Suffering and Thoughts—Counsel from the Ancient Fathers
Suffering is such a major component of human history that many philosophies, religions, and social theories have been absorbed with the construction of theodicies that attempt to respond to this phenomenon as if it were a problem to be solved or a defect to be eradicated. Some have gone so far as to claim that life is absurd and devoid of meaning because of such suffering. These proponents would claim that a world afflicted with human suffering negates belief in the existence of a good and loving God. Some Christians, especially in the West, have developed theories of suffering founded upon the notion of God’s justice. This worldview attempts to place suffering in the context of God’s judgment upon a sinful world. In this view, suffering is seen as the just punishment for sin. Yet, this is not an accurate Christian view of suffering. When Christ’s disciples asked him, “Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind? Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.” Every soul, every situation, every bit of suffering is unique and beyond the naïve grasp of human causality, but can be approached and in part understood from faith in the God of the Scriptures who is foundationally and fundamentally Love, love for the entire Adam that includes you, me, and every living soul.
In my book Ancient Christian Wisdom, I attempt to present the genuine Christian understanding of theodicy based upon Holy Scripture and the witness of the ancient fathers, “Every human being is precious in God’s sight and greatly loved. The church fathers never tire of sowing this fundamental Christian truth in the hearts of those who turn to them. It is a truth that expands the outlook of believers to encompass their ultimate destiny and God’s providential care for their salvation. In cognitive terms, this certainty instills new core beliefs about self, others, and the future that act as a corrective lens for viewing the ills to which their flesh is heir. For example, St. Basil the Great once told a discouraged soul, ‘Everything is governed by the Lord’s goodness. We do not have to be distressed by anything that befalls us, even if it currently affects us in our weakness. Even if we are ignorant of the reasons why trials come and are sent as blessings from the Lord, we should be convinced that all things happen to us for our own good, either to reward our patience or to preserve our soul lest she linger too long in this life and be filled with wickedness. Although people may not be able to understand the wisdom that governs individual struggles, by patiently enduring them they can gain a crown. Saint John Chrysostom similarly suggests that believers give thanks to God for whatever happens, even if they do not fathom why it occurs, for the Lord loves us even more than our parents do. From this perspective, once can understand why the holy fathers believe that ‘trial is profitable for every man.’ Thus ancient ascetics would guide the faithful to interpret whatever happens to them through their trust in God’s providence, wisdom, and love that looks after their growth in virtue and aims at their eternal well-being. This humble trust then shapes or reshapes their innermost thoughts about themselves about themselves and their world, leaving little room for impatient demands stemming from sickly self-pity. Knowledge of God’s justice and tenderhearted compassion, moreover, endows believers with the courage to brave adversity, for this knowledge assures them that trials will prove that they are good or make them better.”
Now, this is not nebulous optimism or naïve “happy talk”. It’s also not a Christian version of Norman Vincent Peale’s the power of positive thinking. Rather, it’s an acknowledgment of a noetic reality grasped through ascetic purification and the grace of the Holy Spirit.
Some Tips on Guarding our Thoughts During Times of Suffering, Sickness, and Trial
When we experience suffering, sickness, or trials our thoughts may turn to self-pity and doubt: self-pity, because I focus on my suffering rather than the suffering of my brethren; doubt because I rely on my mind shaken by suffering rather than the faith of our fathers, founded on childlike trust in Christ. Through self-pity and doubt, we in fact add suffering to our suffering. This may even lead to thoughts that our present suffering is punishment sent to us from a wrathful God. When confronted with such initial thoughts or automatic thoughts, we should immediately hearken back to the words from St. Basil and St. John Chrysostom, two friends of God who were no strangers to suffering themselves. Once we prepare the soil of our hearts with the words of such fathers as St. Basil and St. John, we may turn to turn to the humble prayer, “Glory to Thee, O God, glory to Thee.” Archimandrite Zacharias once noted that one time when he was sick in the hospital, this prayer of gratitude bubbled up within his heart and the gloomy, dark thoughts so often associated with sickness and trial quickly dissipated. These “good thoughts” are able to push out the bad thoughts because they have God as their origin and source and reflect a deeper, noetic reality in which there is no room for self-pity or doubt. St. Paul echoes this when he writes to the people of Corinth, “And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”
Difficult times, especially times of sickness and convalescence can be grace-filled opportunities to recognize the power and beauty of God’s providence, love, and care for us. They are also moments when we are able to spend more time in prayer. Such invocations as “Most Holy Theotokos save us!” and the Trisagion prayers are short, powerful prayers that assist us in sustaining the grace of good thoughts. Of course, the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me a sinner” is a perfect prayer for any occasion, but most especially in times of sickness and suffering. It rightfully acknowledges Jesus as Lord and Master who alone is capable of guiding us through a dark period. If sickness prevents attendance at Sunday liturgy, an Orthodox priest may come to your residence, hospital, or healthcare facility to offer prayers for you as well as the Mysteries of the Church.
As in all circumstances in life, the key is to remember that this present suffering is not a detour. It is providentially prescribed to you for your good and eternal salvation. It is an opportunity to recognize your own weakness and the Divine Physician’s willingness and eagerness to provide for that weakness. It is a time for the works of God to be made manifest in you.
Hieromonk Alexios Karakallinos