The Role of Suffering in the Relationship between God & Man (Part 4)
The Christian understanding makes it clear that were it not for the efforts of God, to draw us to Him, nobody would turn from this world. So we must admit, that first and foremost, our reconciliation is wholly dependent upon God’s action and power. However, the Orthodox Christian understanding further recognizes that man is expected to do his/her part, however small, to work in concert with God towards our salvation. As we’ve already explored, suffering and death are events in the life of every human being which have the power and potential to draw man into closer relationship with God. And if man chooses, he/she can respond positively to this opportunity.
This isn’t to say that the choice is always easy, and by definition struggling through suffering and death can be very painful. Although, suffering often forces us into situations where we begin to make movements within ourselves—in the place of our soul, in our deep heart of hearts—which are salutary and healing. Through suffering and in the face of death we are often brought to our knees, our pride of life is humbled and our hearts are softened. Through suffering we are made more receptive to the Holy Spirit. Throughout scripture mankind is admonished by God and his messengers to give up our hearts of stone and allow them to be turned into hearts of flesh; and to stop acting like ‘stiff-necked’ people, resisting the Holy Spirit. In this world, we learn that a hard heart and a stiff neck can be beneficial in achieving what we desire and for our worldly pursuits; but in God’s kingdom to come, our pride and our passions will no longer be tolerated and will even preclude our entrance. As the apostle Paul says to the Galatians:
“Now the works of the flesh are evident which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries and the like: of which I tell you beforehand, just as I told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” (Galatians 5:19-21)
And he continues, by telling the Galatians (and us) what the beneficial results are for those who have turned from the passions and the desires of this world and have chosen instead to live according to the Spirit of God. For those who have turned back to God and allowed his Spirit to make home within our heart: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such there is no law.” (Galatians 5: 22-23)
St. Sophrony describes the blessing that is granted mankind in working together with God in the work of this reconciliation, bringing each of us back into relationship and communion with God. Our unique individual personhood is brought to bear in this effort, as God created us in his image with the ability to use our free will in service of love. St. Sophrony says:
“But the Son of God, in His infinite lovingkindness, came ‘to dwell with those that had departed from his grace’, in order to renew the dialogue he had had with man in Paradise, but which had been severed by reason of Adam’s transgression. For Christ is a true Hypostasis, a perfect Divine Person, while man also bears within himself the hypostatic principle, since he is created in Christ’s image. Man’s extraordinary privilege, therefore, is that of working with God, towards his perfection, as a person restored.” (Zacharias, 70)
The work of reconciliation—healing and restoration of the person—always involves giving something up, voluntarily or involuntarily. As we’ve already discussed, suffering and death involuntarily provide us opportunity to give up our attachments to this temporal world in favor of God’s kingdom, through the complex processes of metanoia and the softening of our inner spiritual heart. Additionally, we can be humbled through suffering and death, as we realize our powerlessness in the face of them, and our complete dependence on God for healing and victory over death. The spiritual changes that can take place within us now, which were originally stimulated by our suffering, can cause us to turn our soul’s faculties back to God, so that He can begin to heal us. Dr. Larchet describes in detail how this can take place within an individual. He explains in great detail, systematically, how each of our soul’s faculties, which were originally created to draw us into deeper communion with God, were corrupted after the fall, so that our powers of desire, and our will, and our intellect all served our selfish passions. But when we abandon our selfish use of these faculties and allow them to be used as they were originally intended by God: to desire Him, and to fight to return to Him, and to contemplate Him, then we are exercising our freedom in a way that supports His healing of us. As Archimandrite Zacharias writes, “…humility and self-denial become the firm foundations within us, upon which God Himself builds the temple of His Spirit.” (Zacharias, 32) So, for the person who learns to use his suffering to positive effect—not struggling against it, as rather accepting that it brings spiritual value with it—they can find that their heart becomes increasingly receptive to God’s grace. As Zacharias continues: “This sense of our own nothingness produces the right conditions for us to remain in the presence of God. And the more we become empty of ourselves, that is, the more we humble ourselves before God, the more He fills our heart with His divine grace.” (Zacharias, 31)
Like Christ—who emptied himself first by his incarnation, becoming a man though he is God, and then also through dying a humiliating death on the cross and finally descending into hell before his ultimate triumph—we can follow His example, by also emptying ourselves of our pride and passions. For the person who is inspired by Christ, “…he is led along a chain of thoughts, each deeper than the last: from faith he is led to more perfect faith, from hope to firmer hope, from grace to greater grace and from love of God to an ever greater measure of love.” (Zacharias, 6) Christ’s saving actions, and His example, clear the way for our reconciliation and for our ultimate theosis, or union with God. It is because of Christ that we have this opportunity.
