Joy And Fear Together: St. Isaac Helps Us Discern Our Trials

Continuing in homily 42, St. Isaac gives us another warning.  When you find unchanging peace, that is, when everything is going smoothly for you most of the time, then “beware: you are very far from the divine paths trodden by the weary feet of the saints.  For as long as you are journeying in the way to the city of the Kingdom and are drawing nigh to the city of God, this will be a sign for you: the strength of the temptations that you encounter.  And the nearer you draw nigh and progress, the more temptations will multiply against you.”

To tell you the truth I don’t know if I should be frightened or comforted by this word.  On the one hand it is frightening because I am seeking for peace and I strive to overcome trials: I want to be in the condition where I experience “unchanging peace…when everything is going smoothly for [me] most of the time.”  On the other hand, it is a comforting word because, while I may at times experience peace on a certain level, I am never really completely at peace; and I am almost always struggling to control myself—my thoughts and my feelings and my words and my actions.

However, St. Isaac goes on to differentiate the kinds of trials that, on the one hand, may be evidence that a person is drawing near and progressing in the Kingdom of God, and on the other hand are evidence of pride in one’s heart.  The trials that may be evidence that one is drawing near to the Kingdom of God are “not of worldly trials that come upon some in order to bridle their wickedness and their manifestly wicked deeds.”  Rather, St. Isaac is referring to trials that he says are “suitable to monks dwelling in stillness.”  I think that this category of trials can also be extended to include those trials suitable for those who are pursuing inner stillness even while living in the world.  For while the outer circumstances of those living in the world are different from the outer circumstances of those who live in monasteries, still I think the inner experience is often very similar.

Let’s look first at the kinds of trials St. Isaac specifically mentions as being those “that God allows to fall upon men who are shameless, whose thinking is exalted in the face of God’s goodness, and who abuse His goodness in their pride.”  When these sorts of trials afflict someone, St. Isaac suggest that these are not a sign that someone is necessarily drawing closer to God; rather, they are a sign that God is humbling their pride—which, by the way (and this is very important) is in itself a good thing.  That God is humbling my pride means that God is at work in my life.  God has not abandoned me.  So if, like me, you recognize that the trials and temptations you face often come from this first list, it doesn’t mean that you are making no progress at all in your repentance, in your relationship with God.  St. Isaac will say later in this homily that it often happens that we experience both categories of trials at the same time.  That is, as one is progressing in the Kingdom of God (as evidenced by trials in the second list), there may still be lingering pride in one’s heart that God lovingly helps us eradicate by allowing temptations in this first list to continue in our lives.

So what are the trials and temptations that God allows to continue in our life to delivers from our recalcitrant pride?  Some of the trials in this category that St. Isaac mentions are the loss of wisdom, and foolish speech and behaviour.  When wisdom abandons me and I constantly make foolish choices, make stupid comments and do foolish things, then I know: my pride has gotten the better of me and in God’s mercy He is allowing me to rediscover humility through my own stupidity.  Two other trials in this category are “the piercing sensation of the thought of fornication” and a quick temper.  It seems that I can sometimes go for days at a time without any serious thought of sexual sin or without losing my temper (albeit, I must acknowledge that this may have nothing at all to do with virtue and everything to do with being an old man).  However, sometimes, temptations of these sort seem to suddenly come upon me so that the sensation is quite “piercing.”  It’s as though I am being stabbed; it’s as if the rage or the tempting thought has gotten a hold of my mind and my body and my emotions so completely and so quickly that it takes the full force of my will and my focus to keep from sinning with my mouth or actions and to shut down the “piercing sensation” in my mind and body.  When this happens to me, St. Isaac says, it is because of my arrogance.  God in His great mercy is delivering me.

St. Isaac specifically mentions several other trials all of which, his says are means by which God delivers us from pride: the trial of desiring your own way; the trial of wanting to argue; the trial of making promises that you cannot keep; the trial of accusing or blaming others, or of using inappropriately strong language; and the trial of thinking or speaking blasphemous thoughts against God (i.e. accusing God or saying things about God that are not true).  There is one more trial in this category that I specifically want to look at.  It’s the trial that is “endlessly to seek out some new thing for oneself through false prophesy.”  I highlight this trial specifically because it hits so close to home for me as a former Charismatic.  It took me years, even after I had become Orthodox, to stop looking for the new thing that God was doing, to stop trying to “hear” from God what new thing I was supposed to do or be a part of.  St. Isaac tells us that this sort of trial, the trial of seeking the new thing through a supposed prophetic insight, this is evidence that God is humbling us.

