Ever since I was little, I’ve had an anxiety about tornadoes and lightning. There’s something about the randomness, the uncontrollability of tornadoes and lightning that has always made me uncomfortable. If only I could guarantee that my home wouldn’t be affected, I could feel secure.
If only I could guarantee that I wouldn’t have to deal with pain and loss and suffering, death and illness, I could feel secure. If only I could figure out a way to secure a good life, everything would be okay.
And then life happens. And it’s completely out of our control.
Friends and family members pass away, natural disasters happen around us, and sometimes it just seems…unjust. So how are we as Orthodox Christians to grapple with the reality of living in a world with pain and suffering? How can we rectify the reality of evil in a world ruled by the God of love?
1. The problem with #blessed
In a society inundated by the teachings of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, and the “prosperity gospel” teachings of Joel Osteen, we can easily take on an un-Christian understanding of God’s blessings. In the ancient world, people understood that they were not in control. They ascribed blessings to God as a gift for our righteousness, and suffering to God’s punishment for sin.
But Jesus turns all of this on its head. In John 9, Jesus said that a man wasn’t born blind as the result of sin, but so that God might be glorified through his being healed. In Matthew 5:45, He reminds us that God “makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” And if God rewarded the righteous with riches, why would the rich man need to sell everything in order to follow Christ? (Matthew 19)
Every time something good happens in my life, or something bad doesn’t happen to me, I’m tempted to say, “I’m blessed!” I’m blessed because I didn’t lose power or have damage from Hurricane Matthew. But does that mean that the people of Haiti aren’t blessed? Are my friends that are without power somehow not blessed?
Scripture shows us that God does not punish the unrighteous with natural disasters, nor does He reward the righteous with health and prosperity. We are not blessed with worldly comforts as a result of our goodness or in comparison to others; we are blessed by God’s grace which is always an undeserved gift and which comes to us in every circumstance if we can accept it. We are blessed by grace even in our suffering, so that His glory might also be made manifest.
2. Endurance through suffering
The Old Testament book of Job is a long reflection on the mystery of suffering. His friends try to explain away his suffering, but in the end it is Job’s silent, powerless surrender before God that allows God’s blessings to take root in his life. His suffering was not the cause of sin or God’s plan to allow for some sort of future righteousness. Instead, Job’s suffering became the opportunity for him to fully rely on God.
Starting with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we are given a new lens through which to see pain and redemption. St. Paul writes that he rejoices in his suffering, “knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame” (Romans 5:3-5).
St. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4:8-11:
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.
Our witness to Christ, especially in the midst of suffering, speaks to our Christian understanding that this life is not the fulfillment of God’s will for us. The good in this life is only a foretaste of the Kingdom, and “this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Corinthians 4:17).
The Christian life is not about escaping suffering; it is about finding strength in Christ regardless of our present circumstances.
3. Comforting others
Encountering suffering in our world is an opportunity for us to be the Church and to bear one another’s burdens.
St. Paul tells us that God “comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too” (2 Corinthians 1:4-5). When we receive comfort and grace to bear our cross, it is a gift given to us to share with those who are struggling to bear their own struggles.
I’ve always struggled with knowing what to say, or what to do when someone passes away. What are the right words? Will I sound insensitive? But perhaps our best gift is just our silent presence for those who need to be reminded that they are not alone. The gift of our presence may be all that is needed.
As God comforts us in times of need, He calls us to share that comfort with those around us.
The randomness of death can take us completely unawares. My aunt passed away recently after a lifetime of battling for her health. Earlier this month, my uncle passed away after just beating cancer. But they too were blessed; and I’m blessed for having known them. Enduring suffering produces character – it gives us life experience – and it teaches us to hope. And when we receive comfort from God, we share it with those who need our quiet presence – not our explanations – in the midst of their suffering.
How do you react to your own pain and suffering? Do you struggle with knowing how to help those who have lost a loved one?
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Sam is the Pastoral Assistant at Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He grew up in Powhatan, Virginia and studied International Affairs and Spanish at James Madison University. Sam received his MDiv from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in 2013. He loves food, languages and good coffee.
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