On suffering: Thy will be done!

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Why does suffering exist? This perplexing question came to mind recently as I stood in a hospital corridor and overheard a young man and a young lady talking about a friend who was quite ill in the room nearby. "Why does he have to suffer so much? Is he being punished by God?" The second person followed with: "What I can't understand is why God lets this happen to a person as kind as Bill?"
We are all aware of the fact that no one can escape personal suffering which does not distinguish between individuals. The paramount question is how will we handle the suffering? As we consider this most misunderstood subject, we must learn to accept the fact that suffering touches all and that we must develop deeper insights into all of life.
Throughout the world and in every age the questions about suffering continue to be asked. Why does it exist? Does God want us to suffer? Is it God's will? Medical science has made great strides in recent years; however, suffering still exists with the accompanying fear and depression that follow. With the experience of suffering we can either grow spiritually, or become hardened and isolated, from God.
Suffering ends for us only in the Kingdom of Heaven which is described in the Orthodox Funeral Service prayers as a place: "... where pain, suffering and sorrow do not exist." Suffering as a result of illness makes us aware of the contrast between good health and bad. Some illnesses are due to careless health habits and abuse on our part. The dilemma of suffering often brings about depression and dejection, feelings of hopelessness and anger.
There are basically three major causes of suffering: These are suffering in body and soul as a result of persecution by others, suffering from sickness and disease, or suffering in spirit because of our own and the world's sins. We deal with suffering in one of two ways: We accept it with humility and convert it into a means for our salvation or we capitulate to it rebelliously and blame God.
As Orthodox Christians we believe that if we wish to live a good life in Jesus Christ, we will be persecuted and suffer. The Book of Acts (5:41) tells us "... they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name." Those who suffer and keep Christ close in praise receive His Grace and their sufferings are directed to God's glory. The first epistle of Peter tells us:
"Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same thought, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live for the rest of time in the flesh no longer by human passions, but by the will of God." (I Peter 4:1-2)
St. Paul teaches:
For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, because we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal." (2 Cor. 4:17-18).
The Orthodox Christian who repents through the Sacrament of Confession transforms suffering into spiritual growth and is made "perfect through suffering." (Heb. 2:10). St. John Chrysostom tells us in his 28th Homily on the Letter to Hebrews that affliction can alleviate sins, and make us strong. The most difficult suffering is not in the flesh but the spirit. This suffering torments the soul and causes us to feel futile. Orthodox Christians through their suffering identify with and participate spiritually in our Lord's agony on the Cross. Our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ suffered as a result of His compassionate love to the ultimate degree. During our suffering we must keep our mind and heart on Him asking to be close to Him, showered by His Grace. "Come to me," He says, "all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." (Matthew 11:28).
We know from the Book of Genesis that the nature of man and woman was defiled by our forefather Adam in his rebellion against God and thereby became subject to suffering, illness, and death. "Sin came into the world through one man ... (and) spread to all men," (Rom. 5:12). When one suffers, whether bodily or mentally, he or she is a victim of the devil and the "sin of the world." (John 1:29). This does not mean that we are necessarily being personally punished with our suffering. The world is full of sin and therefore, sickness and suffering run rampant.
The world is in bondage to the devil which St. Paul calls "groaning in travail" (Rom. 8:22), until the Savior returns. Until that day, God allows suffering as an aid for our salvation. God is not the cause of suffering. Since it does exist due to the devil's deceit and mankind's general weakness, wickedness and sin, He offers us the chance to use it so that we might be healed and saved in the forgiveness of sins. He does not send us suffering. He permits us to use it for our own good. When Orthodox Christians become ill or are persecuted, they recognize that this suffering is caused by sin, their own and the sins of the world. They do not blame God, because He did not cause it and does not wish it upon His children. They further know that through God's Will, they can be healed in this life and suffering ended in order to have more time to serve God and their fellow brothers and sisters here on earth, and accomplish the remainder of His plan for us. They further know that this suffering can be a means for serving God and they accept it as such, offering it in love and faith for their own salvation and that of others.
The greatest evidence of faith in Jesus Christ is shown when we endure suffering with faith, love and joy. This is the greatest possible witness to God's salvation. Praising God at such a time is the greatest offering we can make. How many times have we heard one of our immigrant seniors, while in excruciating pain say: (Glory to You, O God)!
All the saints of the Church suffered. Even when they healed others with prayer, they did not ask for deliverance for themselves. St. Paul, the great Apostle of the Lord also suffered. He tells us:
"... a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me to keep me from being too elated. Throe times I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me; but He said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness,' that the power of Christ may rest upon me ... for when I am weak, then I am strong." (II Cor. 12:7-10).
How will we then handle our suffering? If we wish to be spiritual, then we must follow the example of our Lord, Who said to His Father in Heaven, "Thy Will He Done."
We can also follow the example of His saints who handled their suffering by saying to Him: "Thy Will Be Done" and their weaknesses were transformed by God's grace into the means of salvation for themselves and others. A single word spoken by the Publican touched the mercy of God. A single word full of faith saved the Good Thief. The words: "Thy Will Be Done" said with deep faith and conviction will do no less. At a time of suffering try the Orthodox prayer written by Metropolitan Philaret many years ago:
"O Lord, I do not know what to ask of You. You alone know my true needs. You love me more than I myself know how to love. Help me to see my real needs which are concealed from me. I do not ask either a cross or consolation. I can only wait on You. My heart is open to You. Visit and help me, for Your great mercy's sake. Strike me and heal me, cast me down and raise me up. I worship in silence Your Holy Will and Your Inscrutable Ways. I offer myself as a sacrifice for You. I put all my trust in You. I have no other desire than to fulfill Your Will. Teach me how to pray. Pray yourself in me. Amen."

Written by Rev. Dr. Dean P. Talagan

"Go ye therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit"

Mathew 28:19