This is the only utterance of our Blessed Lord in which He gave expression to His physical sufferings. Not least of these was that intolerable thirst which is the invariable result of all serious wounds, as those know well who have ever visited patients in a hospital after they have undergone a surgical operation. In this case it must have been aggravated beyond endurance by exposure to the burning heat of an Eastern sun. This word, then, spoken under such circumstances, discloses the Mind of the Son of God, perfect Man, in regard to physical pain.
1. Notice then, in the first place, the majestic calm of this word. It was spoken in intensest agony, yet with deliberation, exhibiting the restraint of the sovereign and victorious will of the Sufferer. "After these things, knowing that all things had now been accomplished, He saith [not 'cried'], I thirst." We cannot be wrong in reading this marvellous word in the light of that strange passage in the Epistle to the Hebrews, where the writer tells us that Christ, "although He was Son, yet learnt He obedience by the things which He suffered." How are we to reconcile this with the moral perfection of our Lord's humanity? We can only do so, by applying the Aristotelian distinction between the potential and the actual. The obedience of the Son of God, existing as it did in all possible perfection from the first moment of His human consciousness, yet existed, prior to His complete identification of Himself with all our human experience, as a potentiality. It became actual, in the same way as our obedience can alone become actual, as a result of that experience, and, above all, in consequence of those sufferings which were part of that experience. In this sense He "learnt obedience," where we too must learn it, in God's school of pain.
Therein lies the answer, as complete an answer as we can at present receive, to the problem of pain. While that problem is, beyond doubt, the most perplexing of all the questions which confront us, the real difficulty lies, not in the existence of pain in God's world, but in the apparent absence, in so many instances, of any discernible purpose in pain. In itself, pain does not, or at least should not, conflict with the highest moral conception which we can form of the character of God. But purposeless pain, if such really occur anywhere in the universe, is hard indeed to reconcile with the revelation of the Highest as Infinite and Eternal Love. The real answer to the problem lies in our gradually dawning perception of the high purposes which pain subserves.
It is well, then, to remind ourselves of the teaching of natural science in regard to the function of pain in the animal world. There, at least, it has originated, and has survived, only because of its actual use to the possessors of that nervous system which makes pain possible. It serves as a danger signal of such inestimable value that no race of animals, of any high degree of organisation, which could be incapable of suffering pain, could for any length of time continue to survive. Pain here, at any rate, so far from being purposeless, owes its existence to the purpose which it subserves.
Ascending higher in the scale of being we see, as has been recently pointed out, that the progress of human civilisation has been very largely due to the successful efforts of man to resist and to remove pain. The most successful and progressive races of mankind are those which inhabit regions of the world where the conditions of life are neither so severe as to paralyse all exertion, or even to preclude its possibility, nor so favourable that men can avoid the pain of hunger or of cold without strenuous and unremitting effort. The stimulus of pain has been the means of perfecting the animal nature of man, and the secret of those victories which he has won over the inclement or dangerous forces of the material world, and which we call, in their totality, human civilisation.
And thus we come in sight of a great law, "perfection through suffering." And the revelation of the Cross is the exhibition to us of this law acting in the higher reaches of man's existence, in the moral and spiritual regions of his life. As the animal has gained its victories in the past, so the spiritual is advancing towards the final triumph of man, along the same path, of healthy reaction stimulated and necessitated by pain.
For wherein lies the triumph of the spiritual nature, save in its complete and sovereign control over all the other elements in our complex being? The spiritual man is not the man who has starved his physical or intellectual being; but the man whose whole nature, harmoniously developed in the whole range of its varied gifts and powers and faculties, is altogether brought under the mastery of that which is highest in him, that spirit in which he is akin to God, the wearer of the Divine Image. The saintliest, loftiest characters of men and women have been the fruits of this discipline.
We see the final demonstration of the purpose of pain in Him Who "learnt obedience by the things which He suffered." This one word which tells of physical suffering, tells also, as we have already seen, of the victory gained over it by His human Spirit. It was by the reaction of that Spirit under sharpest bodily pain, that the moral perfection of the Son of man ceased to be potential, and became actual. So it is with us, so at least it may be in ever-increasing measure, when pain is accepted and met in the way in which Christ accepted and met His pain, not in the spirit of useless and wild rebellion against the laws of the universe, nor in that of a blind, fatalistic, and unintelligent fatalism, which calls itself resignation. We may, hence, learn to look beyond and behind pain to that great law of perfection through suffering which takes effect, as it were, spontaneously in lower forms of life; but which, in the realm of the moral and the spiritual, demands the co-operation of the human mind and will.
2. We may see also, in the fifth word, the revelation of the attitude of the Son of God towards His own body. That attitude, and hence the only genuinely and characteristically Christian attitude, may be best described as the mean between the pampering of the body, and its savage neglect in the interests of a false asceticism.
As at first He put aside "the slumberous potion bland" and willed "to feel all, that He might pity all," so, now His task is over, He craves, and accepts, alleviation of His bodily pain. It is a wonderful illustration of the true, the Christian way of regarding the body. The human body is essentially a good and holy thing. Those sins which we call "bodily," like all sins, have their origin in the rebellious will. They are only distinguished from other sins, because in them the will uses the body, and in other sins other God-given endowments of our nature, in opposition to the eternal goodness which is the Will of God. We cannot too often remember, that "good" and "evil" are terms applicable to the will alone.
That splendid gift of the body has been given to us, in order that in it, and through it, we might "glorify God"; that is, do His Will, the only thing utterly worth doing. Therefore, we have to keep our bodies "fit," fit in all ways for their high and holy purpose. There is the law, the standard of all Christian self-discipline. Think of the glory of the prospect which it holds out to us, of the development and destiny of the body. Think of the care which we should bestow upon it, of the awful reverence with which we should regard this (in the Divine intention) splendid and perfect instrument for the fulfilment of the Will of God. For what reverence can be too great for that which the Eternal God chose as the tabernacle in which He should dwell among men, as the instrument by which He should do the Father's Will on earth?
Of all the religions of the world it is the religion of Jesus Christ alone which bids us "glorify God" in the body, that is, do His Will in and by that glorious instrument which He has created and redeemed for His service.
3. Finally, we may remind ourselves, very briefly, that we, in our own day, may share the blessedness of the Roman soldier who relieved the sufferings of Christ. "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these My brethren, ye have done it unto Me."
As Christians, we must have some ministry to fulfil towards the suffering members of Christ's Body. In the parable of the sheep and the goats, the eternal destiny of men is shown to depend, in the last resort, upon the manner in which they have performed, or failed to perform, this ministry. The complexities of modern life call for careful thought in regard to the manner in which we are to fulfil this duty, but they cannot relieve us of it. Somewhere or other in our lives we must be diligently relieving the necessities of others, ministering to their needs of body, mind, or spirit. Else -- there is no shirking this conclusion -- we are simply failing in the most characteristic of all Christian virtues; we are far removed from the Mind of Him Who "went about doing good"; we are on the way to hear that final condemnation, "Because ye did it not to the least of these My brethren, ye did it not to Me."