Life as suffering or life as pleasure?

Suffering is not the main theme of Christianity, the main theme of Christianity is joy. A person gets obsessed with suffering because of his pride, “Why do I feel worse than the others?” – and because of misunderstanding God’s love and God’s dispensation. In the contemporary world God is set aside, allegorically speaking, He is ‘in a jar.’
| 22 February 2009

Translated by Olga Sokolova

Edited by Ekaterina Baburina  and Olga Lissenkova


Natalia Smirnova talked with Igor Fomin, the prior of the chapel of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations

Joy Can Only Be Free

Q: Father Igor, tell us what the reason of sufferings is in the world and why God allows this to happen?

A: The Lord created people in his own image and likeness, and people are absolutely free. Freedom spreads over all aspects of our life; we are free to build our own lives and free to learn. The choice between good and evil too is in the power of the person, and the fall of mankind resulted from free choice. Suffering was the consequence of the fall, and God had warned our first ancestors about it, which they didn’t believe.

Q: Could not God choose any other scheme of development of a life for humankind, which would not include suffering? God knows everything ahead of time, He knew that Adam and Eve would fall, couldn’t he have corrected his plan for us imperfect people?

A: Everything is related to freedom, free-will. When we are talking, you cannot tell at all what I will say the next moment. You think my thought is developing in one way, but suddenly I say something else, and this is interesting to you. Have you ever played chess with yourself? It is terribly boring, it is impossible to think of anything less interesting.

When you rejoice, you want to share your joy with someone else. You want to run to the kitchen and say, “Mom, imagine, I have knitted such a sock, rejoice with me!” You want to share the joy so that another person could also feel the same emotion.

The Lord, while making humans, wanted people to rejoice with God. But this happiness can only be free. You do not come to the kitchen with a machine-gun to tell your mother holding her at gunpoint, “Mom, I’ve knitted a sock. Rejoice”. We can truly rejoice only by free-will.

The existence of hell testifies to God’s love for each person and His respect for his/her free-will, even for those who do not love Him, because hell is a place without God, without a torturer for the person who can’t bear God. We know the Lord is everywhere, but He made hell a place where there is no presence of His. Light fills all, photons fly everywhere, penetrating the Universe, but hell is such a place the light does not reach. And joy can only be free, gratitude can only be free too, and a sincere smile can only be free, if it’s not a glossy magazine, of course.

Q: But if we are free, why does apostle Paul say, “for what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.” (Rom. 7, 19-20). Are we really free then?

A: Imagine a third-grader who has stolen another’s ruler for the first time. At this moment for him all the world has failed. At first he rejoiced at this ruler, and then suddenly he understood it is the same as his own one, only it is colored differently. And suddenly his world collapses. “How can that be? What a terrible thing I’ve done!” the third-grader thinks. But after twenty years have passed, the sin is made in an instant, and the person doesn’t reflect before committing a sin and cannot think he can act in another way. The distance between thought and action becomes so short that it is impossible to know which comes first, the thought or the deed. That is the skill of sinning apostle Paul speaks about.

Q: But all the same, I do not have that sensation that people are free. It seems that the sin prevails over us very strongly. I would like to be so holy that I would ascend straight to heaven, but something isn’t working.

A: Christ completely releases us from this sin. He gives full freedom. Perhaps right now I’ll say something controversial, but many sacred fathers shared this point of view. Jesus on the cross releases each person from sin and gives salvation to each person, except for those who don’t want this salvation, who resist God, and have declared war against God. When a person understands that he is already given everything for his salvation, he begins to do good freely. Not because it is necessary or because someone makes him do it, but because it becomes natural. Not because a fixed number of good works automatically opens the gates of heaven, but because you go to Him who Himself is good and love, and you begin to do these good works. A person becomes free from compulsory acts of good deeds. Imagine a person standing and thinking, “There has something good to be done today again. Like helping an old woman cross the street. I will not lift up a drunk homeless person, but I will help an old woman cross the street, and get another good deed on my account”. This is a wrong attitude.

The Lord like a loving father protects its own child, and covers it from everything. Ask any parent and they will say that their son is the most genius. But why would he write bad words on another’s back with a piece of chalk, as he did? “This can’t be”, says the dad. The parent protects the child in any situation, justifies us, and justifies completely, justifies on the cross and when we accept our own cross.

