Joy From Suffering

We have physical suffering. We have emotional suffering. Then, finally, we have suffering for someone else – in other words, compassion. Indeed, this is part of what it means to be a Christian. If you don’t have this kind of suffering, you don’t even belong to Christ.
Fr. Joseph Gleason | 12 August 2018

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Gospel Reading: John 16:16-22 

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit
Our God is One. 

A woman calls her mother on the phone:
“Mom, I just had some tests done at the doctor’s office. For the next few months, it looks like I’m going to be getting really, really sick. Among other problems, the doctor says I can expect high blood pressure, back pain, nausea, and weight gain.”
“Oh no, Honey! What did he say you have?”
“He said I’m going to have a baby.”

That’s not usually the way that phone call goes, is it? Normally, we expect the conversation to go more like this:
“Mom! Great news! I just found out I’m going to have a baby!”
“Oh Honey, that’s wonderful! Congratulations!”

That’s more what you would expect, isn’t it? Mother and daughter both know what’s coming. They’re both aware of the morning sickness. They’re both aware of the back pain, and they know that she will have to watch her blood pressure. But they don’t even mention any of that because they’re so excited about the new baby. They know some suffering will be involved, but they don’t even mention it because they know the suffering is tiny in comparison to the magnificent reward of having a precious new child.

What would be sorrow is turned into joy. If it wasn’t for that baby, you’d look at those months in a whole different light. If the woman said, “I was sick and throwing up for months, and my back was hurting and I gained 40 pounds,” making all these trips to the doctor, if a baby wasn’t involved, you’d be really worried about her. You’d look at this as a horrific trial in her life. But when you know that the reward is a baby, you don’t even think about the pain. You don’t even think about the suffering because you’re looking forward to the joy of holding that baby in your arms.

Verily, verily, I say unto you, That ye shall weep and lament, but the world shall rejoice: and ye shall be sorrowful, but your sorrow shall be turned into joy. A woman when she is in travail hath sorrow, because her hour is come: but as soon as she is delivered of the child, she remembereth no more the anguish, for joy that a man is born into the world. And ye now therefore have sorrow: but I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no man taketh from you. And in that day ye shall ask me nothing. Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it you.  Hitherto have ye asked nothing in my name: ask, and ye shall receive, that your joy may be full. [John 16:20-24, KJV]

In just five verses, we see the word “joy” repeated four times. Joy, joy, joy, joy! Your sorrow shall be turned into joy! In our Psalms that we chanted this morning, one of those Psalms was Psalm 16:

 I have set the Lord always before me: because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved. Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoiceth: my flesh also shall rest in hope.  For thou wilt not leave my soul in hell; neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption. Thou wilt shew me the path of life: in thy presence is fulness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore. [Psalm 16:8-11, KJV]

What are we to make of passages like this? In the Gospel of John, Jesus [is] saying, “Joy is coming, but you’re going to have to go through some sorrow to get there.” Psalm 16 in verse 11 tells us that in His presence is [the] fullness of joy, but, in verse ten, mentions the fact of his death.

What are we to make of passages like James 1:2: “My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations” [KJV]? There’s a tough command. The last time temptations were sent your way, did you respond in joy? Do you count it all joy when you suffer? Scripture says that we should. Joy comes as a reward for suffering, and that joy is what makes the suffering bearable. 

Any of you ladies who have children, you know what it’s like to go through nine months of pregnancy. How would you feel if somebody told you, “You’re going to have to go through that, and there will be no reward at the end. No baby. Just go through nine months of this, and then there’s no reward”? Would that be a pretty bitter pill to swallow? Would that be pretty tough to take?

Yet, I know many of you would gladly go through it again just to hold another child in your arms. The joy is what makes the suffering bearable. 

This goes for physical suffering. It goes for emotional suffering. It also goes for the type of suffering that we go through vicariously for another person that we care about.

Physical Suffering

Physical suffering: Migraine headaches, ulcers, back pain, hip pain. How does this help us? One way it helps us is that it reminds us that we are dying. You say, “But I don’t want to think about death!” That’s why it’s good for you. It makes you think about death. When your body starts falling apart, when things don’t work the way they used to, when you no longer are an invincible 18-year-old with muscles in your earlobes, you start realizing that, “You know what? I’m going to die.” That’s not ulcer you’re going to get. That’s not the last back pain you’re going to get. It’s not that last hip pain or headache that you’re going to get. In fact, it’s probably going to get worse.

My sweet Aunt Ruth spent years working in hospice. You can probably confirm what I’m saying. When people start getting these kinds of pains, do they usually clear up and get better before they die, or do they get worse? They get worse. That’s why we need hospice care.

