Thoughts on Christian Suffering – Conclusion

This is a personal post to share something important to me. It is not intended as a sermon / instructional essay. I just pray it brings help to anyone going through a similar journey.

Back in 2018, I reviewed Open Heart by Elie Wiesel and, in the same post, expressed my frustration to understand the purpose of suffering, especially Christian suffering. Why would God allow people who are following Him with all their hearts to be burdened with ongoing pain and unhappiness? It’s a deeply personal question, not only regarding myself but also the lives of people I love dearly.

Since then, I’ve battled the question internally and at times sought out other perspectives. I found some interesting insights (specifically from Catholic and Orthodox priests), but nothing I heard truly satisfied or convinced me. I’ll be honest: I’ve been at times alternately unhappy and even angry. I have 3–4 pages of notes and half-rants which I’d been planning to share as an update this month, in hopes that at least writing it out would be some sort of progress.

Then yesterday happened.

Yesterday was one of the worst days in recent memory—in recent years, in fact. Let’s just say, I have recurring Personal Issues that can make even “good” days miserable… On the surface, everything was great, but inside I felt utterly awful, fighting back tears even at my grandparents’ house. Yeah, it was a certified Bad Day.

I woke up this morning still feeling icky and almost skipped my Bible reading. But it’s pretty much a habit now, so rather numbly, I opened it up to where I left off, hoping it was a short chapter. It was Hebrews 5.

So also Christ did not glorify Himself to become High Priest, but it was He who said to Him:

“You are My Son,
Today I have begotten You.”

As He also says in another place:

“You are a priest forever
According to the order of Melchizedek”;

who, in the days of His flesh, when He had offered up prayers and supplications, with vehement cries and tears to Him who was able to save Him from death, and was heard because of His godly fear, though He was a Son, yet He learned obedience by the things which He suffered. And having been perfected, He became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him, called by God as High Priest “according to the order of Melchizedek,” of whom we have much to say, and hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing.

—Hebrews 5:5-11 (emphasis added), BibleGateway

I’ve read Hebrews before but this was like reading it for the first time. It felt like the fog in my brain was clearing.

Wanting to make sure “it wasn’t just me,” I searched around for some commentary on this passage. I found this incredible video by John Piper, whose perspectives have been helpful to me in the past (obligatory disclaimer: this is not a blanket endorsement of Piper):

In a nutshell: what Piper highlights contextually is that Jesus, who was sinless, nevertheless had His obedience tested—proven—through the endurance of suffering. And my takeway was that if even Jesus’ obedience was tested, how much more necessary is it for mine to be tested.

I cannot describe how much peace and, strangely, joy this gave me. See, I had thought for a long time that life’s struggles would get easier, or at least plateau, once I had aligned myself fully with God’s will. But rather, I have realized today that that is not so. In fact, suffering has and will only increase, not merely because the world is a cruddy place (it is) but because God allows me to struggle in more incrementally challenging situations, for my own sake.

To make a silly analogy (but the first that came to mind): it’s like a game. When you pass a level, you are getting closer and closer to maximum excellence. But the levels get increasingly harder and harder. There is no easy sailing after you make it past beginner level. Feeling frustrated or discouraged with the harder levels doesn’t mean you’re a bad player—in fact, the opposite! Your skills are being stretched so you will get even better.

Bringing it back to faith…the endurance of suffering—as I understand the verses in Hebrews and Piper’s analysis—is our proof that we are loyal, obedient, and trusting in God and in the salvation Christ gave us. It does not earn us salvation; rather, it is “walking the walk” which is our time to demonstrate that, when push comes to shove, we choose God over idolatry, over lust, over despair, over anything that tempts us. And He promises never to allow us to be tempted beyond what we can bear (1 Cor. 10:13). But He does allow us to be tempted, often via suffering, so our untested obedience may be tested and proven true. It’s tangible evidence of our vow of faith. This is important for us personally and for those around us to see.