Q: Does this concern believers?

A: It concerns everyone, but this concerns believers as the sickest part of society. Because Christ has come not to healthy people, but to sick people. When a believer starts to realize himself that he is sick, that his sickness is worse than others’, then he begins to relate differently to those around him.

A person says, “Everything that you say, father, I can accept, I cannot only believe in the God of cats and dogs.” “What kind of God of cats and dogs?” “Next to me lives a family that goes to church. Everyone knows that they are believers, but they are always quarreling. They are constantly having out their relationship, living like cat and dog. I cannot believe in a God of cats and dogs.”

Why does it happen so? Because they do not live in God, they want to save themselves, and they do not care whether this salvation comes from Christ or not. But if we accept Christ’s sacrifice as the Atonement, everything changes in a blink of an eye.

Grumble and Misunderstanding

Q: What is it a person should understand for his sufferings to stop completely, as it happened, for example, to righteous Job of the Old Testament?

A: I will tell you a trite thing – a person should understand that the Lord loves him. He or she should understand that these sufferings are given to him or her for some reason. Grumbling for the sufferings sent is a consequence of not understanding. By grumbling a person says, “My Lord, I would do something different here. Step aside now, and I will teach you what you should have done with my life.”

The book of Job is a vivid example of sufferings and joy. Why does Job suffer? Is it because he scrapes himself with a potsherd? No, it is not what he suffers from. He suffers from misunderstanding of how this could be happening. The whole book of Job is devoted to Job’s claiming something on God, wanting to meet Him, etc. And look: these sufferings are over when the Lord begins to speak with him. It is not said there what the Lord told Job or what He reconciled him with, but after hearing God’s words Job became an absolutely free person, someone different, someone joyful. And after that his health and well-being returned, and God even awarded him with much greater riches.

I just want to say that one can know a lot theoretically, but one isn’t able to understand it until he is involved in it, until he starts analyzing it. I used to be a man who could be called a regular sufferer, but then I realized that the Lord loved me, guiding me like a loving father through all my life.

God’s care for people takes many forms, and God’s dispensation over every one of us is sometimes inconceivable. That is, standing near a temple one cannot see all its beauty. It takes some distance for that beauty to be revealed.

Q: Why do righteous or monastic persons seek suffering from chains, hair-shirts, celibacy, penance, etc.?

A: Hardship is a kind of fast a person imposes on himself for self-perfection. Fasting reveals all the weak points of one’s nature. First of all, you just stop lying to yourself and telling yourself you’re all right, because it becomes clear you’re not. Each of us can see himself letting out all kinds of nasty thing, getting annoyed, swearing as a fast comes.

A teacher in the theological school told us such a story. His unbelieving neighbor asked him once, “Can I congratulate you on the beginning of Great Lent?” – “Yes, but how do you know?” – “I’ve got two believing old women living together next to me. They live in perfect harmony as if they were sisters, but they always begin to quarrel when they are keeping the fast.”

Fasting turns a man inside out, making him able to see his irritability, malice etc. But a righteous man won’t let it affect anyone else, he’ll rather begin to fight his vices.

Remember, in the Gospel the young man asked Christ about what he should do to inherit eternal life? And Jesus answered that he had to obey the commandments of the Old Testament. The young man had kept all these from his youth up, but he wasn’t satisfied with himself and sought greater perfection. And then the Lord directed him to suffering saying he had to sell all that he had and distribute unto the poor and then follow Him. And the young man was very sorrowful.

Fasting is a state of being dissatisfied with one’s righteousness. It’s obvious that keeping the commandments is enough for living a righteous life. But some people seek greater perfection, they want to get closer to God. Closer in human interpretation, of course, for only the Lord can judge who’s closer to Him. So a man first commits himself to a rigorous fast, then to hardship, chains. He mortifies his flesh by exposing himself to mosquitoes standing in a bog, for example. But it depends on personality, those things are not suitable for all Christians. It may benefit one man and ruin another. Unfortunately, our notion of righteousness was formed on the examples of monastic life only. It would be better to speak more about Peter and Fevroniya or about prince Dmitry Donskoi and princess Eudokia.