But then there is the other category, the category of trials and temptations that can be signs of our drawing nigh to the Kingdom of God.  St. Isaac tells us that “at the time of these trials we should have within us two contradictory things which are wholly unlike each other.  These are joy and fear.  Joy, because we are found in the path trodden by the saints, or rather, by Him Who gives life to all things…. But we should have fear [too] because perhaps we are being tried through these things by reason of pride.”  In other words, although St. Isaac lists several trials that are indicative of “a blow inflicted by divine love” as opposed to those in the previous category that are “the fruit of pride,” still one must remain on guard against pride.  As soon as one begins to think confidently that he or she is manifestly “drawing nigh unto the city of God,” as St. Isaac puts it, based on this or that trial they are experiencing, then certainly they are missing the mark and pride has crept in and darkened their perception.  And yet, although one must always beware of pride, there is also a place for joy.  Joy and fear together, St. Isaac tells us.

And so, what then are the trials that St. Isaac mentions in this later category, trials that he says “are inflicted by the parental rod for the soul’s progress and growth, and wherein she may be trained”?  Surprisingly to me, St. Isaac mentions sloth as the first example of a trial inflicted by God on a person for the training of his or her soul and as evidence that he or she is drawing near to the city of God.  He also mentions despondency, bodily pains, enfeebled limbs, confusion of mind, temporary loss of hope, darkened thoughts, absence of help from people, and scarcity of bodily necessities.  These, St. Isaac tells us, are the sorts of trials that God allows in our life “for the soul’s progress and growth” and they are signs that we are walking on the same path that our Savour walked.

How do such trials train us?

By these trials “a man’s soul feels herself lonely and defenceless, and his heart is deadened and filled with humility, and he is trained thereby to yearn for his Creator.”  These trials train us to yearn, to yearn for God, for the Kingdom of God.  When sickness or despondency or confusion or poverty or physical pain keeps us from what our heart longs to do in prayer or service or ascetic practice for God, then St. Isaac tells us, it is God Himself who is training us.  It is God Himself who is training us to yearn and long for Him.  And it is this yearning and longing for God that is the central experience of holiness; it is what the saints experienced; it is the hunger and thirst that will be quenched completely only in the Age to Come.

However, the experience of these trials is almost always a mixed bag.  As I mentioned above, one experiences joy and fear at the same time.  St. Isaac also says, “In them are mingled both consolation and griefs, light and darkness, wars and aid.  In short, they straiten [or constrain] and enlarge.  This is the sign of the increase of God’s help.”  St. Paul likens this experience to birth pangs, contractions leading to birth: painful constriction and then temporary relief.  These are the birth pangs of the Spirit within us giving birth to holiness, giving birth to the life of Christ within us.  God does not leave us on our own at these times, even if sometimes we feel alone.  St. Isaac explains that “A trial does not come unless the soul has first secretly received both a portion greater than the measure which she had formally received[,] and the Spirit of grace.”  However, although the grace precedes the temptation or trial, for the testing of human freedom—for God never forces us to come to Him—our awareness of the temptations precedes our awareness of the gift of grace.  Hence, St. Isaac says, “in reality grace comes first, but in the awareness of the senses, it delays.”

And so we experience the pain of apparent abandonment, or as the Old Testament prophet puts it: “for a brief moment I turned away from you, but with great loving kindness I will gather you” (Isa. 54:7).  We experience abandonment, not because God has abandoned us.  No, God has already given us His Spirit and the Grace we need to pass through the trial before us.  God has given us what we need, but we do not experience the gift first; otherwise, there would be no room for human freedom.  First we must choose to cling to God, to long for His help even when it seems so far way.  And then, then we notice God’s help.  Then we realize that God has been near us all along.

So, to sum up, St. Isaac has given us a kind of diagnostic tool.  A way of looking at our trials and temptations and gaining some little insight into what they might be about.  He explains to us the experience of joy and fear together, and helps us discern when pride has, again, crept in.  However, even such tools and insights as St. Isaac offers us are of little value on their own.  We need the help of others.  As we humbly accept the insights of others, spiritual fathers and mothers, friends, parents and loved ones, it is only then that discernment has a chance.  We all have terribly broken internal guidance systems, so it is only as we triangulate with others that we find our way to our goal of the Kingdom of Heaven.

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