“Christ, the only–begotten Son of God, by His passion, cross, death and resurrection, willingly and sinlessly entered into the totality of human pain, transforming it into an expression of His perfect love.” (Zacharias, 68) We can bring Christ to mind when we also are faced with suffering and with sacrificing the life we’ve known. As Vigen Guroian writes:
“Only [Christ’s] sacrifice is pure and completely efficacious for restoring complete communion with God. Christ reclaims and fulfills in his person the vocation that God gave to humankind at creation. The incarnation is the revelation that perfect human love is sacrificial, is sacrifice.” (Guroian, 116)
But sacrifice alone is obviously not the goal; love is the goal of our self-sacrifice. Self-emptying is nothing, if it doesn’t lead us to greater love of God and of others. The exile and alienation that we live in this world due to the fall can be healed through sacrifice, and this leads us back into deeper communion with God. When we think that our losses have no meaning, and are merely tragedy, it can be helpful to remind ourselves and each other that with Christ, even loss through suffering and death can be gain; in a very present and real way our losses can become the fertile field for greater communion in a wider sense. Our field of vision is widened so that our empathy and compassion can extend beyond our previously narrow confines; our love can then extend to all mankind, who we recognize share the same sufferings and the same losses as we do. Vigen Guroian writes something quite beautiful about this love: “Christ reveals to us that the love that is sacrifice and the love that seeks communion are not two loves but the same love…through the incarnation, God and humanity are reconciled and communion is restored…by the power of divine love.” (Guroian, 116)
Not only do suffering and death cause us to sacrifice, but they also bring us to our knees. They confront us with the fact of our true helplessness in this world. Because of this, they can also be among the most efficacious and powerful remedies for mankind’s greatest weakness: pride. Our desire to be our own God and to answer only to ourselves first caused our fall and led to our exile in this world of pain; so it is only fitting that humility would be a primary medicine for healing our spiritual diseases and for preparing us to return to God’s kingdom. When we suffer, most of us want to find the solution as quickly as possible; we try to take matters into our own hands in order to fix the problem and get back to our lives. If the suffering is beyond us—such as suffering the death of a loved one or facing our own death—then we are confronted with the fact that we can’t fix the problem or get back to life as it was before. This realization is very humbling. But in general, we don’t like being humbled, so most of us don’t stop to think of the benefit and value that humbling may have for us. Or if we do consider it, our thoughts rarely go beyond thinking about humility in a theoretical and hypothetical sense, and certainly not as it applies specifically to our current circumstances. We tend to think that humility is good insofar as it applies to somebody else’s life—or in retrospect—but not something we want to truly embrace in the midst of our own pain and suffering. Again and again, most of us just want to fix the problem of our suffering, keeping our focus on this world only; and we ignore the opportunity for developing genuine humility, which has its greatest value as a preparation for our life in the next world.
