"The world is all the richer for having a devil in it, so long as we keep our feet upon his neck" William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience
Our most trying times often follow our most joyful victories. God does not promise Christians some no-nonsense guarantee free from hardship or trouble. There is no aura of protection against sickness, anxiety, fear and loss. In our age, where most of us suffer from varying degrees of "affluenza," we have become immune to the Biblical realities of persevering through the difficult, crushing realities of living. Our spiritual maturity cannot withstand the first major blow of loss. Yet, Paul tells us, Christians are different: "We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed" (2 Cor. 4:8-9).
When the bottom drops out from under us, our faith will be sustained by our perseverance; that is, our willingness to accept both blessings and hardships, and our determination to hold onto our faith in God.
After Christ told Peter and the other disciples that they will rule with Him in His kingdom, Jesus follows it with the sobering words that "Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail" (Luke 22:31-34). Satan aims to sift us--to rattle our lives-- and destroy our faith in God. And he will use any means he can to do this, whether getting permission to afflict us with pain and shame, inflict us with disease and sudden death, or wring us with temptation and doubt.
The devil's ability to whisper his doubts in our ears, and fertilize our imagination with immobilizing fears for the future can be debilitating. The truth is we cannot face life's complex difficulties on our own. Is it any wonder more people don't turn to a life of unsatisfying pleasure? Without Christ, we can't go on. We all carry our own shameful scars. Our pain often ambushes our thoughts and depresses our soul. And sometimes no amount of Bible verses or dollar-store platitudes can bring relief from the unrelenting darkness we experience. Yet, it is in our darkness that Jesus reaches out His hand to us. Christ Himself is the "Man of Sorrows" and He is intimately "acquainted with grief." Our grief. And no one heals deeper than Jesus.
But why does God allow the devil to do his sifting? Theophane the Recluse tells us "we cannot help wishing to be free of sorrows, for God himself placed in our nature the desire for well-being...[But] if he sends us sorrow, it is clearly his special will...as something essential to your and my salvation." Throughout the Bible and throughout Church history, it is clear that through suffering and difficulties our faith in God is strengthened and matures. Our lowest moments in life compel us to reach out to God and rely on Him. Dorotheos of Gaza explains "nothing else could be right for us but the way in which [God] mercifully deals with us." When our faith is shaken, our faith becomes refined. Malcolm Muggeridge describes it well:
Contrary to what might be expected, I look back on experiences that at the time seemed especially desolating and painful with particular satisfaction. Indeed, I can say with complete truthfulness that everything I have learned in my seventy-five years in this world, everything that has truly enhanced and enlightened my existence has been through affliction and not through happiness.... This, of course, is what the cross signifies. And it is the cross, more than anything else that has called me inexorably to Christ.
Not only is the devil's sifting good for Christians, it is good for the Church. An embattled Church is a thriving Church. When Luke describes the early Church in the Book of Acts, he shows us a picture of a community that even though was spoken "against everywhere" (Acts 28:22), was "increasing in numbers daily" (Acts 16:5), and the "Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved" (Acts 2:47).
The Church tries too hard to avoid hardship, slander, and persecution. By avoiding the crushing sifting of the devil, however, we are at risk of incurring God's wrath instead: "Woe to you when all men speak well of you" (Luke 6: 26). We hate the thought that ridicule, difficulties and hard times are to be part of our lot. The Church, like the world is drawn to a comfortable, complacent, and self-sufficient life. But, the Church is not a country club. She needs to be salty. Salt preserves the world from corruption and immorality. To stay effective the Church needs pain like we need her love. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:
To endure the cross is not a tragedy; it is the suffering that is the fruit of an exclusive allegiance to Jesus Christ. When it comes, it is not an accident, but a necessity. It is not the sort of sifting which is inseparable from this mortal life, but the suffering, which is an eventful part of the specifically Christian life.... But this notion has ceased to be intelligible to a Christianity which can no longer see any difference between an ordinary human life and a life committed to Christ...The cross means sharing the suffering of Christ... [And] Jesus says that every Christian has his own cross waiting for him, a cross destined and appointed by God.
We live in a world of substitute happiness, where pain is to be avoided at all cost. We'll try anything to anaesthetize ourselves from the intimacy of pain and suffering. But our faith in God does not come easy. It is a wrestling with everything we hold precious in our lives. It is completely antithetical to everything society preaches. If we are going to survive the violent rattles to our faith, we need to begin by letting go of our own selfish interests, our pride, and our excuses and resentments. The battle involves embracing our own suffering and dying to comfortable notions of goodness and holiness. It means following Jesus by picking up our own ugly cross and walking the path Jesus meant for us all along. It's the only way to be purified by the fiery difficulties of this life and become "fully alive like Christ" (Eph. 4:13.)
John Kapsalis has an M.T.S from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology.