Writings of Scripture and Church Fathers on Suffering and Afflictions

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Doctrines of Holy Scripture Regarding Evil and Suffering

The Holy Scripture very clearly answers the series of principal questions relating to evil in the world and man’s suffering: evil and suffering are not from God. God, being infinitely good, created everything for the benefit and happiness of man. “Then God saw everything that He had made, and indeed it was very good” we read at the end of the Biblical narrative regarding the creation of the world (Gen. 1:31). God created man, pure, good and provided him with high spiritual qualities, likening him with Himself. Man’s designation was to develop within himself good qualities, so that the more he attained closeness to God, the more he incorporated himself to the blissfulness of Divine life.

However, man did not stay at the height of his calling. As the book of Genesis narrates, the first man, through the suggestion of the serpent-tempter, tasted the forbidden fruit and thus broke the direct commandment of God. The sinfulness of this act consisted in the fact that man wanted to become like God, not through the development of good qualities within himself, which demands time and inner effort, but automatically, so to speak, through one bold leap. By this impudent act, Adam, through the instigation of the devil, resorted really to magic, the quintessence of which is to acquire supernatural capabilities, extraordinary knowledge or known services by various mechanical actions and incantations. It is characteristic that through magic one wishes to exploit mysterious forces of the nether world out of context of their moral confines and one’s own responsibility before God.

As can be seen from biblical narratives, the serpent was not a simple reptile but a being of intellect, crafty and cunning. He brazenly slandered the Creator and cleverly seduced the trusting man. Elsewhere, the Holy Scripture explains that this serpent (he is the “dragon”) was the very Daystar — one of the angels close to God, at first being good and bright and then, through pride, rebelling against his Creator. Having fallen away from God, Daystar attracted to himself a part of the angels, forming with them a dark kingdom of evil, a place of torment and terror called hell. (The fallen Daystar is also known as Satan, which means slanderer, and his angel followers, the devils and the demons) The tragedy of the fall from God by the formerly good angels occurred before the appearance of the visible world. Thus, in accordance with the Bible, evil did not take root in inert matter but in the intellect and godlike spirit and from there it spread to the material world.

The fallaciousness of sin by the first man consisted not only in breaking of a specific commandment, but in the fact that man on principle turned away from the Heavenly Father, and went on the path which before was taken by his tempter. Man turned away from his Heavenly Father so as to serve himself personally, to do nothing that helps the good but what was pleasant to himself personally.

From here then, from the depraved direction of the will, begin all of man’s miseries and suffering. Diseases, sorrows and physical death — are results of moral evil. With a dimming of man’s soul, the balance between his spiritual and physical nature was disturbed: his moral instinct dulled, and his noble aspirations began to be stifled by capricious and disorderly carnal desires. Yet through man’s fall the infinite kindness of the Creator is discovered, Who took the consequences of sin, i.e. suffering, illnesses and death, and wisely offered them as a means for healing and salvation of man. The Holy Scripture devotes a great deal of attention to the revelation of this truth.

After the fall from God, there begins a long and thorny road for man to return to Him. Moral healing had to be accomplished actively with the participation of man’s will and not passively. Sacred history shows us how God, by means of inner, as well as external means, leads man to Himself and helps him to take the path of goodness and mercifully forgives him his fall. Due to man’s spiritual callousness there arose a need to announce a moral law, which was etched in the depths of his spiritual nature, in the form of simple and understandable commandments, so that man would have not only the internal, but also the external guidance. Thus, during the long period of the Old Testament, God disclosed His will to the people through His chosen ones — the patriarchs and the prophets. Gradually a collection of spiritual books, known as the Holy Scripture, was formed. The time of the Old Testament was a period of man’s induction into the fundamentals of God’s Law, the inculcation of lost feelings of reverence before the Creator, and the realization of the need to obey Him. This was a period of preparation leading to the acceptance of Gospel teachings and toward the renewal of the hearts with the beneficence of the Holy Spirit.

