How Can Suffering Make You Perfect?Fr. Barnabas Powell
The word “asceticism” is something of a mystery to our modern way of life. We have lived with such plenty and such amazing comfort and ease for so long that now we assume that all of life is meant to be pain (and even effort) free. Just consider our attitudes towards marriage. We assume that marriage is meant to “fulfill us” or “complete us” as if the Hollywood version of romantic love is actually a reality.
An article on the Christian view of marriage is titled “Marriage is a Lifetime of Suffering.” You won’t see that on any Hallmark card for wedding anniversaries anytime soon. And yet, the idea of salvific suffering is so foreign to us as to be actually offensive to many. But the Christian understanding of life and salvation can be summed up in this quote from Elder Sophrony of Sussex “…in this world, there is nothing more difficult than to be saved.”
What makes it so difficult is our own inattentiveness to our inner life. We don’t know ourselves well enough to see the broken and weak places inside us so we find ourselves slaves to our desires and our passions. That slavery leads us to an addiction to temporary ease and comfort, and that keeps us weak and childish so that all we do is complain when times are tough. And, for the immature, it seems all times are tough! Have you ever noticed how quickly and easily we descend into complaining and despondency when things aren’t “pleasant” or easy? That is a sure sign we are captured by our passions. The “pain” of our discomfort becomes our greatest gift IF we get up from that weak place and ask God for mercy and grace to strengthen ourselves and grow up in Christ.
Look at our lesson today in Hebrews 2:2-10:
BRETHREN, if the message declared by angels was valid and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard him, while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his own will. For it was not to angels that God subjected the world to come, of which we are speaking. It has been testified somewhere, “What is man that thou art mindful of him, or the son of man, that thou carest for him? Thou didst make him for a little while lower than the angels, thou hast crowned him with glory and honor, putting everything in subjection under his feet.” Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering.
St. Paul here tells us that Jesus Christ was made “perfect” THROUGH suffering (emphasis mine). Now, first, we have to deal with the word “perfect.” It isn’t that Jesus somehow lacked anything because He is God in the flesh so Paul isn’t saying Jesus needed to be made better. No, the word “perfect” here means “complete” or finished work.” The perfection comes in Him completing His task, His mission and He completed His mission THROUGH His suffering. And if we are going to complete our task, our mission to be made like Him it is going to be THROUGH suffering.
This word “perfect” also gives us the impression of “full” or “well rounded.” It is meant to say to us “Your suffering is giving you an opportunity to grow and mature and to finish your life as a well-lived true and mature person.” Seriously, my precious ones, isn’t that what you want your life to be?
Ask any athlete who has won an Olympic Gold Medal. Ask any person who has achieved some great goal or reached the top of their field and they will tell you it has been through hard work, dedication, and effort. It has been won through suffering. Suffering the dismissal of other choices. Suffering the focused practice until your muscles ache and your face pours with sweat. Suffering hours of practice time, study, or exhaustive repetition until you get it “perfect.” All achievement comes through suffering.
But our so-called “modern” world insists that suffering is “bad.” Of course, this is the siren song of the evil one desperate to keep you from ever seeing your pain as a gift! Because once this attitude shift occurs, all his labors to enslave you and keep you spiritually sick come to nothing and you rise above the weakness of your passions, having disciplined them to become your servants!
And yet, the Lord’s suffering, just as our suffering, is temporary. But that which is won THROUGH suffering lasts forever. The rest of the world mindlessly and vigorously attempts to avoid and escape any appearance of suffering, but we are challenged to embrace it as a dear friend, knowing the endurance of suffering brings perfection and salvation.
Many years ago there was a certain wealthy Greek pagan in the city of Laodikeia whose only daughter suffered from speechlessness, She had been this way since birth. One day, in a dream, he saw a man telling him to go to the holy waters of the Archangel Michael. The man in the dream promised his daughter would be healed and he and his household would find salvation. The man obeyed this vision and his daughter was healed and his family came to Christ. In gratitude, the wealthy man built a church at the site of this miraculous spring and dedicated it to the great Saint Archangel Michael, the Captain of the Lord’s Hosts. This and many other miracles started to convert the pagan population to the Lord’s Church and this greatly angered the pagan priests. This continued for 90 years and the church continued to grow. During this time, a great and faithful man named Archippos became the caretaker of the church there and preached to the populace the Good News, converting more of the people to the Faith. Over and over again, the pagan population fought against the church attempting to destroy the church and Archippos. Finally, they devised a plan to divert the two great rivers that flowed in the area to flood the church and destroy the miraculous spring of water there. St. Archippos prayed and asked St. Michael to guard the church and the spring, and there was a great earthquake that opened up the earth near the church and swallowed the flood coming to destroy the church. So the church was preserved and the people witnessed the power of God. The suffering of the moment produced a greater witness to the faith than if the suffering had not occurred!
Today, are you suffering? Know it isn’t God’s will to make you unhappy or to be in pain, but it is God’s will, since we all face hardship and pain in our lives, to press you THROUGH this suffering moment to the spiritual health and perfect salvation on the other side of your suffering. We who attempt to live a Normal Orthodox life participate in the active choice of an ascetic Christian life precisely because we know “weeping endures for a moment, but joy comes in the morning!”
P.S. O Commanders of the Heavenly Host, we the unworthy beseech you, that through your entreaties you will fortify us, guarding us in the shelter of the wings of your ethereal glory, even as we fervently bow before you crying: “Deliver us from all danger, as Commanders of the Powers on high! “