Some years ago I was in hospital for a time and not in the least bit happy about it. One sleepless night I was walking the halls of the unit, unable to sleep, and tempted with self-pity. I thought to myself (in rebuke), “Father Arseny endured the Soviet Gulag with more hope and patience than you’re bringing to this.” Father Arseny is the figure in the book by the same name that relates the story of an amazing Russian priest who was a true saint of his generation. My inner conversation continued, “God gave Fr. Arseny the grace to endure his sufferings.” I added, “If I had the same measure of grace, I would not only be enduring this, I would be walking two feet off the floor.” My meditation ended thus: “I have been given just the amount of grace needed for this present moment. Use what you’re given.” And so I did. It was a turning point.
It is a meditation that has come back to me many times since. St. Paul’s words are fitting (particularly if they are rightly translated):
“No trial has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tried beyond your ability, but with the trial he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”(1 Cor 10:13)
It must be noted that the “endurance” we are given sometimes includes the grace of martyrdom. This verse is not a promise of “no trials.” Indeed, everything revealed to us in the faith assures us that there will be trials – for all.
Of course, this verse has given rise to the popular saying, “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” This is not only a distortion of what is actually said, it is a complete reversal. “What I can handle,” in the popular trope, easily becomes the measure of what God can give. It serves as yet another reason (or excuse) for not believing in God. Bad theology generally ends in atheism for the simple reason that the God of bad theology is not the true and living God. I don’t believe in that God either.
Consider this verse carefully. I have used the word “trial” to translate the Greek, peirasmos, in that it captures the meaning much better than the English word “temptation.” Indeed, it is the same word as is used in the Lord’s Prayer (“lead us not into temptation”) whose meaning would be more accurately rendered as, “lead us not into trial”). St. Paul’s “escape,” clearly doesn’t carry the meaning of “no longer suffering,” for he explains the meaning as “being able to endure it.” If I escape, in the sense of “run away,” then there would no longer be anything to endure.
“The way of escape,” it seems to me is a loaded expression that suggests more than the original text. That word is “ekbasis,” literally, a “going out,” or an “exit.” Where do we go? That, for me, is probably the greatest question. I think of the great Psalm of protection (91):
He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High
will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say to the LORD, “My refuge and my fortress,
my God, in whom I trust.”
For he will deliver you
from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence.
He will cover you with his pinions,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
You will not fear the terror of the night,
nor the arrow that flies by day,
nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
nor the destruction that wastes at noonday…
Because you have made the LORD your dwelling place—
the Most High, who is my refuge—
no evil shall be allowed to befall you,
no plague come near your tent.
(Psalm 91:1-6; 9–10)
Here the “escape” is clear: the “Most High is my refuge.” Christ Himself is the “Door,” and the place of safety. That is the secure place where no plague or evil can enter.
Whatever the various trials may be in our lives, there is the grace of Christ Himself. I cannot fathom the experience of St. Stephen the Protomartyr, who, in his time of trial, saw Christ standing at the right hand of God. It was a grace given him that allowed him to endure his stoning. Other martyrs have endured worse. Ultimately, our “escape” is defined by the grace given us rather than our own imagination.
Much of the secularization of the gospel that has taken place in modern times has eliminated the interior life. It is only in such a context that notions of the “prosperity gospel” could find such a willing audience. That Christ died on the Cross to bring about material wealth in human lives, or to remove suffering, is among the most perverted notions ever to have used the name of Jesus.
Orthodox tradition, through long centuries, has pointed to figures of poverty and self-denial as examples of holiness. The glories of Byzantium or Holy Russia are not found in their rulers, much less their wealthy classes. Like the holy Apostles, those that are holy are often those who are “like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things” (1Cor. 4:13). At the same time, this “scum” and “refuse” have hidden within them all the treasures of the Kingdom of God.
It is not the case that we are generally called to abandon everything, though it is a legitimate calling and is constantly fulfilled in the lives of holy monastics. But we should neither assume that the pleasant life of our American dream is normative for believers. It might even be harmful.
I do wonder if this chaotic year of turmoil will, in time, come to be seen as a great blessing sent to us by God. I can imagine stranger things. I would never want to make light of human suffering. But the absence of suffering is not the measure of a good or blessed life. I cannot think of a single saint whom we honor whose life had such a contour.
How we think about suffering, both our own and that of others, is probably more indicative of the nature of our spiritual life than we realize. Modernity’s take on suffering is that it is evil and that it is our responsibility to ameliorate it and, as much as possible, remove it. Its story of human history is told in terms of a progressive drive to end suffering as well as the myth of its own success. In short, it is not a narrative that has any place for the Cross (except as an example of injustice).
Orthodox Christianity rightly points towards the commandments of Christ to care for the needy, to forgive our enemies, and to live a life of self-offering. But its vision of a suffering-free world belongs only to the age to come. Modernity is a tale that could only be told and believed by those with inordinate material means. It is not a story that would be created by the poor. Christ’s statement that the “poor you have with you always” is not a comment on the evils of our economic systems. It is a frank revelation of the nature of life in this world that will not change.
Over the years, I have come to believe that only those who understand and rightly live in the midst of their own suffering have the ability to serve the poor without doing them harm. If you cannot, in the end, be of any assistance in teaching someone to endure the burden of their own suffering, then you will be of little use in the reality of the suffering world. St. Maximos taught: “whoever has understood the mystery of the Cross has understood the essential content of all things.”
Suffering, like the Cross itself, is only understood from the inside. It contains the greatest of mysteries. Christ became poor; He became naked, imprisoned, sick, and hungry. He continues in that union even into this present moment. I am not entirely certain that we can find Him elsewhere (unless we discover that every “elsewhere” is itself poor, naked, imprisoned, sick and hungry.)
Christ is in our midst!