“The door to heaven is opened for a man by the hand of trials.”
“It is not possible that God should benefit the man who longs to be with Him otherwise than by bringing temptations upon him for the sake of truth.”
“Why does it have to be so hard?” This is a question I have often asked myself. It is a common question, one that I think we have all asked at various times in our lives–even if we have not asked it out loud. “Why does life have to be so hard?”
During the Paschal season, we read the Acts of the Apostles. Pascha declares Christ’s triumph over death and the promise of our victory in and with Him. In the Acts of the Apostles we see how Christ continues to preach the Gospel and work signs through His Apostles. Christ continues to be present in this world, now in a many-membered body. However, not only is Christ’s power manifest in signs that amaze and draw the attention of the crowds. Christ is also present in the continued trampling down of death by death. In fact, according to the Acts of the Apostles, it is often these very signs that lead to the persecution and tribulations that provide the opportunity for His disciples also to follow Christ in trampling down death by death.
For example, when Sts. Paul and Barnabas were preaching the Gospel in the town of Lystra (Acts 14), by the Grace of God, St. Paul heals a man who had been crippled from birth. However, this leads to a profound misunderstanding: the people think that Sts. Paul and Barnabas are pagan gods and the people want to offer sacrifice to them. When Sts. Paul and Barnabas figure out what is going on, they tear their clothes and run about among the people telling them that they are mere men and with much effort, we are told, “they could scarcely restrain the multitudes from sacrificing to them.”
But as often happens, misunderstanding leads to frustration and frustration leads to violence. Urged by some enemies of the truth who had already heard and rejected the message of Christ, the crowd dragged St. Paul out of the city and stoned him, apparently, to death. However, after the crowd’s left, the disciples gathered around him in prayer and St. Paul got up: he arose like our Master Christ, trampling down death by death.
And lest we think that St. Paul’s experience of following Christ’s example of suffering and death (or near death) was an exception, we are told immediately after this account that St. Paul went to all of the Churches strengthening and encouraging the disciples by saying the to them the following: “We must through many tribulations enter the Kingdom of God.”
St. Isaac the Syrian says, “No one has ascended into Heaven by means of ease, for we know where the way of ease leads, and how it ends.” And even the “way of ease,” as many of us have found out, is not that easy. Worries, illnesses, discipline and self control are encountered and required no matter where we are or what we do in this world. “The way of ease” is not really an easy way. The way of ease is just the way of the world, it’s my own way, a way that leads the heart away from God, a way led by passions and impulses, and a way isolation, delusion and fear.
But the very unavoidable sufferings of this world (illness, misunderstanding and violence) are also the means of salvation, if we will embrace them in Christ. It really does seem like trials and tribulations and suffering of all sorts create a moment of decision, a moment of choice, a crisis in which we must choose: will we humble ourselves and turn to God in our pain and confusion, or will we turn away from God and try to handle it ourselves. Will we lift up our hearts and hands to God and beg mercy, believing that our whole life is in His hands: the good and the bad, the joyful and the painful, the brilliant and the dark. Or, will we turn a way, perhaps in anger, perhaps in pride, or perhaps in a simple unwillingness to admit that we are not really in control of our lives.
“The door of Heaven,” St. Isaac says, “is opened by the hand of trials.” Whether we enter or not us up to us. If we enter, or seek to enter, then the trial becomes a means of personal transformation, a context for a new and deeper intimacy with God, an opportunity to love others as God loves us. But if we don’t, if we turn away from God, then the trial becomes meaningless. The suffering is just as painful, but it is now empty. God seems far away and instead of polishing us and transforming us to be more like ourselves, more like our better selves, the selves we long to be; instead of this, the suffering becomes a corrosion eating away at us, producing bitterness, and driving us into an insular mental reality that blames everything and everyone else and makes love stingy, something we mete out in small bits, something that shrinks and does not grow within us.
As long as we live in this world, there will be suffering, trials and tribulation. There is no escaping it. The world is broken, sin has distorted everything. What remains for us is not whether or not we will suffer, but whether or not we will, like Christ, find Life in death; whether or not we will, like Christ, willing lay down our lives for one another; whether or not we will, like Christ, be transformed and transfigured and drawn close to our Heavenly Father by drinking willingly the cup that has been given to us, the cup of trial and suffering in this life.