I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ's sake: for when I am weak than am I strong. (II Cor. 12:10)
Recent mail brought a letter from a woman in Nizhni-Novgorod. Not yet old, she suffers from severe arthritis among other ailments; due to job cut-backs, she is now on half-salary, while her husband, who is recovering from a serious kidney operation, is no longer able to work at all; her gifted son, meanwhile, has just entered university, with all the expenses that entails. An impossible situation (although by no means unique in that country) but, she declares repeatedly, "With God's help, we'll manage."
The letter brought to mind the comments of one of our priests. Returning from a trip to Russia, he observed that the difficult and often trying circumstances of daily life there have fostered among believers a greater sense of dependency upon God than is usually encountered in this country. And this dependency is also evident in less dramatic situations than the one described above. People pray about getting a train ticket (they are frequently sold out), about finding what they need when they go shopping (a task complicated by deficits and inflated prices). They pray about a myriad of concerns that might seem to us insignificant. Apart from receiving answers to their prayers, this habit carries other, spiritual benefits. God "often is not deaf even to man's smallest petitions," writes Saint Gregory of Nyssa, "in order to accustom him to look to Him for everything." The Russian experience certainly bears this out. What can we say about our own?
Our enviable level of material well-being in this country is, in some respects, a spiritual liability, blinding us to our utter dependence on God. We are further empowered by the new technology, which facilitates the drive to be self-reliant, self-sufficient, independent -- to be strong. And this illusion of strength -- which today is also evident and even encouraged among teens and younger children --hinders the proper and desired relationship with God, that we should be actively seeking in our daily life.
In his time, the Apostle Paul had every material and social advantage. Once having turned to Christ, however, he cast these aside as "dung," preferring rather to "glory in his infirmities." This he had learned by experience. Plagued by a "thorn in the flesh," the Apostle besought the Lord three times that it depart from him, but the Lord did not fulfill his petition, saying, My grace is sufficient for thee: for My strength is made perfect in weakness (II Cor. 12:9). Indeed, God bestowed His grace in such measure that Paul was able not only to bear but to rejoice in his trials and tribulations. He boasted of being shipwrecked, of being imprisoned, scourged, for it was then that God's grace was most evident, preserving the Saint and bringing to faith many who witnessed his exploits. We see this vividly illustrated in the Lives of the saints, particularly the martyrs, who quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong (Heb. 11:33-40, general epistle reading for martyrs). The same was shown to be true in many Old Testament saints. Saint John Chrysostom comments, "...by their trials the righteons flourished. So it was with the three children, so with Daniel, with Moses and Joseph. For then the soul also is purified when it is afflicted for God's sake; it then enjoys greater assistance as needing more help and worthy of more grace" (Homily on II Corinthians)
God acts according to what is most expedient for our salvation. Sometimes it means that our prayers are not answered, or that we are sent various trials and difficulties which compel us to recognize our weakness and beg the help of His almighty power. How many people have experienced a spiritual reawakening after being diagnosed with a terminal illness or life threatening disease? Is this not God's mercy? Human "strength," exposed for what it is, evaporates; the sufferer reaches out for God and "out of weakness is made strong." Natural disasters -- earthquakes, floods, fires -- also serve to strip away man's illusion of self-sufficiency and reveal his need for God. Poverty also encourages a reliance upon God, whereas material sufficiency accustoms a man to rely on his checkbook. This is not to say that poverty is a virtue and that wealth is evil; simply that wealth tends to give the owner an illusion of self-sufficiency, of not really "needing" God. Therefore, those blessed by material abundance (which certainly applies to the average American) must make more of an effort to cultivate a proper relationship with God.
It is most often times of crisis, which most clearly expose our weaknesses, that inspire the kind of fervent prayer answered by miracles. But even under more "normal" conditions, life offers many opportunities for us to recognize our weaknesses and our dependence upon God. Old age with its attendant debilities is certainly a good teacher, proving the fragility of our mortal body in a culture blinded by its obsession with youth, health and longevity. And the task of raising children in holy Orthodoxy is a whole school in itself. What parent has not been brought to an acute sense of helplessness in the face of this strenuous challenge? In areas where we feel more competent, we must constantly bring to mind the Saviour's words, Without Me ye can do nothing (John 15:5). "Our every endeavor," writes Saint Tikhon of Zadonsk, "is powerless without the grace and help of God." And Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich writes:
When I know I can of myself do no good thing, either for myself or for others, and when I leave everything to the power and mercy of God, then I am strong.... When I see that I am a weak and hollow reed in stormy wind and floods, a reed that God can fill with His almighty grace, and when I pray in faith for the grace of God, then I am strong. (Prologue of Ochrid)
God is the Vine, we are the branches; He is the Father, we are the children; He is the Physician, we are His patients. This is the kind of relationship we must cultivate, acknowledging our weakness and insignificance, and thereby allowing God to "overtake" us with His power, that He might be for us "all in all."
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