There are many experiences in this life that all of us will have, but along with all those experiences we will also know suffering, and sometimes significant suffering. It is necessary for us to know that we will last for eternity with Christ, and that this life is just a preparation for life in eternity with Christ.
I personally grew up in a family that always knew suffering. We lived for about 5 years in Iraq during my early school days and my sister Clementina Zineb and my brother are both buried there. Later I had another brother named Neil Christopher who lived for approximately 7.5 years and died due to kidney failure. Neil and I grew up together in Libya and we lost him in India. I loved him very much. Most of my early life was filled with emotional suffering. I have many, many times, stood before the Cross of the Lord and asked the questions “Why such suffering, Lord?” and “Was this the will of God for my two brothers and sister?” As I write this, I also realize that what our family went through is very small compared to the suffering our Christian brothers and sisters endure in Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, as well as the Jewish people, the Palestinian people, Nigerian people, and many other people from other countries today. I would like to step back and ponder on the very life of our Lord Jesus Christ and help us all find consolation in Him. My brothers and sister are with Christ and there are no sorrows there. They rest in joy with Him.
I wonder what the Lord went through in the womb of His Mother, fully knowing He was about to enter a world that would treat Him with contempt, that He would face tremendous sorrow, grief, bloody sweat, just so that He would be able to deliver us from our miseries. The consciousness of God within the womb was very much active. He was waiting to enter the world that was waiting to reject Him. He was born to lead a life of sorrows and in the end to be sacrificed on the Cross. I would encourage us all to ponder the words of the Prophet Isaiah: He wakens me morning by morning, wakens my ear to listen. He wakens me morning by morning, wakens my ear to listen like one being instructed. The Sovereign LORD has opened my ears; I have not been rebellious, I have not turned away. I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard; I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting (50:4-6).
Many of us think that the Passion of Christ began in the Garden of Gethsemane. We forget that it began well before His birth in the very womb of the Mother of God. He was even rejected and not given a decent place to be born. His birthplace was a cold manger with straw which in a way pierced Him. The Cross, in a way, cast its shadow even on the crib in Bethlehem. Everyone is born to live, but our Lord was the only one who was born to die. In this way, the Lord identifies himself with the millions of unborn children who are mutilated and killed in the womb of women, often with the consent of the mother herself. And these innocent children carry with them the mark of the Lord Himself.
Then the Lord worked for 30 years in a very humble way as a carpenter with his earthly father. Nobody knows why the Lord took on such a humble job and kept Himself out of the public eye. This appears as a mystery to me, for the Lord could have easily created some publicity stunts or made Himself known by crafting new and unknown art through His carpentry, or some other great miracle, but no, He lived a simple life! What remains a mystery to me till today is His normal association with frail humans with whom He chooses to identify. The Lord would have seen success and failure in the trade in which his earthly father was involved. On the other hand, we could easily imagine that trade would have automatically flourished because of the Lord’s presence. The point I am making here is not about success or failure but rather the humility that the Lord showed in the way He took up work, and with such diligence choosing to identify with the working class of the world. In all this, He shows us all that we must work hard and work smart with the ultimate goal of serving God alone.
The Lord spent His entire life in preparation for the Cross, and certainly after that came the Resurrection. But first necessarily came the Cross, and only then the Resurrection. What would the Lord have thought about while working? He was working with wood that He Himself created—He was shaping His own creation. The nails that He hammered into the wood in some way must have reminded Him of what He was to face a few years later—the agony of Golgotha. Perhaps He wondered, “Why does humanity hurt Me so much by their sins?” Perhaps He thought at times, “Oh, that they would just understand My love for them!” But He loved us nevertheless! And in all the works of our hands we should be able to identify with the work of the Lord.
Our Lord was allotted the most infamous and painful death and treated as a worthless criminal. He was stripped naked, scourged and suspended by iron nails so to end His life in the midst of the insults and curses of those very men for whom He was to die—becoming obedient unto death, even to the death of the cross (Phil 2:8). And all of this for what? To save us miserable and ungrateful sinners.
What must our attitude be in the midst of all the suffering we endure?
- Be cheerful, for the Lord has conquered the world (John 16:33: In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world).
- Accept the crosses and difficult situations in your life and thank God for them (Matthew 10: 38: And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me).
- Pray, don’t worry, and pray for others too. Leave everything in the hands of God (Philippians 4:6-7: Be careful for nothing; but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus).
- Whatever your situations and circumstances, believe that all things will ultimately work for good (Romans 8: 28: And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose).
- The Lord’s inheritance is yours too. But first, embrace suffering as the Lord embraced suffering (Colossians 1:24: Who now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body’s sake, which is the church and John 15:20: Remember the word that I said unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you; if they have kept my saying, they will keep yours also).
As I write this my dear brothers and sisters, I must end abruptly, because much is still left undone by you and me. We haven’t yet walked like Christ, thought like Christ and lived liked Christ. If we really walk in the footsteps of the Lord we must embrace suffering in whatever way it comes. The Cross is our life. Yes, we will resurrect one day, but the Cross comes first. There is no life without the Cross of Christ.
I know that I am a miserable sinner but may the Lord Jesus Christ help us all to walk in His footsteps and enable us to not run away from our situations, but to accept them gladly and rejoice in them. God is in our suffering. God does not leave us in our hardships, God is with us and God upholds us and God will carry us through.
Through your prayers,
Fr. Silouan Benedict
St. John Chrysostom Orthodox Church (ROCOR)