There’s a passage in Sirach that says (and I am going to paraphrase it) always be thinking about death, and you will never sin [c.f. Sir. 7:36]. See, as long as there is no judgment, as long as there is no Hell, you can do whatever you want. Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die. But if you’re a Christian, you know that death is not the end. You know that, if you have rejected God, that death is not the end of your troubles but only the beginning.

When you know that Judgement Day is coming and you will stand before Christ, and not only will you give account for everything that you ever did, but it says in Scripture that you will give account for every idle word spoken. Even on days that you didn’t slip up with your actions, did you slip up with your words?

It says in Scripture that, on that day, God will judge the secrets of the hearts of men. Even on days that you didn’t slip up in your actions and didn’t slip up in your words, did you curse someone in your thoughts? Did you show disrespect for someone in your thoughts? Did you have any pride in your heart?

It is good to be reminded of your death so that you can repent today! So that you can go to confession today! So that you and God can deal with those sins today so that you don’t have to deal with them on that day.

Physical suffering like headaches, and back pain, and hip pain reminds us that we’re dying, reminds us that Judgement Day is approaching, reminds us that we are not Superman. Most importantly, it humbles us. When you’re 25 and strong [with] big muscles and [a] thin waist and you can run for an hour without getting tired, it’s really hard to avoid pride. And pride is the single most dangerous thing in the universe. If you don’t have it, the devil and all his minions cannot hurt you. If you have it, you turn into a devil yourself without their help.

Pride is that which turned the most beautiful archangel into Satan, and humility is that which can take a mere man and make him like an angel. Physical suffering humbles us. It’s not impossible but it is more difficult to be arrogant and high-minded about yourself when your body is wracked with pain and you’re having to walk with a walker. That’s not a curse from God; that’s the grace of God that gives us whatever we need to encourage us in the direction of humility. In so doing, physical suffering helps to conform us to the image of Jesus Christ who learned obedience by the things that He suffered.

The next time you have physical suffering, still you put on a bandage, still you go to a doctor, still you pray for deliverance, but in the meantime, rejoice! Give thanks because it is not in vain. That physical suffering that you are enduring is not for nothing. It’s not meaningless. It’s not useless. God is using it for your good.

Remember Romans 8:28? “All things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to His purpose.” “All things” means all things! That includes that five-day-long migraine headache, the ulcer that makes it so that you can’t eat a single thing and you’re doubled over in pain, the back pain that lays you out for a week where you can’t do anything, the hip pain that makes it almost impossible to climb a flight of stairs. It’s not useless. It is working for your good to conform you to the image of Jesus Christ, to humble you, to make you more like Him, to remind you of your death so that you can repent of your sins.

Give thanks to God for this. Don’t just give thanks to God in the midst of suffering. Give thanks to God for the suffering and for the good that He is working in you through it. 

Emotional Suffering

What about emotional suffering? Loneliness, rejection, frustration with people you thought were your friends and then they don’t stick with you? This helps us too. This, too, can be a gift from God if it received correctly. Emotional suffering reminds us that we are not self-sufficient. Even if you are in perfect health, can you be happy by yourself? Only for so long. We need other people. We need relationships.

This also reminds us to be kind to other people so that we don’t make them feel this way. You may have caused someone else to feel lonely, or rejected, or frustrated, or upset, or angry; and you may not understand what is so wrong with the way you were behaving until you yourself are on the receiving end. So this is educational. This is to help you. This is to give you an opportunity to repent. So once again, when you are going through emotional suffering, this is a good opportunity for God to humble us.

Jesus suffered these kinds of sufferings as well. He was abandoned by his disciples. He was rejected by people he came to save. He was mocked, cursed, shamed, and spat upon. You say you want to be like Christ? Then you, too, must walk a similar path.

With physical suffering and emotional suffering, there is another good which this serves. If everyone on Earth were perfectly healthy, had no needs left unmet, had no distresses, no sicknesses, no troubles, it would be much more difficult to find opportunities to demonstrate your love for those other people. You see, unless that two-year-old gets a thorn in his finger or a bee sting in his arm, he can’t run to Mommy crying so that Mommy can hug him, and kiss him, and embrace him, and comfort him.

However much that embrace from your mother meant when you needed comforting, that couldn’t have happened without the bee sting to begin with, without stepping on the thorn to begin with.

This contributes to the salvation of other people who love the Lord. Remember Jesus saying how important it is for us to give alms? For us to give alms, there has to be somebody in need! There has to be somebody poor. In regard to physical suffering and emotional suffering, maybe you are that person. Maybe the very reason you are poor is because somebody else needs to give alms to somebody. Maybe the reason you are sick is so that somebody else can minister unto you and show the love of Christ. Maybe the reason you are distressed is so that somebody else in the Body of Christ can show their love for Christ by comforting you.

Compassionate Suffering

We have physical suffering. We have emotional suffering. Then, finally, we have suffering for someone else – in other words, compassion. Indeed, this is part of what it means to be a Christian. If you don’t have this kind of suffering, you don’t even belong to Christ.

