by Fr Gabriel-Allan Boyd
Of course, like many small children, when I was a very small child, I struggled for a while in learning to identify each of the letters of the alphabet in their upper- and lower-case forms…and I remember how satisfying it felt when I was able to learn that each one of those letters represented a sound. And then, after learning those sounds, I struggled with learning that I could follow along on a line full of letters and sound-them-out into words, putting them together. Before I knew it, I was feeling the satisfaction of sounding out whole sentences, which gave way to whole pages, which gave way to whole books, which allowed me to unravel, through my own searching a plethora of mysteries (like what I could discover about God in the bible). As I struggled along with overcoming bigger and bigger learning obstacles like understanding new vocabulary words and reading smaller print, it allowed me to take great journeys, in my mind, to places I’d never been (like Narnia) and to be introduced to activities that I’d never even imagined before (like wilderness survival skills). Even at such a young age, I was able to engage in this very noble struggle (learning to read), which unleashed a series of other noble struggles learning about nearly everything else, and it was and continues to be deeply satisfying. The truth is, it’s deeply satisfying to have a life filled with such noble struggles. And those noble struggles actually help to give us tools for dealing with the more insidious struggles that life throws at us.
How much would you like it if you could have a life with absolutely no struggle? How satisfying would your life be if every last one of your problems were actually solved and there was nothing left to overcome? Would your existence be so much better if you could just lay back and have all your nutrients intravenously fed to you, so that you didn’t even have to endure the struggle of chewing your food anymore? Does that sound like the kind of gratifying life you’d like to have? Of course not. Although, at first, it might sound great to have no struggles at all…on further reflection, no one in their right mind would want a life like that because we innately enjoy having things to contend with. In reality, we tend to relish having difficult problems that are within our capability to solve. We genuinely enjoy the process of overcoming and growing through the experience…most especially when the struggle is a noble one.
Yet it’s amazing how much of our lives are wasted in “grass is greener on the other side” types of activities, where we scorn struggles looking for ways to eliminate them, or at least to immaturely shut our eyes to them, absorbing ourselves in entertainment, or recreational activities, or even various addictions that help us forget all our troubles. In spite of all those efforts, when we finally alleviate all of our struggle by attaining financial stability, a stress-free career, an alcohol induced stupor, or a Church experience that expects nothing of us and never makes us feel uncomfortable—we discover that none of that really satisfies us like we thought it would. The truth is, the quality of your life would increase if you stopped wasting so much effort seeking after such futile aims—like the end of all struggle. Because, whether we like it or not, the basic reality of life is something entirely out of our control—sometimes tragically so—inviting us to approach those struggles in ways that can lead us to nobility if we would only engage with them in healthy, lifegiving ways.
That’s what our Epistle Reading for this Sunday (2 Corinthians 4:6-15) is getting at. There we find that, not only is St Paul a preacher of the Good News of Jesus Christ, but he’s also a staunch advocate for noble struggle—what we Orthodox Christians call “the ascetic life of the Christian.” What do we have to do in order to accept the healing, re-generation and restoration of our nature, offered in the death and resurrection of our Lord, Jesus? In other words, what do we have to do to become more spiritually healthy?
We lift our gaze beyond ourselves. We aim higher and firm up our side of our covenant agreement with God (to obey Him and, as His managers, use everything in our life to fulfil His purposes) because He alone will see us through life’s tragedies and malevolence and help us lift our experiences of those to something noble. On this second Sunday of the Triodian, approaching Lent, we’re being asked to shift our focus toward meaningful engagement and significance and responsibility.
St Paul begins by saying, God has given us “the light of the knowledge of His glory in the face of Jesus Christ.”… that His Son is how He’s revealed Himself to us and how we see God most perfectly. So, Paul says, we as His followers are supposed to “always bear about in our bodies, the dying of the Lord Jesus, so that the life of Jesus might also be made manifest in our body.” St Paul calls us to the noble struggle of bearing forth Christ in everything we do and are. Not only by the grace and the glory and miracles that God gives us. But also, the in the humiliation, the dis-grace and the pain of Christ’s rejection that was experienced on the Cross. St Paul further explains, “For we who live are always delivered unto death for Jesus’ sake, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our mortal flesh.” So, in other words, in order for Christ to abide in us, we must be constantly dying to ourselves…which is indeed an even more noble struggle. And this is the center of St Paul’s teaching on how to live the Christian life. In fact, this image of the Christian life as a constant dying keeps popping up throughout St Paul’s letters, so that Christ’s life might be revealed to others in our bodies. This is the foundational Gospel truth where Jesus says, “if you would be My disciples, deny yourself, take up your Cross daily and follow Me.” We do this when our wills don’t matter anymore. Our will, our desires, and our passions have to die in order for Christ to live in us. In noble struggle, we voluntarily take up our Cross, as Christ did, and learn to follow Him. And when we deliver ourselves to this type of death—this death of “I”—then God will live in us. But how do I die to myself? Three of the basic ways that the Orthodox Church identifies to help us begin this process of daily dying to the will of God. 1) Pray—ask God to reveal His will for you in every moment of every day and be watchful for God’s hand in things to reveal His work in your life. 2) Repent—a life of repentance—constantly adjusting our direction back toward unity with Him…and horror at the separation we experience when we allow he cares of life and our own bodily desires to sweep our attention away from God. 3) Obedience—learning to crush my own self-absorbed will and to seek to obey God’s in everything.
This is the main reason the Church gives us the tools of self-disciplining struggle during Lent—extra Church-services, an extra focus on prayer, fasting from meat & dairy, and increased focus on almsgiving to those in need. Those noble struggles actually help to give us tools for dealing with the more insidious struggles that life throws at us later. May God, in His grace, strengthen us to embark upon that noble struggle during this Lent so that we can truly say with the Apostle Paul, “it’s no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” so that Christ’s will can be done in and through us. This is the call of every Christian.
It’s time to stop wasting our lives in “grass is greener on the other side” types of activities, where we scorn struggles. We innately need the process of overcoming and growing through a struggle…most especially when the struggle is a noble one. So, shift your aim upward and engage that most noble struggle of all this Lent—take up your cross, and follow Jesus.