People with sensitive souls through their own experience sooner or later become convinced in the fact that all happiness and solace comes from God and that all afflictions come from their own trespasses and from the depravity of others. The comprehension of this important truth was truly a great accomplishment of the Old Testament period. Thus, King David in his inspired psalms shares the experience which he acquired over many years: “The Lord is near to those who have a broken heart, and saves such as have a contrite spirit. Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord delivers him out of them all……You will show me the path of life; in Your presence is fullness of joy, at Your right hand are pleasures for everyone…” (Psalms 33:18-19 and 15:11, LXX).

The Old Testament Scripture taught about God’s absolute justice, in accordance with which, a person doing good deserves rewards, while one who acts badly deserves punishment. Besides, the Scripture taught that the sinner himself, and not others, must bear the punishment. However, in practice, to the great consternation of those sincerely wanting to live justly, was the fact that far from always was the principle of fairness justified. At that time the terms and means of Divine justice were not as yet clearly defined, because man’s fate beyond the grave was made contingent on the coming of the promised Messiah. In reading religious history, we see that even the righteous people could not always reconcile themselves with the most atrocious injustices of life. They could not understand why God in all His perfection, sometimes does not intercede for the innocent and permits the lawlessness to triumph. For instance, the righteous Job, upon whom were sent all kinds of unexpected hardships, specifically that within a time of a few days he lost all of his possessions, his family and even health, he humbly submitted to the will of God, but could not understand why God allowed for such a misfortune to befall him.

The Prophet Jeremiah, often being subjected to the persecutions for preaching the word God, in perplexity questioned the Lord,

Righteous are You O Lord, when I plead with You; yet, let me talk with You about Your judgments. Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why are those happy who deal so treacherously? You have planted them, yes they have taken root.

And later, as if complaining about his lot,

Woe is me, my mother, that you have borne me, a man of strife and a man of contention to the whole earth! I have neither lent for interest nor have men lent to me for interest. Everyone of them curses me….I am in derision daily. Everyone mocks me. For when I spoke I cried out; I shouted violence and plunder! Because the word of the Lord was made to me a reproach and a derision daily. Then I said I will not make mention of Him, nor speak anymore in His name. But His word was in my heart like a burning fire shut up in my bones… I was weary of holding it back, and I could not (Jer. 12:1-4, 15:10-11 and 20:7-9).

In this way, the Old Testament scripture did not give a comprehensive answer to the incomprehension as to why justice is so often breached. Nevertheless, even then, some were able to enter somewhat deeper into the mystery of sorrow (affliction) and see that aside from merit or non-merit, the afflictions have their own bright, positive aspect. “Sorrow is better than laughter, for by a sad countenance the heart is made better,” noted the wise King Solomon at the sunset of his life (Ecc. 7:3).

The central theme of the New Testament is the teaching of the redemption of mankind by the voluntary sufferings of the incarnate Son of God. In the New Testament the sufferings are not simply a retaliation for a trespass, they have an active redemptive power. “Suffering is the fountain of renewal and salvation.” God does not hide beyond the boundaries of vast space and He is not indifferent to mankind’s misfortunes, as once thought the pagan wise men. On the contrary, He “so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).

Because of His great pity for mankind, the Son of God descends from His heavenly glory to our afflicted world, takes upon Himself the burden of mankind’s sins and washes them away with His most pure Blood on the cross. His wounds are a panacea for our diseases. His death is the beginning of a new blessed life. On the cross through the suffering of the God-man there occurred a great mystery of renewal of mankind’s nature which had been damaged by sin.

St. Gregory the Theologian contrasts the sacrifice of the Savior on the cross to the tasting of the forbidden fruit in Eden. “Herein is wood for wood, and hands — for a hand; hands valiantly extended (on the cross) for a hand that was intemperate, nailed hands — for a hand that was self-willed…herein is ascension onto the cross for the fall, gall for the tasting (of forbidden fruit), a crown of thorns for the unjust government, death for death.”

