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On the Spiritual Value — and Danger — of our trials

I ended my last post for Baptist News Global, one month ago, with this quote from the 16th century Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross:

It is better to be burdened and in company with the strong than to be unburdened and with the weak. When you are burdened, you are close to God, your strength, who abides with the afflicted. When you are relieved of the burden, you are close to yourself, your own weakness; for virtue and strength of soul grow and are confirmed in the trials of patience.

This statement is listed as epigram 4 in “The Sayings of Light and Love,” as collected by Frs. Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez in their vast collection of St. John’s writings.

In that same section of pastoral-mystical epigrams, St. John adds the following:

#64: See that you are not suddenly saddened by the adversities of this world, for you do not know the good they bring, being ordained in the judgments of God for the everlasting joy of the elect.

#87: Crucified inwardly and outwardly with Christ, you will live in this life with fullness and satisfaction of soul and possess your soul in patience.

#92: Let Christ crucified be enough for you, and with him suffer and take your rest, and hence annihilate yourself in all inward and outward things.

#94: Have great love for trials and think of them as but a small way of pleasing your Bridegroom, who did not hesitate to die for you.

Here are the themes I see in John’s treatment of this subject of extreme suffering:

  • Spiritually, it is preferable to be burdened, struck with adversities, faced with trials, than it is to have an easier path.
  • Adversities are better for us Christians because they draw us closer to God, they cause us to grow in virtue, spiritual strength, self-possession and patience, and they decrease that dangerous self-reliance and illusory sense of inner self-generated strength that comes upon most of us in easy times.
  • Trials draw us into the presence of a God who “abides with the afflicted” — rather than with the comfortable.
  • Suffering should be viewed as ultimately “ordained in the judgments of God for the everlasting joy of the elect,” which presumably means that the lacerations of this world can so transform the soul of the obedient believer that the growth generated becomes efficacious not just in this life but for eternity.
  • Finally, profound burdens, trials and adversities bring us into the experience of crucifixion — perhaps only through scalding suffering are we are able to identify with and enter into the sufferings of Christ, who (we must remember) suffered and died for us. John is arguing that self-annihilatory crucifixion willingly undergone is pleasing to the Jesus who experienced the same for us.

Last time I wrote that I was finding it impossible, amid my own intense personal suffering, to move toward radical acceptance. St. John of the Cross, who experienced suffering far beyond what most of us can imagine, is also counseling radical acceptance. But his version also requires radical acceptance of a God who sends intense suffering our way in order to drive us to the Cross and grow us in virtue in ways otherwise unavailable. If we can spiritually survive our own versions of crucifixion, we can become spiritually mature and close to God. So we should welcome suffering. That’s the idea.

“Extreme suffering can produce extreme growth. But it can also produce extreme brokenness, indeed the crushing of the human spirit.”

I can think of all kinds of people who will immediately object to the dangers of this kind of theology. It has been especially dangerous when counseled by the powerful as a coping strategy for the oppressed. Here, though, it is the self-coping strategy of a tortured man living and serving among the abused and oppressed. And it certainly has direct links to themes in the New Testament. It did not come solely from St. John’s own mind.

Extreme suffering can produce extreme growth. But it can also produce extreme brokenness, indeed the crushing of the human spirit.

My wife, Jeanie, and I put together a morning and evening prayerbook several years ago. As I write, today’s morning prayer, from Maria Hare (1798-1870), says this:

O Lord, this is my desire,
To walk along the path of life that you have appointed me,
In steadfastness of faith,
In lowliness of heart,
In gentleness of love.
Let not the cares or duties of this life press on me too heavily;
But lighten my burdens,
That I may follow your way in quietness,
Filled with thankfulness for your mercy.

Now that’s interesting, isn’t it? “Let not the cares or duties of this life press on me too heavily.” This prayer recognizes realistically that sometimes, if God does not lighten our burdens, we are not able to follow God’s way in quietness, and our devout desire to remain thankful for God’s mercy can give way to a crushing bitterness of spirit.

Class, discuss among yourselves the competing visions of St. John of the Cross and Maria Hare on the spiritual value, and danger, of trials and adversities, burdens, and sufferings.

This article first appeared on Baptist News Global.

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