“The majority of people have been granted well-being to an extent their fathers and grandfathers could not even dream about. It has become possible to raise young people according to these ideals, leaving them to physical splendour, happiness, possession of material goods, money, and leisure, to an almost unlimited freedom of enjoyment.” So said Alexander Solzhenitsyn, in his address to the graduates of Harvard University on June 8th, 1976, about Western society, and his assessment is correct. We live in a culture bent on pursuing the gratification of whatever desires we find rising within ourselves, be they for money, power, attention, entertainment, sex, etc… Such a culture of personal satisfaction reveals a society striving to escape any form of suffering. Indeed, we’ve become a people who cannot stand to feel any pain of any kind, we can see this in many levels of our lives, from all the ‘fast-acting’ pills to take away any physical suffering, to the abuse of narcotics used by many as an escape from emotional suffering. But living in such a culture that propagates the eradication of suffering through the perpetual stimulation of the passions does not succeed in eliminating the pain and suffering from our lives. The question we face then is this: what is the place of suffering in our lives? More importantly, what is the place of suffering in our lives as Orthodox Christians?
“For He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust.” (Matthew 5:45) The next question that follows after our initial is this: How can a Good and Loving God allow there to be pain and suffering? This is a question that has haunted apologists and theologians for centuries, to which there have been some good and some bad responses. One must understand that God did not create evil, rather evil is the product of the misuse of the human will. In creating man as a free, rational, agent, there is never a time where God violates the freedom of humanity, or as the writer of the epistle to Diognetus says, “God persuades, He does not compel; for violence is foreign to Him.” In establishing the freedom of humanity God also allows for the consequences to follow for the misuse of humanity’s freedom (see Genesis 3). This inevitably leads to the question of God’s Providence. “Providence is Divine will which maintains everything and wisely rules over everything,” these are the words of St. John of Damascus and his words are echoed by the other Fathers of the Church. All things that happen in the world are the result of God’s Providence, as St. Augustine says, “Everything that we, without understanding the matter, believe to occur randomly, chaotically, and without God’s direction, does, on the contrary, take place according to God’s will.” This means that absolutely everything happens, both things that bring joy and sorrow, according to the will of God. This does not mean though that God purposely inflicts pain upon humans. Much of the suffering of mankind is self-inflicted and God in His Providence allows it to happen. When speaking about God’s Providence we must be careful to emphasize that within His Providence is both, a) His own actions/interactions within creation, and, b) Those events and results that come about by the free choice of humanity which He allows to take place. So when speaking about suffering and God’s Providence we can say that God, in His Providence, allows suffering. Why?
“He acts towards us in ways He knows will be advantageous to us, whether by way of things that cause suffering, or by way of things that cause relief, whether they cause joy or grief, whether they are insignificant or glorious: all are directed towards the single eternal good“. In these words, St. Isaac of Syria reveals to us that in all of God’s dealings with mankind, every single one of the actions of God’s Providence is, in some mysterious way, beneficial for our salvation, and this includes suffering. In what ways is suffering beneficial for our salvation? How is suffering redemptive?
“You must kill egoism. If you don’t kill it yourself, then the Lord, hammer-blow after hammer-blow, shall send various misfortunes, so as to crush this stone.” (St. Theophan the Recluse) One way in which God allows sufferings and hardships to befall us is for the purpose of humility, for “the beginning virtue, the ultimate virtue is humility.” (St. Justin Popovic) Humility is both the beginning and the ultimate goal of the spiritual life, and without humility we can never truly know God, as St. Siluoan the Athonite teaches, “The Lord does not show Himself to a proud soul. The proud soul, no matter how many books it reads, will never know God, since by it’s pride it does not give place for the Grace of the Holy Spirit, while God is known only by the humble soul.” Since the true knowledge of God consists in our personal communion with Him, rather than in abstract, intellectual ideas, it is only through a condition of humility that we can truly know Him, since “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6). Salvation lies in our personal knowledge of God, see John 17:3, and only through humility can we come to the intimate knowledge of God, so when we find ourselves in a condition of pride, which distances us from God, in His mercy God will send hardships that through these hardships our hearts might be humbled and once again becomes temples of the Holy Spirit, “Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given us.” (Romans 5:3-5)
