Turning Emotional Sufferings into Spiritual Profit

In the early fifth century, the great preacher of the early church, St. John Chrysostom (c. 349–407), made an enemy of the Empress Eudoxia. He had provoked the wrath of the empress by speaking out against an image she had erected of herself directly across from his church, the Hagia Sophie Cathedral. When games were played in front of the idolatrous image, this distracted worshipers from the prayer services. In 404, Empress Eudoxia sent soldiers to carry St. John into exile, hoping thereby to silence him. There followed a period of persecution against those who supported the exiled preacher. Soldiers forcibly broke up church services of those who were loyal to St. John, abusing the worshipers and even stripping ear rings off the women, pulling off parts of their ears in the process. Some of St. John’s followers were even tortured and killed.

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Counsel for Emotional People Struggling With Temptations

The sixth-century desert father, Dorotheos of Gaza, gave some very helpful wisdom for emotional people struggling with temptation and/or afflictions. (From Discourses and Sayings):

“God does not allow us to be burdened with anything beyond our power of endurance, and therefore, when difficulties come upon us we do not sin unless we are unwilling to endure a little tribulation or to suffer anything unforeseen. As the Apostle says, ‘God is faithful and will not allow us to be tempted beyond what we are able [to endure].’ But we are men who have no patience and no desire for a little labor and [no desire] to brace ourselves to accept anything with humility. Therefore we are crushed [by our difficulties]. The more we run away from temptations, the more they weigh us down and the less are we able to drive them away. Suppose a man for some reason dives into the sea: if he knows the art of swimming, what does he do when a great wave comes along? He ducks under until it goes past and then he goes on swimming unharmed. But if he is determined to set himself against it, it pushes him away and hurls him back a great distance, and when again he begins to swim forward another wave comes upon him, and if again he tries to swim against it, again it fores him back, and he only tires himself out and makes no headway. But if he ducks his head and lowers himself under the wave, as I said, no harm comes to him and he continues to swim as long as he likes. Those who go on doing their work this way when they are in trouble, putting up with their temptations with patience and humility, come through unharmed. But if they get distressed and downcast, seeking the reasons for everything, tormenting themselves and being annoyed with themselves instead of helping themselves, they do themselves harm.

“If painful experiences crowd in upon us, we ought not to be disturbed; allowing ourselves to be disturbed by these experiences is sheer ignorance and pride because we are not recognizing our own condition and, as the Fathers tell us, we are running away from labor. We make no progress because we have not squarely taken our own measure, we do not persevere in the work we begin, and want to acquire virtue without effort. Why should an emotional man find it strange to be disturbed by his emotions? Why should he be overwhelmed if he sometimes gives way to them? If you have them inside yourself why are you disturbed when they break out? You have their seeds in you and yet you ask, why do they spring up and trouble me? Better to have patience and go on struggling with them and beg for God’s help. It is impossible for someone struggling against his evil desires not to suffer affliction from them.”

Struggling Towards Holiness

Russian Christians frequently emphasize the concept of spiritual struggle, as encapsulated in their word “podvig.” There is no English equivalent for podvig, but the term conveys the idea of a good hardship, a spiritual struggle, a God-ordained difficulty.

“I think I might stop being a Christian,” my friend said, a few minutes after comfortably situating himself in my office.

“Why?” I asked. “Have you stopped believing in God?”

My friend, who we will call Trevor, pondered silently. A few days ago Trevor had asked to meet to get some advice about a personal crisis he was facing. But the conversation had quickly turned to his more general struggles with Christianity.

I renewed my question: “Is it because you’ve stopped believing in God that you are considering giving up Christianity?”

“It’s not that, Robin. I still believe in God. But I’ve been at this Christianity thing for over six years now, yet I’m still struggling with the same sins and addictions as when I converted. People keep telling me I need to rely on the Holy Spirit to help me, but however much I pray and ask for help, it never gets any easier. I just can’t achieve victory over the sins in my life. Why isn’t the Holy Spirit helping me?”

As Trevor continued to share, I learned how well-meaning Christians had been telling him that he needed to abandon the struggle and “let go and let God.” The problem was that victory over sin was part of the criteria these Christians were using to determine whether Trevor had fully “let go.” Trevor had also been told that because he kept sinning this was proof that he was struggling in his own strength. Moreover, he had been told that the difficult Christian life is a failed Christian life, since a life defined by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit will be characterized by rest not difficult struggle.

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