By His redeeming death and victorious Resurrection the Lord cast down the ancient serpent-tempter and gave to the faithful “…authority to trample on serpents and scorpions and over all the power of the enemy…” (Luke 10:19). For a redeemed man there opens up a path to the Heavenly Kingdom and to eternal joy. To man, who is weak and used to sinning, the path to Heaven at times seems narrow and difficult; however, The Lord Jesus Christ inspirits all who wish to set on the redeeming path, saying: “Come to Me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Mat. 11:28-30).

The sufferings and hardships of mankind in this temporary life are not done away by the coming of Christ; however they have lost their acuteness and darkness. The heart of the matter is that evil has enmeshed itself so much with our nature, it has so ingrown into our hearts, that the process of liberation from it is always combined with pain. However, the heavenly ray of the Comforter Spirit dissipates the darkness in the soul of the sufferer and warms him with the feeling of God’s love. It is wonderful that during man’s way toward the Heavenly Kingdom, the Holy Spirit by His presence also gives an opportunity to the faithful to foretaste the joy prepared for him in everlasting life. The righteous, who are granted such joy, testify that in comparison with it, all earthly blessings and pleasures become insignificant. Therefore the Apostles taught that the faithful should not grieve, “…lest you sorrow as others who have no hope,” but must rejoice and thank God (1Thes. 4:13).

“Therefore, since Christ suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same mind,” — so writes Apostle Peter, — “for he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin” (1 Peter 4:1-2). And a little later, “Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you; but rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy” (1 Peter 4:12-13). Just as the flame cleans precious metals from alloys, it is necessary that “…you have been grieved by various trials…the genuineness of your faith being much more precious than gold… though it is tested by fire… may be found to praise, honor and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:6-8).

The Christian faith expands the believing man’s horizon and gives him an opportunity to see the temporary against the background of eternity. Sufferings of the innocent are not in vain: they are a means toward receiving great rewards in Heaven. Thus, according to a Gospel’s parable, it seemed to many that life had cruelly hurt the pauper Lazarus. At the time that he was starving and helplessly suffering from ulcers while lying by the gates of the rich man, the latter feasted and amused himself daily. Neither the rich man, nor his friends, had ever expressed the least compassion toward Lazarus. When Lazarus died no one attended his funeral. From a worldly point of view, his lot in life was totally unfair. However in lifting the curtain behind which begins the other world, the Gospel allows us to see that with the physical death, it was the suffering and not life that ended for Lazarus. Now, for his patience and benevolence he was worthy of a great reward. Thus, having crossed the threshold from the temporary life, a person enters into a world where absolute justice reigns. Therefore, during the difficult moments of life we must remind ourselves that, the sufferings of the present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:18).

The autobiographical notations of Apostle Paul in which he tells of the trials which befell him during his apostolic activity and his gradual comprehension of their advantage, are of great valuefor a more complete understanding of the subject presented here.

I was in immeasurable difficulties, with sores, in jail and often close to death. >From the Jews, five times I received forty strikes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often, in perils of waters, in peril of robbers, in perils from my own countrymen, in perils from the Gentiles, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and toil, often in sleeplessness, in hunger and thirst, often in fasting, in cold and nakedness… (2 Cor. 11:23-29).

Through all this, one cannot see in Apostle Paul a shadow of anger or murmur, that he, who had dedicated his life to God, had been given, in a way, to the insults and derision of the enemies. On the contrary, this is how the Apostle of the tongues learned to receive all that happened to him:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also abounds through Christ… as sorrowful yet always rejoicing; as poor yet making many rich, as having nothing and yet possessing all things (2 Cor. 1:3-6, 6:9).