In James, we read: “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep [oneself] unspotted from the world” [James 1:27, KJV]. In Matthew 10, Jesus says:

He who receives you receives Me, and he who receives Me receives Him who sent Me. He who receives a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet’s reward. And he who receives a righteous man in the name of a righteous man shall receive a righteous man’s reward.  And whoever gives one of these little ones only a cup of cold water in the name of a disciple, assuredly, I say to you, he shall by no means lose his reward. [Matthew 10:40-42, NKJV].

So visiting orphans, visiting widows: you can find them at any nursing home that you want to visit. Just having compassion for a child and, in the name of Christ or in the name of one of His disciples, simply giving a cup of cold water to that child out of compassion, Jesus said you will not lose your reward. This is part of the very warp and woof of what it means to live as a Christian.

But if we are to have compassion on people’s physical and emotional needs, how much more, if we truly follow Christ, how much more are we to weep for the lost? Jesus said [to] pray that people will be sent out into the harvest [cf. Matthew 9:38Luke 10:2]. He said the grain is glistening and white. It’s ready for harvest.

Suffering from compassion from the desire to see the salvation of another human being: How does that suffering help us? How is it a good thing?

One of the excellent results of this kind of suffering is that person’s salvation. In many cases, the sorrow you feel for the lost is the very motivation for you to bring evangelism to that person. If the person responds well, that person will be saved, and your sorrow will be turned into joy. It very well may be that that person does not come to Christ, that that person does not come into the Orthodox Church unless you yourself go to that person and, not in condemnation, not in anger, but in tears of compassion, pouring yourself out to that person, saying, “I love you so much! I know you don’t want to listen to me, but you’ve got to listen to me. This is that important.”

In many cases, you will not find the heartfelt motivation to have that conversation again, and again, and again with that person unless you begin with that suffering, that weeping, that crying out before God for the soul of this other human being. Don’t grieve because you suffer in that way. Thank God that He has granted you tears, for those tears of compassion are the very things which have the power, if you let them, to drive you to bring Christ to that other person.

It may not be your personality type to open your mouth and talk about Christ, talk about His Church, talk about God. That just may not be your style. You may not be the sort of person who gets up in front of a group of people and talks about the Gospel. You may not be the sort of person who likes to have long conversations about theology, and the Church, and the doctrines, and the teachings of Christ But if your heart is broken when you even think about that spouse, that child, that parent, that friend, if it breaks your heart to even think about that person not being in Heaven with you, then that can be the motivation you need to go and do what’s uncomfortable, and talk to them, and pray for them for a day, for a week, for a year, for the rest of your life, whatever it takes to bring that person home.

But what good does this suffering for their salvation do if the person does not respond well? If a hundred times, even a thousand times, you go to them with the truth, you go to them with the Gospel, you invite them into the Orthodox Church, and they just reject it entirely. They want nothing to do with it. In such a case, something comes about that is called division, which Jesus said in certain cases is a good thing. If a person does not respond well, it serves as an opportunity for you to demonstrate, through your actions, that Jesus means more to you than anything and Jesus means more to you than anybody.

You see, if you didn’t care about the other person, if you didn’t grieve for them, if you didn’t weep for their salvation, then the two of you parting ways – they to their religion and you to yours – wouldn’t mean much. But the fact that you love them, the fact that you weep for them, the fact that you want more than anything to see them with you means that, at some point, you have to choose: “Am I going to stick with this person even if it means turning my back on Christ and His Church, or am I going to stick with Christ and His Church even if this person turns their back on me because of it?”

While you grieve being forced to choose between Jesus and a beloved family member, you glorify God, and you show your love for Christ when you show that your relationship with Him is more important than your relationship with your family members. In Matthew 10:34-39, Jesus says this:

“Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to ‘set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law’;  and ‘a man’s enemies will be those of his own household.’  He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me.  And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me.  He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for My sake will find it.

One of the excuses that we give ourselves for why we do not take the Gospel to our loved ones is that we fear division:

“If I tell them Jesus is the only way to Heaven, they’re not going to like that. Man, if I tell them the Orthodox Church is the true Church, that it’s the way we’re supposed to worship God, that’s going to offend them. And God wouldn’t want division. He’d want to keep us together. He wouldn’t want there to be any division between us.”

Well, Jesus says precisely the opposite. He says, “I did not come to bring peace but to bring a sword.” Jesus says that He came to set parents against children and children against parents. Of course, He would rather that everyone repent, but that’s up to them, not up to Him. If nobody in your household has repented, then there’s peace. You all are in agreement in serving the devil. If everyone in your home repents, then there is peace, for you are all in agreement serving the Lord. But there is free will. You may choose life. You may choose to follow Christ, and that other person in your own household may choose death, may choose to continue serving the devil. The moment those two choices have been made, there is now division in your house where there was not before. And Jesus would rather there be division in your house and you get saved then there be peace in your house and all of you go to Hell.

