St. Isaac the Syrian says that there are several ways the devil attacks a person. The goal of these attacks is to make us pull back from our pursuit of godliness. Transformation into the image of Christ is a synergistic experience. We labour together with Christ. On the other hand, it is also all Grace. There is no love, joy, peace or patience (or any other of the fruit of the Spirit) without God first giving Himself to us, for Grace is nothing less than God coming to us.
Nevertheless, there is an accepting, or a cooperation on our part. Part of what it means to be a human being and not a mere animal is that we can choose to cooperate with God’s Grace to raise ourselves above our merely animal (and sometimes sub-animal) lusts, fears and impulses. This raising ourselves, or better, our cooperation with God’s raising of us, requires effort on our part. Our nature has been twisted, perverted, by the general fall of mankind and our personal participation in this fall. Christ, the perfect human being, has come not only showing us what a healthy human being looks like, but also providing us the power of the Holy Spirit to repent: to begin to straighten out our twisted selves.
St. Isaac advises us, whatever our portion in life should be, that if we want to cooperate with the Grace of God in our lives, we must voluntarily accept, without misgivings, temporary sufferings for the sake of the goodness God offers (Homily 39). By temporary sufferings, St. Isaac means the sufferings of this life, as opposed to the potential sufferings of the age to come.
There is a significant irony here. Suffering in this life is unavoidable. Everyone suffers—you can lie to yourself and sometimes numb or medicate yourself in various ways to gain some temporary relief from pain, but still everyone suffers. Fear of this suffering is one of the devil’s most effective weapons to keep us from pursuing repentance and a faithful relationship with God. Notice that it is not suffering that the devil uses—suffering is ubiquitous in this broken world. It is the fear of suffering that is the devil’s weapon.
St. Isaac lists four circumstances under which the devil can attack a person with temptation.
- “It is permitted by the bidding of Heaven”
- “It [might] be that the man himself grows lax and surrenders himself to shameful thoughts and to distraction”
- [The person] “becomes proud and conceited”
- “Or [the person] accepts thoughts of doubt and cowardliness.”
I am intrigued by the word, “cowardliness.” It’s not a word that pops up very often in discussions of the spiritual life. It’s the cowardly, St. Isaac says, who are driven by the devil as by a hurricane. The cowardly are those who would rather deny God than deny themselves, who let the fear of suffering keep them from cooperating with the Grace of God.
Suffering is a spiritual mystery. Athletes have known from ancient times that disciplined acceptance of deprivation, suffering and pain is the price one pays to stay in shape. Once an athlete accepts that, he or she experiences, merely as a matter of routine—often happy routine—a disciplined regimen of life along with the pain and exhaustion of extensive, often boring, repetitive exercise. Were it not freely chosen, an athlete’s life would be considered worse than the life of a prisoner in a hard labour camp. Suffering is not the issue—it’s the choosing that’s the issue. This is one of the spiritual mysteries in suffering.
An athlete chooses temporal suffering for the sake a temporal reward. Christ calls us to follow Him, to share in His suffering by “voluntarily accepting” (to use St. Isaac’s words) the various sufferings of this temporal life that we encounter in our pursuit of love of God and neighbor. There is a verse in the Prophet Hosea (7:14 LXX) that says, “Their hearts did not cry out to Me, but they wailed upon their beds. They slashed themselves for oil and wine.” Self mutilation, “slashing themselves,” was a common form of sacrifice to the pagan gods. This verse seems to apply today to all of the ways we are willing to suffer to get a temporal gain: a better job, a better car, a better physical body, a better education, a better social position. As a culture we think nothing of “slashing” ourselves” in one way or another for temporal gain; but when it comes to spiritual gain, we are suddenly afraid. We become cowardly.
Voluntary suffering is not the goal of the Christian life. Christlikeness is the goal. Earlier in Hosea’s prophecy we are told that sacrifice is not what God looks from in His people: “For I desire mercy and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than whole burnt offerings” (6:6 LXX). God wants us to love Him with our whole heart, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. This is how we cooperate with the Grace of God and experience the transforming power of God in our lives. The devil uses fear of suffering and deprivation to keep us from giving our whole lives to God. However, we can, if we are willing, become athletes of Christ. We can voluntarily accept the asceticism (from the Greek word meaning ‘athletic training’) the Church teaches us to follow and we can voluntarily accept the various pains and disappointments life throws our way because, like athletes, we have a goal. Our goal is Christlikeness.
Our reward is not in this life, it is in the Life to Come. But even in this life, we begin to experience the Life that is to Come. Even now we experience some of the joy, some of the peace, some of the consolation and comfort of Age to Come. Our path through this world is a painful one—nothing can be done to change that. It is the path mankind has chosen. But our God is generous, helping us along the way and granting us a foretaste of the eternal banquet to come. Only let us be courageous. Let us not fear what must be endured anyway. Rather, let us look with hope and joyful anticipation to the prize: the healing of our broken lives by participation in the very Life of God.
Thank you for this article. I've read it a few times; it has been helpful. If I understand correctly, the suffering that we encounter is not necessarily for being Christians (though that happens too) but any suffering at all. We suffer by not giving into what might be a reaction to pain or discomfort – he yelled at me so I am going to yell back – in order to allow God to heal us. Is that the idea?
Yes, that's the idea. It is fear of suffering more than suffering itself that drives us to deny Christ in various ways.