Besides external afflictions and obstacles which were connected to the sermons, Apostle Paul was oppressed by some other physical infirmity, some unexplainable internal complaint which at times drove him to total enfeeblement and to which he referred as “the thorn of the angel of Satan” in his flesh. Three times the Apostle pleaded with God to deliver him from this infirmity, which hindered him to perform his Apostle’s ministry. But the Lord instead of healing appeared to him Himself and said: “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Having understood that the infirmity was sent to him for spiritual benefit, that is in order to teach him not to rely on his own strength but on God’s help, the Apostle Paul came to this decision, “I will rather boast in my infirmities , that the power of Christ may rest upon me …Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecution, in distresses, for Christ’s sake, for when I am weak then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:7-11).

Here is the new and truly valuable revelation regarding the value of afflictions! If accepted with humility and hope in God, they attract to the sufferer God’s power, which exceeds his natural powers and makes the person an instrument of God’s Providence for the salvation a of multitude of people and even whole nations.

Thus, the New Testament opens before us the redeeming aspect of suffering. The voluntary sufferings of the Son of God brought salvation to the world. Sin, the prime reason of all evil, is abolished, whereas both small and temporary afflictions remain as medicine, as a means for spiritual perfection. As was disclosed to Apostle John the Theologian, writer of the Revelations, the Kingdom of Heaven is filled with people of all generations, tongues, nationalities and tribes, with people from different cultures, degrees of education and social standing. Their common trait is that they all came here from “a great tribulation” (Rev. 7:14), that is to say that all people saved had their own life’s cross to bear. At the lead of this innumerable assembly the Apostle sees, in the middle of the heavenly altar, the Lamb of God — Jesus Christ.

Every person would have liked to enter into paradise, but not everyone comprehends, nor wants to reconcile himself to the fact that even he must, without murmur, carry his share of afflictions, in order not to find himself as a stranger among the others who arrived here namely through suffering. We know that “We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22), while the same time we must with all our strength, overcome in ourselves all gloomy frame of mind. A Christian must always be joyful and thank God, because afflictions are a temporary state. One should direct his spiritual sight towards the Lord, from Whom emanates all solace and happiness, as well as the next life which will bode no deceit, no lies, no illness, no death, nor any of that which darkens our earthly existence, but which will be eternal bliss. Reminding the Christians of this, the Apostles taught: “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice!” (Phil. 4:4). Christianity is, first of all, faith in the victory of good. It brought light to mankind, love and true joy in communion with the Heavenly Father.

The Holy Fathers’ Writings on How to Deal with Afflictions

The teaching herein about the afflictions would be incomplete without the Holy Fathers’ directives on this subject. The experiences of the saints is a never-ending treasury of wisdom for everyone who tries to properly deal with the inevitable afflictions in order not to be crushed by them. Below we will cite selected thoughts of ancient, as well as comparatively contemporary Christian ascetics.

The Venerable Anthony the Great (4th cent. Egypt): The more moderately a man lives his life, the calmer he becomes, because he is not concerned about much, about servants and acquisition of goods. However, if we become attached to the present [earthly goods], then we subject ourselves to afflictions because of it and we arrive at grumbling against God. Thus, the desire for much fills us with perturbation and we wander about in the darkness of sinful life.

The Venerable Ephraem of Syria (Mesopotamia, 4th cent.): Can you not endure insults? Keep quiet and you will be calmed. Do not think that you are suffering more than others. Just as one living on earth cannot escape the air, so it is impossible for a person living in this world not to be tempted by afflictions and disease. Those occupied with the earthly from the earthly — experience afflictions, whereas those aspiring towards spirituality about the spiritual suffer with the soul. However, the latter will be blessed because their fruit has been plentiful concerning God.

If sadness has come, then we shall also await the approach of joy also. For example, take sailors at sea. When a storm comes along, they fight the waves waiting for calm weather; and when they are becalmed, they get ready for the storm. They are constantly vigilant so that an unexpectedly rising wind would not catch them unawares and overturn the vessel. We should act in the same way: when afflictions or difficult circumstances occur, we shall await relief and help from God, so that we would not be depressed with the thought that there is no hope of salvation for us.

