In the Epistle reading for today, we read that Sts. Paul and Barnabas, after preaching the Gospel in Lystra, visited the churches they had founded on their way home to Antioch: “Strengthening the souls of the disciples, exhorting them to continue in the faith.” And what do you think they said to strengthen the disciples (the believers) and to exhort them to continue in the faith? What would encourage us to continue in the faith? What would we need to hear that would strengthen us?
Sts. Paul and Barnabas were saying, “We must through many tribulations enter the Kingdom of God.”
Why is it that somehow this does not seem very encouraging or strengthening to me?
Perhaps it doesn’t sound encouraging or strengthening to me because I don’t suffer many tribulations. Perhaps it is because the few tribulations I do suffer, I suffer poorly, with complaining, assuming that God should have something better for me.
But if I were a peasant or slave or soldier in first century Lystra, Iconium or Antioch, life would be nothing but tribulation. I would seldom get what I wanted. I would generally have no choice. And tribulation would not be mere metaphor–I would actually experience beatings for failing to live up to the expectations of my lord or commander. So to the disciples that Sts. Paul and Barnabas were strengthening and encouraging, these words would have great meaning: “Through your relationship with Christ, the tribulations that you are already suffering in life can become the very means of your entering the Kingdom of God.”
But what about us? Is it possible for someone who suffers a little as I do to enter the Kingdom of God?
I don’t know. But I do have two strategies.
My first strategy is to make the most of the little inconveniences I do experience. When I have a headache, when things aren’t going my way, when what I have done or said is misunderstood, and when others are annoying me, when such things happen I try to look immediately to Christ. I try not to complain, but rather to absorb the little tribulation into my heart, to accept it, not to defend myself, not to spread the misery, but rather to offer my little pain to God as an offering on behalf of the whole world.
I say “I try.” I seldom succeed very well and I often forget completely. But sometimes I can remember, and sometimes I do experience a little bit of closeness with God, a little bit of compassion for those around me, for those who unknowingly are the immediate source of my discomfort.
My second strategy is to open my heart to those who are in tribulation. You have to be careful with this, however. When we “bear one another’s burdens,” we bear them to Christ. We offer them to Christ. Sometimes, either through personal weakness or an overactive imagination or some other mechanism (guilt, pride, ignorance, not enough sleep, etc.), sometimes I can be overwhelmed with the pain of others. Or sometimes it is not so much their pain that I am feeling, but my own (again, through guilt or pride or my expectations or even anger with myself or with others whom I think should know better). You have to be careful.
Nonetheless, there is a way you can share in the tribulations of others. The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews tell us that enduring a great struggle with sufferings can be partly due to reproaches and tribulations, and partly by becoming companions of those so treated (Heb. 10: 32, 33). We can become companions of those who suffer. When we open our hearts, we can share the pain of others. This sharing is indeed a kind of holding in common (koinos in Greek). And in sharing and bearing and holding before the Lord the pain for and of the other whom we hold in our hearts, in some small way we help our “companions” and in some small way enter the Kingdom of God with them.
And, of course, one of the ways we know that the love and suffering in our hearts is real is that it manifests itself in small and generally secret acts of kindness, generousity, patience and service. The evidence of genuine love, St. James tells us, is to do something, something that hurts a little, something that relieves another and actually costs me something. Prayer, fasting and alms giving. We offer suffering in our heart to God (prayer), we do something for another (alms giving), and it hurts a little (fasting). This is the way into the Kingdom of God. It is the way of love, the way of bearing one another’s burdens. It is the way of participating in the tribulations that help us enter the Kingdom of God.