Lincoln took this “gorilla warfare” all in stride, and, because he felt that Stanton was the most qualified for the office, and in 1862 appointed him Secretary of War.

This proves that overcomers aren’t enslaved by what others say about them and that they’re not above correction. Overcomers look long and hard for the kernel of truth in the criticism, even if it’s stuck on a cob of misunderstanding or lies. And once they find it, they don’t let pride prevent them from changing course and turning.

I just read about a little incident that perfectly, if crassly, reveals that part of overcoming. It also involves Stanton.

This exchange came after some “Western men,” led by Congressman Lovejoy, procured an order from Lincoln to switch out their soldiers for eastern soldiers.

When Lovejoy explained the plan to Secretary of War Stanton, it was rejected.

‘But we have the President’s order sir,’ said Lovejoy.

‘Did Lincoln give you an order of that kind?’ said Stanton.

‘He did, sir.’

‘Then he is a d—d fool,’ said the irate Secretary.

“Do you mean to say the President is a d—d fool?’ asked Lovejoy, in amazement.

‘Yes, sir, if he gave you such an order as that.’

The bewildered Congressman from Illinois betook himself at once to the President, and related the result of his conference.
‘Did Stanton say I was a d–d fool?’ asked Lincoln at the end of the recital.

‘He did, sir; and repeated it.’

After a moment’s pause, and looking up, the President said: ‘If Stanton said I was a d–d fool, then I must be one, for he is nearly always right, and generally says what he means. I will step over and see him.’

And so our meek President did not retaliate. Instead he deferred to the same one who called his administration imbecilic and himself a gorilla.

Not Overcome By Evil 

Lincoln’s response to Lovejoy reminds me of 18th-century, British preacher George Whitefield. In response to a vicious, accusatory letter to him, Whitefield wrote,

I thank you heartily for your letter. As for what you and my other enemies are saying against me, I know worse things about myself than you will ever say about me.

With love in Christ,

George Whitefield

Lincoln could have penned those words just as well as Whitefield. It was Lincoln’s meekness and restraint in returning good for evil that proved too great a weapon for Stanton.

Do I not destroy my enemies, Lincoln asked, when I make them my friends?

Lincoln Would Have Worn Nikes

Had they been invented a hundred years earlier, he’d have worn them. Not because he was 6’4″ and headed for the court, but because Lincoln was an overcomer.

Turns out the Greek word translated “overcomer” is from the word nikao (níke) and it means to get the victory, overcome, conquer or subdue. Overcomers wear Nikes.

And they don’t return evil for evil. Any fool can do that. But to return good for evil is supernatural. Overcomers aren’t enslaved by others’ evil. They don’t take revenge. They have One Lord and Master and are, “disciples of him, who died for his enemies.”

George Washington Carver once said, “I will never let another man ruin my life by making me hate him.” Empowered by the Spirit, Carver would not allow evil to conquer him. Instead he lived out Romans 12:21, Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

John Piper fleshes this out for us,

In the context, coming right after saying be good to your enemy, I think he means “Don’t let your enemy’s hostility produce hostility in you. But let your love triumph over his hostility.” Don’t be overcome by evil means, Don’t be overcome by his evil…

Don’t let another person’s evil provoke you to evil thoughts or evil attitudes or evil deeds. Don’t give them that kind of power. You don’t have to. Christ is your king. Jesus Christ is your leader, your champion, your treasure. Christ governs your life, not those who do evil.

Lincoln was not overcome by evil. He didn’t let the evil of his enemies control him. He returned good for evil and that makes friends of enemies.

Stanton was overcome by Lincoln’s good.

The Most Perfect Ruler Of Men

In fact, Stanton tried to keep Lincoln from going to the theater that fateful night by ordering one of his subordinates, Major Thomas Eckert, not to accompany the Lincolns.

It was Stanton who organized the response to Lincoln’s assassination, the pursuit of John Wilkes Booth, and the prosecution of the assassination conspiracists. It was Stanton who wept bitter tears beside the bed as Lincoln breathed his last.

And it was Stanton who, according to eyewitnesses, announced: “There lies the most perfect ruler of men the world has ever seen. Now he belongs to the ages.

Lincoln’s secretary John Hay wrote this in a letter to Stanton shortly after Lincoln’s death.  “Not everyone knows, as I do, how close you stood to our lost leader, how he loved you and trusted you, and how vain were all efforts to shake that trust and confidence, not lightly given and never withdrawn.”

And as Lincoln to Stanton, even more our Lord Jesus to us.

His love for us will never be withdrawn. Through faith in Him we overcome.

Everyone born of God overcomes the world.

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

1 John 5:4