Everything comes from God — both blessings and afflictions. However, one is through benevolence, the other — through good-husbandry and oversight. Through benevolence — when we live virtuously, because it is pleasing for God that those who are living virtuously should adorn themselves with wreaths of patience; through good-husbandry — while sinning we are taught; by oversight — even when taught, we do not change. God contemplatively punishes us, sinners, so that we would not be condemned with the world as the Apostle says, “…we are chastened by the Lord, that we may not be condemned with the world” (1 Cor. 11:32).

The Venerable Mark the Ascetic (5th cent. Egypt): Whoever ostensibly sins and does not repent, nor is subjected to any sorrows until his end, then know you, that his judgment shall be merciless…He, who wishes to be delivered from future sorrows must willingly bear the present ones. For in this way, mentally modifying one for the other, he, through the small afflictions will avoid great torments.

When, following insults your innards and heart are irritated, do not grieve that mentally the evil which was hiding within you has awakened. But gladly suppress these thoughts knowing that as they are destroyed upon their manifestations, so is the evil, which lays submerged beneath them and which brought them forth into action. Should the thoughts be allowed to harden and to come forth often, so the evil usually becomes stronger.

The Venerable Isaac of Syria (6th cent. Syria): Such is the will of the Spirit, that His beloved ones should sojourn in work. The Spirit of God does not dwell in those who live in tranquility. Thus the sons of God distinguish themselves from others in that they live with afflictions, while the world prides itself with luxuries and tranquility. God did not condescend that his beloved ones should live peacefully while in their flesh, but He wants that they should sojourn in sorrow, oppression, in labors, poverty, nakedness, need, abasement, insults in burdened body and sad thoughts. This fulfills what was said of them: “In the world you will have tribulations” (John 16:33). The Lord knows that those who live in peace are unable to love Him, and, therefore, denies the righteous ones the temporary tranquility and delights.

Every corporal comfort is followed by suffering and after all kinds of suffering for the sake of God there follows relief. A soul which loves God, gleans for itself solace in God and in Him Alone. Joy in God is stronger than life herein, and he who has found it will not only disregard suffering, but will not even bother to glance at his life, and will have no other feeling if truly there was this joy.

A small affliction for the sake of God is better than a great feat accomplished without afflictions. All that is done without labor is “righteous” for secular people. But you, apply yourself in secret and emulate Christ, so that you should be worthy to savor the glory of Christ. The mind will not be glorified with Christ if the flesh will not suffer with Him.

Afflictions borne for Him and for His sake are more precious to God than any sacrifice and prayers.

God is close to the crying heart of the one who calls out to Him in sorrow. Even if He sometimes lays before one corporal deprivations and other tribulations, in the soul of the sufferer, the Lord shows a great love of mankind in proportion to the severity of his suffering and sorrows.

Monk Barsonuphius (6th cent. Palestine) Do you wish to rid yourself of sorrows and not be burdened by them? Expect greater ones and you shall be pacified.

Abbot Dorotheo (7th cent. Palestine): The soul, to the degree of the committed sin, becomes enfeebled from it, because sin weakens and enfeebles the one who succumbs to it. That is why a person becomes burdened by all that is happening to him. If a person succeeds in goodness, then at the rate of his success, whatever before seemed difficult, now seems much lighter.

There are people who are so enfeebled by illness and adversities of this life, that they prefer to die, just to rid themselves of afflictions. This happens to them from faint-heartedness and great folly, for they do not think of that great need which befalls people when their soul leaves their body. Here is what is written in the book “Paterikon” (sayings of the Holy Fathers). One ardent novice asked his elder, “Why do I wish to die?” The monk replied, “Because you are avoiding afflictions and do not know that the forthcoming affliction is much worse than the one here.” Another novice asked the elder, “Why is it that when I find myself in my cell I fall into carelessness and despondency?” The Monk answered him, “It is because you have not as yet learned neither the anticipated tranquility, nor future torments, for if you had truly understood this, then, even if your cell were to be full of worms so that you would be standing in them up to your neck, you would bear it, without becoming in the least enfeebled.” But we, while living, wish to save ourselves and, therefore, become weak from afflictions at a time when we should have been thanking God and counting ourselves blest that we may sorrow a little here so that we can obtain peace there.