If we can accept the lesson of humility which comes through our suffering, we can learn additional lessons in patience, endurance and perseverance, all qualities which scripture tells us are valued and desired by God, and which also have benefits to us in this world as well. In our suffering often all we can do is wait; we wait for delayed healing, or for the passage of time to soften the pain. We wait upon God to rescue us, provide a miracle, or simply offer His loving presence to help us endure and overcome. Archimandrite Zacharias offers encouraging words about this:
“We may be suffering from some illness and praying to God for healing. But if our request is not granted, let us know that God can give such grace and power as will enable us to rise above our illness and, through it, to sense the joy of the presence and power of God in our hearts, which is our victory over death.” (Zacharias, 35)
As we wait upon God, we learn to call upon Him as well. People who have never prayed before, or who have prayed very little, often resort to prayer in the midst of their trials. They begin to ask God for help, or if they are already accustomed to talking with God, they do so more frequently and more fervently. And for those of us who may be called upon to offer support to others in their trials, we might consider praying with them, or helping them to pray more themselves. We might inquire lovingly how they view prayer, and possible encourage them to deepen their experience of prayer beyond whatever level they currently practice it. Perhaps more than any other aspect of personal spiritual practice and preparation, prayer is regarded most highly throughout scripture, in the writings of the church fathers, and in church tradition and practice. “Prayer, as Fr. Sophrony says, is an endless creation; it is a school that teaches us to remain in the presence of the Lord. This effort to remain with the Lord is an exercise that finally overcomes death…” (Zacharias, 30)
To remain in the presence of the Lord in this life is a great challenge and blessing; and to remain in His presence in the midst of suffering and death is an even greater challenge. While we wait upon God sometimes it seems He will never come to us; our prayers can sometimes feel futile and a waste of time. But it is important to encourage one another to persevere in prayer, and to keep God in our heart and to refrain from the urge to turn away in frustration. A lifetime of living in exile—to some degree or another, as applies to each of us—isn’t often reversed in a moment. We must train our senses to attune ourselves to the voice of God, and this is done beautifully through the discipline of prayer; but it is not accomplished immediately, and will take effort over time, and will exercise our faith and our hope, and our love. “Prayer is a matter of love. Man expresses love through prayer….St Silouan identifies love for God with prayer, and the Holy Fathers say that forgetfulness of God is the greatest of all passions [vices]…” (Zacharias, 68) We need to exercise our love and exercise our hearts, to prepare them for God—who is Love—to feel at home within us. Throughout scripture God asks us to sanctify ourselves, to make our inner person holy in preparation for Him to make his home in us. We are made holy and are reconciled with God especially through our deepening prayer life. As John Climacus writes: “Prayer is by nature a dialog and a union of man with God. Its effect is to hold the world together. It achieves a reconciliation with God.” (Climacus, 274)
Maintaining a state of prayerfulness in life, and particularly within our suffering, is often thwarted by the activity of our mind. As we’ve already discussed, our thoughts can lead us astray; and when we follow our thoughts we can become even more disoriented in relation to suffering and death, feeling perplexed and in a daze. There is a long tradition within the Orthodox Church of pairing the practice of ‘watchfulness’ along with our practice of prayer. This tradition of ‘nepsis’, or watchfulness, teaches one to constantly monitor the movement of one’s thoughts, developing an awareness of how they operate within us, yet not allowing them to influence us. Watchfulness allows one to develop a certain detachment from their thoughts, so as to allow one to maintain a stable interior state in relation to God. Often, the ascetic fathers of the church—who wrote and taught extensively on this topic—have said that we are to watch our thoughts come and go within us, but not attach ourselves to any of them, so that we can maintain spiritual sobriety and focus towards our Lord. As Archimandrite Zacharias says: “When prayer is humble, and accompanied by the practice of watchfulness, the mind is concentrated in the heart, that is the dwelling-place of our beloved God, and He grants us a marvelous sense of His closeness that is beyond words.” (Zacharias, 8)
Along with constant prayer, we are also told to be thankful in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). Gratitude and thankfulness are also very difficult to maintain in the midst of suffering and death; and yet they can be truly transformative if we learn to be thankful during these trials. It is important to clarify that we are not asked to be thankful ‘for’ every circumstance, but rather to be thankful ‘in’ all things. Maintaining a state of thankfulness is not something most of us automatically know how to do. However, it is an attitude that can be learned over time as we struggle with our suffering. Thankfulness helps maintain our relationship with God, since as we maintain a spirit of gratitude our heart remains open. We may struggle, like Job did, with the terrible torment of our suffering, but by keeping God in our heart we help ourselves, by not adding the spiritual pain of estrangement from God, to the suffering we are already experiencing. Thankfulness is also an aspect of and result of humility; it is the manifestation of humility in action. Thankfulness is the acceptance of things as they are, and even more, it is an expression of joy and love in response to God’s plan and will for our lives.
Ultimately, suffering and death present us with situations in life where we have an opportunity to shift the focus of our faith. Throughout much of our life we have learnt to trust in ourselves and in the things of this world. But through suffering we can be brought involuntarily through circumstances which present us with a new option. Suffering grants us the opportunity to turn away from this temporal world; and to put our faith in eternal God instead. Reconciliation is a tremendous thing; it is difficult in some respects, but made easier by God’s grace.