At the end of the day, Hebrews 5 brings me relief, because, while suffering continues, it isn’t purposeless, like some wretched Kafka novel. It is actually fully intentional, so what I’ve fought through so far, with the help of the Holy Spirit, is no longer a nightmare, but has become a blessing.

Quoting Kierkegaard – Works of Love, Fear and Trembling, and More

For nonfiction books, I’ll be going over specific topics, starting with my beloved Soren Kierkegaard collection. These are just some first impressions of his writing, without any in-depth analysis or philosophical/theological context. Later down the road I’d like to give a better overview, but since I appreciate his writing so much already, I couldn’t resist talking about him. 😉

Fear and Trembling
The Concept of Anxiety

The Present Age
Works of Love
Spiritual Writings

The Practice of the Presence of God

This was the second book on prayer I read, and one which I had a Surprisingly Visceral reaction to. While unpacking that reaction, I realized there was a tension between my expectations of the book vs. what the book actually was—plus how the book ought to be read vs. how it is generally read. So I’m going to break this review down into two parts to make it as fair as possible.

What This Book Is

Brother Lawrence was a lay monk who lived in a Parisian monastery in the 1600s. In his youth, he experienced the brutality of the Thirty Years’ War (both as a civilian and as a soldier), and later he worked as a footman for a French nobleman. By age 28, he had left that job and permanently entered a Carmelite monastery, where he worked as a cook.

The Practice of the Presence of God is a selection of letters and conversations with Brother Lawrence, and the second half of the book includes his Spiritual Maxims. It’s important to realize Brother Lawrence was, by all accounts, a genuinely humble man and probably had no idea these writings would be collected and published posthumously, as they were. The letters and conversations were directed to his listener and really were not composed (as far as I can tell) with any intention of being read as Christian self-help or general spiritual advice. The Spiritual Maxims are a little more ambiguous in nature. Lawrence was indeed known to share his wisdom with others, so it is not impossible he would have sanctioned this collection of his thoughts. That said, Lawrence (much like Kafka) was inclined to “tear [his writing] up at once” (p. 66), so it is hard to discern how he would have felt about publication.

Takeaways and Reservations

The Practice of the Presence of God and Spiritual Maxims contain a very simple theme: Live life ever conscious of God’s presence. There is very little more to it. In fact, Lawrence emphasizes you should not concern yourself too much with worries and thought experiments. Just focus on God being with you, and you will come to know Him.

There were four themes in this book that I found perplexing or troubling.

1) That being constantly focused on and aware of God should be the center of your relationship with Him. This is somewhat too simplistic, to my understanding. Along with prayer, it is essential to read Scripture to know God. That’s not to say Lawrence didn’t study Scripture; it’s just that there are repeated statements such as “his prayer was nothing else but a sense of the presence of God,” etc, which if read naively could be misleading. Also, a lot of the “practice” Lawrence describes has an emotional component to it (by his own words), but remember, prayer need not always be emotional at all.

2) That practicing the presence of God in itself will bring you inner peace and full knowledge of God. I believe Brother Lawrence spoke from his personal experience. I will share that my personal experience has been different…I’ve spent well over a decade practicing awareness of God, nearly moment to moment, and to this day I have not found what Lawrence writes about in this passage (p. 82–83):

…by steadfast gaze on Him, the soul comes to a knowledge of God, full and deep, to an Unclouded Vision: all its life is passed in unceasing acts of love and worship, of contrition and of simple trust, of praise and prayer, and service…

I want to emphasize this is ok. Those reading this book should not feel “discouraged or sorrowful” because of their struggles. It doesn’t mean God isn’t present. I personally believe it’s a very gradual process and that a Christian doesn’t come to that complete knowledge until they meet Christ after death.