To Become Happy

Q: Is it possible to come to God the comfortable way, without sufferings?

A: The saints I’ve mentioned are easier for us to understand. Dmitri and Eudokia had many children who were raised to become decent and honest people, and this was their way to obtain righteousness. The monks’ way is to be learned from monks.

Q: In the Gospel there is a phrase, “Narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life.” Does it mean that there is no other way to God but the way of suffering, and the comfortable way is wrong from the start?

A: From hagiography we know that a person can suffer a lot in this life without any visible result. There is a story of two monks who lived nearby and came to an arrangement that the one who died first would tell the other one what it was like there in the next world. And when one of them died he appeared before his brother who asked, “How do you do in the next world?” – “Very bad. I stand in Gehenna,” he lifted his mantle and showed his worm-eaten legs. “It’s a real nightmare!” – “It’s not a nightmare yet. The bishop whose head I’m standing on feels much worse.”

One can devote all his life to right things and never enter the Kingdom of Heaven. One can be a monk all his life and never enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

It doesn’t mean we must make merry get our jollies here just in case we are not able to get to the Kingdom of Heaven. Suffering is not the main theme of Christianity, the main theme of Christianity is joy. A person gets obsessed with suffering because of his pride, “Why do I feel worse than the others?” – and because of misunderstanding God’s love and God’s dispensation. In the contemporary world God is set aside, allegorically speaking, He is ‘in a jar.’ A housewife has a jar with cereals, a jar with sugar, and a jar with God. One takes whichever jar he/she needs: soda when one needs soda, salt when one needs salt, and when leaving a house one asks for God’s blessing in the same way. “My Lord, I had asked You to bless me, but I got splashed all over with mud – or got hit by a car, this mustn’t have happened.” But it was just how it should have been. Paradoxically enough, having taken God’s blessing means that you had to be hit by a car, although if you had forgotten to take it you could have gotten into much greater trouble.

Very often we equate suffering with physical inconvenience, with physical or material constraint, and it seems to us that something terrible is happening in our life or in other people’s life. But every person has his/her own pain threshold as well as material needs. That is one of the reasons why we cannot decide for other people whether they suffer or not.

Once I witnessed a homeless man beating his girlfriend at a bus station. She cried out for help. People jumped out of the bus, began to separate them, and couldn’t but hit that man. After that his girlfriend attacked us trying to protect her husband, declaring him to be the best and the most remarkable man. I don’t say one should not try to help in situations like that. One should. She asked for help, and we helped, though not in the way she wanted it. But we cannot decide for other people whether they suffer or not.

Another example of a person’s attitude to hardships. There lives a man over thirty, with serious cerebral spastic infantile paralysis, who plays chess perfectly and has a good sense of humor. At the age of six months he was left by his father, a high-ranking Soviet official who never showed any interest in his son since then. He and his mother led a rather poor life with no luxuries. The son tried to help his mom by typing, though he couldn’t type more than one sheet a day. He was subject to an incredible lot of mockery and humiliation in the neighborhood. He could hardly walk, yet he was often tripped up by boys. A person with cerebral spastic infantile paralysis is not usually a person whom everyone would pity, quite on the contrary, such people live under constant oppression. The government doesn’t care about them, people around them do their best to keep away, they can’t use public transport and so on. Once that man told me with affection, “Father, I am so grateful to God!” – “For what, Seryozha?” I asked. “I’m a very venturesome person. And if I were normal and had normal hands and feet I would certainly become either a drug addict or a fornicator, a drunkard anyway. And the Lord saved me from it all.”

I was greatly impressed by a burial service over a sexton of Krylatskoye’s church who was killed on Easter. All the congregation cried, everyone … except his mother. Was she so hard-hearted, was her grief weaker than the others’? No, she just saw something different in it. (Those who die on Easter are considered to be saved.)

Actually the question on suffering is a question on how to be happy. It is impossible to be happy when you’ve got your mouth stuffed full with chocolate. For example, a child will be happy when he has mutual understanding with his parent. Not only when the father understands and satisfies all the child’s needs but also when the child mutually responds to the father’s requests. Health is not necessary for happiness. What is necessary is to be able to accept God’s will and to look ahead.





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