I don’t think I can repeat often enough that the one Greek word peirasmos means both a trial and a temptation. These two concepts, trial and temptation, are quite distinct in English and so it’s hard for us English speakers to understand statements in the Fathers such as “this sickness is a temptation.” How can a sickness be a temptation if I don’t want to be sick? It doesn’t make sense in English, because in English a temptation is understood as something you want to have but can’t, or want to do but shouldn’t. Consequently, many wannabe scholars, like me, who know just enough Greek to hang themselves, say to themselves: he must have meant that the sickness is a trial—i.e. something difficult to bear.
However, when you read further you realize from the context that he really does mean temptation. For the Orthodox Fathers and Mothers, every trial is a temptation and every temptation is a trial. That is, everything in our life that is difficult to bear creates in us a temptation to sin. Whenever the circumstances of my life limit my ability to do or be what I want to do or be, or I think I should do or be, then I am tempted. I am tempted to doubt God or even curse God, tempted to curse and blame the people around me, tempted to despair, self pity or obsessing over self-absorbed thoughts such as a continual drone of “what did I do wrong? Why is this happening to me? If only I had or hadn’t done X, Y, or Z.”
But for many of us, myself included, we are so used to responding to difficult circumstances by falling into depression or anger or self pity or self-absorbed introspection, that we don’t know what else to do. We don’t even realize that there is a different way to respond to difficult circumstances. Perhaps we have been taught that trials and tribulations come into our life because of sins (which is true), but we assume that if we could be better people, we would avoid suffering (which is not true). Thus we are either thrown into a fit of selfish introspection and obsessing over what we should have done differently, or we rage at God (at least some of the braver and more honest of us do) because we really did try with all our might to do what we were supposed to do, and yet still my wife is leaving me, or my cancer is progressing, or my child is turning away from God.
How are we to respond when tragedy strikes, when unexpected circumstances, failures or responsibilities keep us from doing and being what we thought God wanted us to do or be? St. Isaac the Syrian in homilies 59 and 60 speaks at length about this.
Now if, while a man is walking in the path of righteousness, and is making his way toward God…he encounters in this path some afflictions of this sort, he must not turn aside from his way. Rather, he should accept whatever it is joyously, without scrutiny, and give thanks to God, because God has sent him this gift. That is to say, because he has been deemed worthy to fall into temptation for His sake, and to become a partaker of the sufferings of the prophets and the apostles, and of the rest of the saints who endured tribulations for the sake of God’s path, whether from men, from demons, or from the body. For without the bidding of God it is impossible that tribulations should be permitted to arise; but they occur so as to be for a man the cause of righteousness.
Please note that St. Isaac specifically points out that the immediate source of the tribulation does not matter. The man or woman of God receives the difficulty as a gift from God and gives thanks regardless of where the immediate cause seems to be: from man, from demons or from the body. Misunderstandings, false accusations and injustice from people are always a test, always an opportunity for virtue, always a “cause of righteousness” in the man or woman who is following Christ. Even demonic attack—as the Prophet Job reveals to us—is an opportunity either to curse God or to grow in righteousness. This kind of attack also includes the attack of unclean and impure sexual thoughts (heterosexual or homosexual). Some saints, Moses the Ethiopian comes to mind, are glorified specifically because they endured a lifetime of repeated attacks of unclean thoughts without sin. And bodily sickness, either in our own body or in those we love and care for, this too is a gift. It is a gift in that it is an opportunity for the fruit of virtue to manifest, for the Fruit of the Spirit to grow.
When I was younger I used to think that only overt persecution for the faith, the actual torture and killing of people who refused to deny Christ, I thought only that produced martyrs. But the hymns of the Church speak often not of martyrs being made by persecution, but of them being revealed that way. In other words, they were martyrs before they died, which is what made them able to die so publicly for Christ’s sake. The suffering for Christ that produces sanctity does not require overt persecution from other people, although that sometimes manifests such sanctity. Whenever we suffer in any way, “from men, from demons or from the body,” as St. Isaac puts it, we are tempted. And how we deal with that temptation makes all of the difference. Do we turn to Christ or deny Christ (perhaps not so much with our words, but by our actions)? Do we continue to love others or begin to blame, accuse and condemn others? Do we thank God for all things, or do we grumble in our hearts? It is a temptation. Every difficult and painful circumstance in our life is a temptation.
And because such suffering is a temptation to sin, it is also an opportunity to deny Christ. It is an opportunity to curse God or curse man made in the image of God. It is an opportunity to become lost in self pity and never-ending introspection. It is an opportunity to become engrossed in the immediate human or demonic or biological causes, and to ignore God almost completely, as though our suffering and difficult circumstance were happening behind God’s back.
The same difficult or painful circumstance becomes for us the means by which we either grow in Christ or in some way deny Him. And of course what is happening to us never makes any sense in the midst of the suffering. That’s part of the temptation. We don’t know why God is letting this happen. We don’t know what God is doing. It just doesn’t make sense. And at that point of confusion, that dark night of the body and soul, all we have left is naked trust, naked hope that God is still God despite all of the evidence to the contrary, despite the pain and confusion and injustice of the situation. Can we say with Job, “Even if He slay me, yet will I trust in Him”?
St. Isaac goes on to emphasize that this sort of trial and tribulation, this sort of temptation, is actually a necessary part of our salvation. And he points out that this is not merely his own opinion, the Scriptures also say the same thing:
It is not possible that God should benefit the man who longs to be with Him otherwise than by bringing temptations upon him for the sake of the truth. Further, without a gift from Christ, a man cannot himself become worthy of this greatness—that is, on account of these divine things to enter into temptations and to rejoice. St. Paul also testifies to this. For so great is this, that he plainly calls it a gift that a man should be made ready to suffer for hope in God through faith. Thus he says, ‘Unto you it is given from God, not only to believe on Christ, but also to suffer for His sake.’ And as St. Peter wrote in his epistle, ‘When you suffer for righteousness’ sake blessed are you, seeing that you are become partakers of the sufferings of Christ.’ Therefore, when you are unoppressed, do not rejoice; and when tribulations come upon you, do not be sullen, accounting them as foreign to God’s way. For His path has been trodden from the ages and from all generations by the cross and by death. But how is it with you, that the afflictions on the path seem to you to be off the path? Do you not wish to follow the steps of the saints? Or have you plans for devising some way of your own, and of journeying therein without suffering?
The path of all of the saints before us included suffering. And here’s a secret: the path of every human being, saint or sinner, includes suffering. Everybody suffers. Everybody dies. No body gets what they want. And even those who seem to have everything, are bitter of heart, addicted to substances of various kinds, and rejected by those whom they want most to love them. Sure, one person’s suffering looks easier than another’s; but once you get to know people you realize that the load of pain can be largest in those who seem to have it easiest. And here’s the thing, since you are going to suffer anyway, why not use it to become more like Christ? Why not choose, or at least strive to choose, to commit your self to God and trust in Him despite everything? This is what the martyrs did. They reasoned, “Well, since we have to die anyway, why not die for Christ? Why not turn necessity into virtue? Why not trade earth for heaven?”
And so we too, every time our plans are crushed, our hopes are dashed, our health is attacked and our character is maligned, why don’t we too follow the saints and entrust ourselves to the One who suffered all things for our sakes? Why not turn what is unavoidable into a virtue? Remember, even sinners suffer these things. Why not take the unavoidable suffering of this very broken world and turn it into doxology, into thanksgiving, into trust in the God who raises the dead? This is the gift St. Isaac is talking about, the gift to turn death into resurrection, the gift to turn earth into heaven.