Grateful Humility in the Presence of Suffering
Humility is a great virtue among the many virtues that should adorn the Christian life. And just as certain situations can trigger passionate responses such as greed and lust, so there are situations that are favorable for virtue to manifest itself and even grow. In the past few posts, we have explored some practical steps for the acquisition of humility. In this post, I would like to speak about responding to a uniquely human experience, suffering, in a way that can make us a bit more humble.
Suffering is, of course, a universal human experience. Just take a look at any human life, and soon you’ll discover the contours of suffering and the effects suffering has had on that particular human life. Our attitude toward suffering profoundly influences our outlook on life and relationships with others. For some, suffering is something that is to be avoided at all costs even to the point of losing themselves in the hedonistic seeking of pleasure or the utter disregard of others. There is no further meaning that can be attached to suffering other than the shallow gut reaction that it is bad. In this worldview, life is often considered to be one long, desperate attempt to escape the nihilism of suffering, regardless of the cost to self or others.
For Christians, however, suffering is seen in an altogether different light. We view suffering not only as an inevitable part of life, but as a mystery containing something far greater than that. Suffering provides us with an opportunity for an encounter with Christ who suffered and died for our sake. He was, as Saint Augustine put it, “Victor et Victima” as well as “Victor by virtue of being a Victim” (Confessiones PL 32.808). Reading such words, our perspective on suffering is already being radically transformed by the radical presence of Christ in human history, for He opens the way to hope where there was no hope. Saint Theophan the Recluse reminds us of this when he writes, “When the personal cross of each of us is united with Christ’s Cross, the power and effect of the latter is transferred to us and becomes, as it were, a conduit through which every good gift and every perfect gift (James 1:17) is poured forth upon us from the Cross of Christ. From this it is evident that the personal cross of each of us is as essential to the work of salvation as the Cross of Christ. And you will not find one saved person who was not a cross-bearer. It is for this reason that everyone is surrounded by crosses on all sides—so that we will not be hampered by having to look for crosses to bear, and so that we will not be far from the salvific power of Christ’s Cross.”
This view of suffering naturally leads to a gentle and grateful humility, because in our suffering we recognize our utter and complete dependence upon God. In this sense, suffering is viewed in context of the providential love of God for his creation. From such a vantage point, suffering is neither the chastisement of a supposedly angry God nor a bad turn of fortune in a meaningless, nihilistic universe, but part of the creative, redemptive plan of God, so that we turn to Him who loves us beyond our imagining, so much so that He desires that we be like Him, victors when we are victims of countless ills, and even further victors because we are victims of countless ills. This view has tremendous psychological and spiritual significance for us as we inevitably encounter misfortune and suffering in this life. Such suffering and misfortune is not beyond the purview of a loving God.
Our attitude toward suffering in life provides two distinct options: a path that leads to eternal life through grateful humility or the nihilistic path of destruction that curses the darkness. The choice is ours. How much more beautiful is it to cry out to God, “Glory to Thee Who has shown us the Light!” Our surroundings and situations may still be shrouded in darkness, but our humbled souls become illumined by the Light of Christ and strange though it may seem to those far from Christ, we are genuinely glad.