Suffering & Orthodox Prayer
by George Aramath
It has been said that there are two certainties in life: death and taxes. In the category of death, suffering plays an equal role. Suffering is a part of life that cannot be avoided; no matter if you’re rich or poor, black or white, young or old, atheist or Christian. Everyone faces suffering at different points in their life. Of course, there are differing degrees of suffering but the basic fact still remains, suffering is one other certainty in life. The more important question is how we will react to our sufferings. The prayers of the Orthodox Church offer answers to this question.
In looking at the world we live in, suffering is faced all throughout our life. At its initial stage, birth is a suffering or crisis. “From a blissful existence as close to Nirvana as we will ever know in this life, we are ejected out into the cold and noise” (O’Malley 42). One begins life with crying and distress. Ironically, if one were to stay in the comforts of the womb for too long, then death would follow. The distress of leaving that comfort zone essentially saves the life of the baby. After birth, the sufferings do not stop. When the mother, who has been the support and comfort for the child, leaves him in front of the kindergarten doorway with strangers, he goes through another suffering. Once he becomes an adult, he will eventually give up a part of his independence to join with another in marriage. This stage requires making many compromises and adjusting to the other person; it is another suffering. And in the end, the last stages of life certainly come with sufferings when one begins to realize that they are aging. He goes through “the inevitable challenge of aging, slowing down, losing the edge; and the final stage of human growth: death” (O’Malley 42).
So suffering is a certainty, but the more important question is how we will react to its inevitability. In looking into this question, how does the Orthodox Church react to suffering and pain through their prayers? One of these prayers is offered during “times of trouble”.
O God, our help and assistance, who is just and merciful, and who hears the supplications of Your people; look down upon me, a miserable sinner, have mercy upon me, and deliver me from this trouble that besets me, for which, I know, I am deservedly suffering. I acknowledge and believe, O Lord, that all trials of this life are given by You for our chastisement, when we drift away from You, and disobey Your commandments; deal not with me after my sins, but according to Your bountiful mercies, for I am the work of Your hands, and You know my weakness. Grant me, I beseech You, Your divine helping Grace, and endow me with patience and strength to endure my tribulations with complete submission to Your will. You know my misery and suffering and to You, my only hope and refuge, I flee for relief and comfort; trusting to Your infinite love and compassion, that in due time, when You know best, You will deliver me from this trouble, and turn my distress into comfort, when I shall rejoice in Your mercy, and exalt and praise Your Holy Name, O Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen
From this meaningful prayer, we learn that pain exists due to three main reasons. First, we suffer because of our sins. This is an awful reality. God created humans in Eden within a perfect system, but with the pluck of their hands, their disobedience led to sin, which began the cycle of pain. Because of Adam’s disobedience, God declares, “Accursed be the soil because of you. With suffering shall you get your food from it everyday of your life” (Genesis 3:17-8). Suffering begins at this point. “In sorrow he would eat its poor products; his grief would be greatly multiplied; he would no longer be the ruler of the earth, its subduer, but the earth and nature in general would revolt against revolting man” (Papakostas 22). There is no mystery about this event. So, first of all, one learns that they suffer because of sin. This is the way things are; it’s reality. Only when one accepts this fact will they be able to deal with the pains.
Second, this Orthodox Prayer teaches us that suffering allows one to return to the union with God. This return is necessary because humans tend to ‘drift away’. Jesus says in John, “I chose you out of this world: therefore the world hates you” (John 15:18-19). The world hates because we are not of this world. God needs to occasionally remind us that our home is not in this world. Our union with Christ is in another world and suffering is a means in which this reminder takes place. For instance, a routine-stricken man, after surviving a near-death accident, realizes that life is not just about getting up, going to work, having some “fun”, and sleeping. The accident and its sufferings put his life into perspective. It can serve as a means to return to his union with God.
The last part of the prayer speaks of sufferings as being a part of God’s plan in our life. In order for someone to accept this idea, they must change their perspective of how they look at suffering. The prayer goes, “that in due time, when You know best, You will deliver me from this trouble, and turn my distress into comfort”. This statement requires a great amount of faith; for the person is placing his trust in an all-knowing and benevolent God. The sufferings can be approached in either of two main ways. “If we wish to be self-centered about our situation, we can grumble, kick the ground rebelliously, and be defeated by our circumstances” (Keiser 87). The other option would be to let go and leave the future in God’s hand. St. Paul writes of this ‘letting go’ when he says that we are “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with Him in order that we may be glorified with Him” (Romans 8:17). From this verse, St. Paul also speaks of being fellow-suffers with Christ through our sufferings. But this idea requires the person to first make the conscious choice to see one’s suffering in a new light. It necessitates the person to be “transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God” (Romans 12:2). This is not an easy task, but by changing our perspective, we can find comfort in knowing that we are not leaving our future to arbitrary means but to the God who love and cares. He knows what’s best for us.
Looking at this idea from another point of view, one can envision God as the vinedresser or potter and humans as the vine or clay. “The vine and branches trust that the Vinedresser knows what he’s doing when he prunes; the clay trusts that the potter has finer plans for it when he slams it back on the wheel” (O’Malley 128). This type of argument cannot be supported rationally. And no one can deny that this change of perspective requires a great amount of trust and faith.
Essentially, the Orthodox Prayer during “times of trouble” offers us a glimpse of why suffering exists. It reminds us of our sins, the need to return to God, and the working out of God’s plan in our lives. The most important question in all of this is, will our sufferings draw us further from or closer to God? This choice is ultimately ours.
O’Malley, William J. Redemptive Suffering. New York: Crossword Publishing Company, 1997.
Papakostas, Seraphim. For The Hours of Pain. Athens: Zoe, 1967.