There is an unpopular teaching that I frequently see in the scriptures and in the Church Fathers. I say “unpopular” because I did not hear much about it in my Protestant years.
In 2nd Corinthians 12, Paul writes, “…a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me.” He goes on to say he pleaded with the Lord three times to remove this thorn, but the Lord replied:
My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.
Therefore most gladly 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 persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
Paul’s exact ailment has been speculated by many scholars. However, that is not important to us. What is important is the lesson here. In our weakness, God’s strength is made perfect in us. For some of us, our weakness may be a temporary or chronic ailment, difficult circumstances in which we live, or some other aspect of our lives that keeps us from living an ideal life, or at least a “normal” one.
The idea that these things are beneficial to us is like many teachings of Christ and His Church: they go against worldly reasoning.
The world offers us pain medicines, self-help books by the truckload, numerous means of entertainment to drown out the distractions of pain and sorrow, and a plethora of other “solutions” to our problem of weakness. Clever marketing strokes our egos by telling us we were meant to be beautiful, strong, and to have whatever we want; and if we don’t have those things then there is something wrong with us.
Christianity, on the other hand, offers us a cross and asks that we carry it. And not only do we carry it, we are crucified upon it, with Christ.
THE JOY OF SUFFERING
In another often misquoted passage, Paul speaks of being hungry and suffering and enduring all sorts of trials of the body. But he concludes,
I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.
I’ve seen this used as motivational passage for athletes, business seminars, fundraising efforts, etc. However, in the context of the passage we see that Paul is speaking of suffering, and when we put it beside the Corinthians passage above, we see that Christ does not strengthen us unless we accept the cross of weakness. “I can do all things” means I can endure all suffering with patience.
And it is because we do not endure trials alone. When, with gratitude and joy in our hearts, we endure the sufferings God has given us, we are lifted above this world’s confusion to a safe place in the bosom and rest of our Lord Jesus Christ. If we are crucified with Christ, then in Christ our soul dwells. It is a place of strength; for though circumstances oppose us and our bodies are in pain, our souls are elevated to a place that is untouchable. And while we may not walk around with a smile plastered on our faces, there is a deep sense of unmovable peace within us.
THE PATH OF SALVATION
Abbot Nikon, an Orthodox monastic who suffered during the times of Soviet persecutions wrote to one of his spiritual children:
We have reached a point in the life of humanity when people are saved only through unmurmuring endurance of misfortunes, with faith in God and hope in His merciful kindness. Today no one can find salvation by any other means…
Every misfortune accepted with such an attitude is turned into a misfortune for the Lord’s sake; our personal cross is transformed into the Cross of Christ, and through it we are saved. If we are crucified with Christ, we shall reign with Christ, says Saint Paul.
Abbot Nikon wrote that sixty-four years ago, but it is still every bit as true today. For my own life, I have attempted to learn to endure the physical and emotional hardships with which God has gifted me; knowing that if I stop to pay attention I will find that there are far more blessings that outweigh the hardships every single day. Additionally, these weaknesses are placed in my life in order to break me of my passions that separate me from God and to bring to a point in which I no longer rely on myself, but on Christ and His Church. My suffering is for my salvation.
Christ is the way, the truth, and the life. His way includes a cross and suffering, but those things are the prerequisite for what is to come: resurrection and glory. And for those who endure without complaining, they will find that God often offers glimpses and foretastes of the beauty and peace that is to come.
A small caveat that I have placed in other similar blogs: I am not advising people to never seek medical assistance or to remain in dangerous situations. God often works through doctors and spiritual counselors, so it is often good to consult them. I’m not a pastor and I’m not giving pastoral advice. However, for those things in our lives that we can do little or nothing about, this article especially applies.
Scriptural references taken from the NKJV.
Abbot Nikon’s wonderful book, Letters to Spiritual Children, can be purchased for an affordable price here.