“Blessed is the man who uses his sufferings, knowing that all suffering in this brief time is loosed on men by God in His love for mankind, for the benefit and assistance of men. In His mercy, God looses suffering on men because of their sins – by His mercy and not His justice. For, if it were by His justice, every sin would inevitably bring death, as the Apostle says, “Sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death” (James 1:15). In place of death, God gives healing through suffering. Suffering is God’s way of healing the soul of it’s sinful leprosy and it’s death”. (St. Nikolai Velimirovich) Not only by virtue of instilling humility within us does suffering lead to salvation, but through suffering God brings about cleansing and healing to our souls of the sin that lies within. In fact, among the Church Fathers, it is understood that the consequences of the fall, of suffering and death, were in fact acts of God’s mercy upon man. Speaking of the fall, St. Gregory the Theologian says, “He provides a benefit – namely death, which cuts off sin, so that evil may not be everlasting. Thus His punishment is changed into a mercy.” In his homily, “On the Incarnation of the Lord”, St. Cyril of Alexandria says, “Having received as his lot an exhausting fast and sorrows, [he, that is fallen man] was given over to illnesses, sufferings, and the other bitter things of life as to a kind of bridle. Because he did not sensibly restrain himself in that life which was free of labors and sorrows, he is given over to misfortunes so that by sufferings he might heal in himself the disease which came upon him in the midst of blessedness…by death the Giver of the Law stopped the spread of sin, and in the very chastisement reveals His love for mankind. Inasmuch as He, in giving the commandment, joined death to the transgression of it, and inasmuch as the criminal thus fell under this chastisement, so He arranged that the chastisement itself might serve for salvation. For death dissolves this animal nature of ours and thus, on the one hand, stops the activity of evil, and on the other delivers a man from illnesses, frees him from labors, puts an end to his sorrows and cares, and stops his bodily sufferings. With such a love for mankind has the Judge mixed the chastisement.” God has given man sufferings so that through them he might restrain himself from sinning, and death itself is an end to sin and suffering in our lives, thus we see that while suffering and death were consequences of the fall, nevertheless God, in His loving Providence, sets them upon man to be therapeutic and salvific.
“A seed will not grow without earth and water, and a person will not gain anything without voluntary suffering and God’s help” (St. Mark the Monk) So far we have only discussed the forms of suffering that come upon us involuntarily, but in the words of St. Mark the Monk, we need also to accept suffering in our lives willingly. “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake, will save it.” (Luke 9:23-24) In the words of Our Lord, we must freely chose to lose our lives for His sake, and this is the only way to the Kingdom, “The path to God is a daily cross. No one has ascended to heaven by way of ease.” (St. Isaac of Syria) The voluntary sufferings that we enter into for the sake of Christ is the life of asceticism; the life of warring against the passions of gluttony, lust, greed, anger, dejection, listlessness, self-esteem, and pride – as St. John Cassian lists them. On the road towards the Kingdom we need to endure both voluntary and involuntary sufferings, “Suffering deliberately embraced cannot free the soul totally from sin unless the soul is also tried in the fire of suffering that comes unchosen. For the soul is like a sword: if it does not go ‘through fire and water’ (Ps. 66:12. LXX) – that is, through suffering deliberately embraced and suffering that comes unchosen – it cannot but be shattered by the blows of fortune.” (St. Ilias the Presbyter) Both through the sufferings that come to us by the means of God’s Providence along with the sufferings we take upon ourselves we carry the cross that leads to salvation, for “provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” (Romans 8:17)
So far we have seen that suffering, though a consequence of the fall, is used by God’s Providence as a means for our salvation; suffering in this fallen world is in fact a necessary factor in the salvation of man, suffering endured both voluntary and involuntary, as it cleanses us of sin, helps restrain man from sinning further, and brings man to humility. There is one more factor that I wish to look at as I close, and that is the factor of love. In an interview with CBC in 1973, Metropolitan Anthony Bloom was asked the question, “Do you think God wants us to suffer?” to which he responded, “He wants us to love, not to suffer, but suffering is always inherent to love in a world which is disharmonious, ugly, violent, aggressive, and so forth. He does not want us to suffer, He wants us to love, yet He warns us, ‘love means death’, a shedding of blood; heart blood or physical blood.” The commandment of the Christian life is to love, because God is love. To know God is to know love. This means that man, who is called to become like God, must become love, and the love of God is revealed to us preeminently through the crucifixion, “God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Love is ultimately manifested as being willing to endure suffering for the sake of the beloved, thus living in a fallen, broken world, to truly love means that we will suffer. So suffering not only restrains man from sin, not only humbles him, and not only heals him, it is also the proof of his love, and if suffering is inherent to love, and if to become love is to reach the full likeness of Christ, then indeed, suffering is the path to the Kingdom, but suffering isn’t eternal, it will not always be necessary, for at the consummation of creation into the Kingdom of Heaven at the resurrection of the dead, “He [God] will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:4)