3) That suffering should not just be endured but sought as part of our salvation (?). Suffering is another topic I have been studying; in fact, I’m working on an upcoming sequel to my 2018 post on Christian suffering (haven’t decided yet if I’m going to share it here or on my personal blog). I inwardly rebel against quotes like this, not because I think it would be so bad (it wouldn’t) but because I don’t at this point believe it is true:

…those who consider sickness as coming from the hand of God, as the effect of His mercy, and the means which He employs for their salvation—such commonly find in it great sweetness and sensible consolation.

I’ll comment more on this in the post on suffering, where I’ll compare perspectives from a Catholic bishop and an Orthodox priest (one of whom has similar views to Brother Lawrence).

4) That we should live every moment practicing the presence of God, never once letting our mind wander if we can help it. This is going to be a “hot take” so I will try to word it as precisely as I can. The Bible instructs us to pray without ceasing—this I do believe and practice, staying in conversation with God throughout the day. In this book, however, Lawrence talks about consciously focusing his full attention back to God, at every moment, and the way he describes it has characteristics of obsessive-compulsion (I speak from experience here).

Perhaps I am misunderstanding him, but as I read it, I would caution against trying to follow this advice to the letter. My personal approach is to be mindful of God’s omniscience, confident He is fully present and with me regardless of any mental exertion on my part. However, just like any other person I spend the whole day with, I ought to talk to Him throughout the day (and more so). I just see it as being a very natural relationship and not forced by having to redirect my attention all the time.

In Summary…

That was a much longer review than I intended for this very short book. I hope it was helpful on some level. It was not what I expected, but it did provoke plenty of thought. Many people on Instagram let me know it was beneficial to them, so I would say, give it a try—though approach it as a personal testimony rather than a how-to. If you’ve already read it and had some different thoughts or interpretations, let me know in a comment!

When You Pray: A Practical Guide to an Orthodox Life of Prayer

This is the first of two reviews I’ll be sharing on books about prayer. I’ve been particularly interested in this subject for over a year now—prayer has been a core part of my life and yet still poses challenges for me. My first “study” of it was through a Catholic lens and led me to lectio divina, so I was looking forward to comparing it with an Orthodox perspective in When You Pray. (I’ll just add that the author, L. Joseph Letendre, is not a priest, but he has a Masters in Divinity and writes on various Orthodox topics.)

At a mere 72 pages, this book is very short, yet very helpful. It’s written in a refreshingly approachable voice even older kids could read. In fact, I wish it had been available when I was a tween, since the advice is pretty sound and would have helped me out when I was just starting to pray more than my routine bedtime prayers.

The chapters go over the concept of prayer, when and how to pray, and what to pray. There is some overlap with Bishop Barron’s 5 Ways to Pray Better* in the advocacy of a personal “holy hour” and use of lectio divina (though from my understanding, Letendre’s lectio divina is not completely identical in format to Barron’s). Of course, there are also areas of difference, such as the rosary which is naturally not prescribed in When You Pray.

Letendre puts special emphasis on these prayers:

  • The Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”)
  • The Lord’s Prayer (ideally morning, midday, and night)
  • The Psalms (praying through them on a regular basis)
  • Praying for people by name

I was especially grateful for the reminder about Psalms, since it was a psychological and spiritual survival skill mentioned in Fear No Evil.

I’m in no position to describe how Orthodox this book is, but coming from a Protestant background, I found it incredibly helpful and one I’ll be reading again. A couple of highlights:

If we pray for others, we are volunteering to help.

This is so true.

Sometimes prayer is like going to the dentist. When serious work is required, the dentist injects Novocain into our gums so we feel nothing during the procedure. When we feel nothing during prayer, it could be that the deep healing has begun.

I learned this through experience. It is ok to pray and not feel anything; some of my most important prayers were said at times I just felt numb inside. God is there regardless of how we feel. ❤

*Note: This is not a blanket endorsement of Bishop Barron. Feel free to email/message me if you’d like to hear my thoughts on his work.