Your love for Christ needs to be more dear to you than even the love you have for your family. And yes, you pray for the division to go away. You pray for peace. But that can only happen in one way – not by you turning your back on Christ and His Church, but the only way that division can truly be healed is for the other person to repent and to follow Christ. That is why you continue to witness to them. You continue to evangelize them, and you continue to pray for them until you die.

There can also be good unintended consequences. You go through all of this, praying to God that, through your efforts and your prayers, that the other person is brought to repentance and salvation, and yet, that person may say, “I’m not interested.” And then, you may throw your hands up and say, “Well, what good was that?”

You may do something good for someone, and yet someone else may benefit. I can think of at least a couple of cases where I have poured out my heart writing something, not for the general public, not to be published, but just for one person that I’m talking to trying to show them the truth about something, and that person rejects it. It seems like I went through all of that for nothing. Yet, later, I find out that that particular article has literally touched tens of thousands of people that have benefited from it after the fact. I didn’t write it for them. I wrote it for one person, and that one person wouldn’t listen. Yet, after the fact, tens of thousands of people benefit. You may find that the same thing happens in your life.

I remember one time at an airport probably ten [or] twelve years ago, I talked, and I talked, and I talked for probably twenty [or] thirty minutes to a guy, and he just showed no interest whatsoever in the Gospel. I talked, and I talked, and he just didn’t seem interested. And just off to the side, this lady had been listening, and, finally, she turned, and she squinted her eyes, and she said, “Where do you get this stuff?” She wanted to know more. Then our seats on the airplane ended up being next to each other. So I had this entire flight to talk to this woman about Christ. She’s not even the one I was initially trying to talk to, but she got “hit,” if you want to call it collateral damage. I was shooting the Gospel at somebody else, and yet it hit her.

Pour your heart out for that person that you love, and God will make that seed sprout and grow. Of course, you want it to grow in the heart of the person you’re talking to, but you don’t know what the Lord has planned. You pouring your heart out for that one person may splatter over onto cousins, or grandchildren, or aunts, or uncles, or neighbors, or somebody you’ve never even met before.

This other family, this other person: Is it worth their eternal soul, is it worth their salvation for you to pour out your heart in this way even if the person you are talking to doesn’t respond? Yes! It is worth it.

In Matthew 25, we read about the sheep and the goats. In this passage, the only difference given between them is what they did and didn’t do. Did you feed the hungry? Did you clothe the naked? Did you visit the sick and the imprisoned? Did you give water to those who were thirsty? And I think, by extension, we can say, “Did you preach the Gospel to those who didn’t know it? To people who knew nothing of the Church, did you talk to them and share it with them?”

None of your suffering is in vain. Joy is born from sorrow. Joy vanquishes sorrow. True joy cannot be taken away from you, but Jesus also says that your joy needs to be made full. And for your joy to be made full, you need to realize that you’re suffering for a reason.

Romans 14:17: “For the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Ghost” [KJV]. If you’re not living in joy every single minute of every single day, then you’re not fully focused on the Kingdom of God because the Kingdom of God is righteousness, peace, and joy.

Romans 15:13: “Now the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that ye may abound in hope, through the power of the Holy Ghost.” [KJV]. 

Galatians 5:22 [and 23]: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance” [KJV]. If you don’t have joy, you are lacking fruit of the spirit.

In Colossians [1:11], the Apostle Paul prays that we might be “strengthened with all might, according to his glorious power, unto all patience and longsuffering with joyfulness” [KJV]. In all of this, we are called to be like Christ.

Hebrews 12:2: ” Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God” [KJV]. If you are called to be like Christ, that means you are called to despise the suffering, despise the shame, and, for the joy set before you, endure that suffering, endure that cross.

To believe what it says in Romans 8:28, that “all things work together for good for those who love God:” That means your migraines work together for the good of those who love God. Your ulcers work together for the good of those who love God. Your back pain and your hip pain work together for the good of those who love God. Your emotional suffering, loneliness, rejection, frustration with people works together for the good of those who love God. Your grieving, your suffering, your compassion for other people who do not yet know Christ and His Church – that works for the good of those who love God.

So don’t fall into despair when you suffer. When you suffer, rejoice knowing that you are going through it for a reason and that you will receive your reward in due time. 

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
God is One. 

This sermon was preached by Father Joseph Gleason on Sunday, May 3, 2015, at Christ the King Orthodox Church in Omaha, Illinois.

Transcription by Maria Powell of Dormition Text Services. Dormition Text Services provides full service secretarial support (including transcription and publishing services) to Orthodox clergy and parish communities.

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