Suffering - Orthodox Spirituality
by Fr. Thomas Hopko
There is no life in this world without suffering. The cessation of suffering comes only in the Kingdom of God.
There are generally three sources of suffering in this world: suffering from the persecution of others in body and soul, suffering from sickness and disease, and suffering in spirit because of the sins of the world. There are only two possible ways to deal with such sufferings. Either one humbly accepts them and transforms them into the way of salvation for oneself and others; or one is defeated by them with rebellion and rejection, and so “curses God and dies” both physically and for eternity in the ages to come. (cf. Job 2:9-10)
We have seen already that “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (I Timothy 3:12); and that Christians should “count it all joy” when they “meet various trials” (James 1:2), “rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name.” (Acts 5:41)
We have also seen that those who suffer through sickness and disease with every virtue of Christ will receive “sufficient grace” from God to be strong in the Lord in their bodily weakness, and so direct their sufferings “not unto death” but to the “glory of God.” (cf 2 Corinthians 12:7-10, John 11:4)
Since therefore Christ has suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same thought, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live for the rest of time in the flesh no longer by human passions, but by the will of God. (I Peter 4:1-2)
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of His body, that is the church… (Colossians 1:24)
So we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, because we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.
For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. Here indeed we groan, and long to put on our heavenly dwelling, so that by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we sigh with anxiety; not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.
So we are always of good courage; we know that while we are at home in the body, we are away from the Lord… (2 Corinthians 4:16-5:6)
The spiritual person, when suffering in the flesh, uses his afflictions to be set free from sin, and to be made “perfect through suffering” like Jesus Himself. (Hebrews 2:10) He knows that as his “outer nature is wasting away” he is being born into the Kingdom of God if he suffers in and with Jesus the Lord.
In a very real sense the most grievous suffering of all is not in the flesh but the spirit. This is the suffering which torments the soul when, by the grace of God and in the light of Christ, the spiritual person sees the utter futility, ugliness and pettiness of sin which is destroying men made in the image of God. According to one great theologian of the Church this suffering was the most grievous of all for the Lord Jesus Himself. (cf. Metropolitan Anthony Khrapovitskii, 20th c., The Dogma of Redemption)
Jesus knew the fullness and perfection of the divine beauty of God; He knew His mercy and love, the glory of paradise, the goodness of His creation. Beholding all of this, given to man as a gift, and beholding it scorned and rejected in His own person, was infinitely more painful and torturing to the Lord than were any beatings and scourging and being nailed to the cross. For the cross itself was the great scandal of man’s hatred and rejection of the love and light and life of God as given to the world in the person of Christ. Thus the agony and torment of the Lord in His being killed on the cross was the divine agony, in body and soul, of man’s refusal of divine life. No greater agony than this can possibly exist, and no human mind can fathom the infinite scope of its horror and tragedy.
The spiritual person, according to the measure of grace given by God, participates spiritually in this agony of Christ. It is the greatest suffering of the saints, infinitely more unbearable than any external persecution or bodily disease. It is the torment of the soul over the utter foolishness of sin. It is the agony of love over those who are perishing. It was in such straightness of soul that the Apostle Paul could exclaim: “...I have great sorrow and anguish in my heart, for I wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen by race.” (Romans 9:3)
It is with this same agony of love that Saint Isaac of Syria could say about the saints, “if they were cast into fire ten times a day for the sake of their love for man, even that would seem to them to be too little.” (Mystic Treatises, Wensinck, ed.) This same Saint Isaac himself was known to weep fervent tears of suffering love for all men, the whole of creation, and even the devil himself.
Thus the ultimate form of all suffering which leads to salvation is compassionate love for all that is perishing through the ridiculous foolishness of sin. Christ suffered from such love to the full and unlimited extension of His divinity. And each person suffers it as well to the extent that he or she is deified in Christ by the grace of the Spirit.
From:The Orthodox Faith by Fr. Thomas Hopko