Believe that the dishonor and the reproaches from people are medicine which heals your pride and pray for those who reproach you as the true healers of your soul. Be assured that he who hates dishonor also hates humility, and he who avoids those who sadden him, turns away from meekness.

Abbot Zosima (4th cent. Egypt?): If one does away with temptations and struggles with thoughts, there would not even be one saint left. One who runs away from a saving temptation, runs away from eternal life. Who but their tormentors provided the Holy Martyrs with their crowns? Who bestowed on the first martyr Stephen such a great glory, if not they who stoned him?

The Venerable Seraphim of Sarov (18th cent. Russia): He who has conquered passion has conquered sorrow. But one who is conquered by passions will not escape the fetters of sorrow. Just as a sick person can be detected by the pallor of his face, so ones afflicted with passions are distinguished by their sorrow.

Flesh is a slave of the soul, and the soul is the queen. That is why it often happens that through God’s mercy our body is fatigued by illness. Because of these illnesses the passions weaken and the person recovers… He who bears an illness patiently and with gratitude, then to him it is considered as a feat, or even more than that.

One must not take on feats too high, but to try, so that our friend, our flesh, should be loyal and capable of doing good. One must walk the middle path, not deviating neither to the right, nor to the left: the spirit should be given the spiritual, and the flesh — the corporal as necessary for the maintenance of temporary life.

To the students eager to take upon themselves excessive feats, the Venerable Seraphim said that a humble and meek bearing of offenses are our fetters and hair-shirt.

One must be tolerant to one’s soul for its weakness and imperfections and bear one’s shortcomings just as we bear the shortcomings of those who are close to us.

Gaiety is not a sin. It drives away fatigue, and the fatigue, after all, creates depression, and there is nothing worse than that. Oh, if you could only knew, he once said to a monk, what happiness, what sweetness awaits the soul of the righteous one in Heaven, then you would decide in your temporary life to bear with gratitude all types of sorrows, persecutions and slander. If this cell of ours were full of worms and if these worms were to eat our flesh throughout all of our earthly life, then with all our will we should agree to it, just so we would not be deprived of that heavenly happiness prepared by God for those who love Him.

The Monk Nikon of Optina [Belyayev] (+1927, Russia) If you want to rid yourself of sorrow, then don’t let your heart become attached to anything or anyone.

God helps us in our sorrows and temptations. He does not deliver us from them, but gives strength to endure them easily and not even notice them.

The Monk Silouan (+1938, Mt. Athos) God loves everyone, but permits sorrows so that mankind would know its weakness and be resigned to it, and through their humility accept the Holy Spirit, because with the Holy Spirit, — all is good and all is joyful.

You say, “I have much grief.” But I will tell you, “Resign yourself and you will see that your troubles will turn into peace, so that you yourself will be surprised and will say, ‘Why was I so tormented and sorrowful before?’ But now you rejoice because you resigned yourself and God’s grace came; now, even if you were alone in poverty, joy would not leave you because your soul is at peace, of which the Lord said, “My peace I give to you” (John 14:27). Thus, to every humble soul God gives peace.

The soul of a meek one is like the sea. Throw a rock into the sea and it will lightly stir the surface, and then sinks into its depths. In the same way the sorrows sink in the heart of the humble one, because the power of the Lord is with him.

The Abbot Nikon [Vorobyov] (+1963, Russia): The peace (sent by God) makes a person insensitive to earthly sorrows and sufferings; it suppresses all interest to this world; brings on grief, brings forth in the heart love towards all, which blankets all shortcomings of those close to us and does not notice them; and forces one to pity others more than oneself.

from Afflictions in Our Lives, by (Russian Orthodox) Bishop Alexander Mileant (tr. by I Zerebko and V. Yakovlev-Olson)

http://www.fatheralexander.org/booklets/english/afflictions_in_our_lives.htm

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