Here is what is so absolutely astonishing: that in Christ, whether we are undergoing severe trials or whether we are in a period of respite and relief, it is all the same! As Jesus Christ is “the same, yesterday, today, and forever,” so life in Him remains the same, come hardship or ease.
How can this be? Does it mean that suffering is really insignificant? Not at all. On the contrary, we stand with awe and reverence before those who have endured sometimes unspeakable suffering for us, especially Jesus Christ Himself but also His martyrs and saints. We kiss their icons, we prostrate ourselves before the Cross. Suffering is a result of sin and Christ died to save us from sin and all its consequences. The Incarnate Word did not shed His infinitely precious blood for something insignificant.
Does it mean that in Christ we are anesthetized against pain and suffering? No, for even the Son of God truly suffered and was not spared. Anyone who succeeds in blunting his feelings diminishes his own humanity along with them. He does not imitate the Lord, who both wept and rejoiced, “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
Does it mean that in Christ suffering is somehow transformed? No. Certainly our understanding of it is transformed; certainly we have a new appreciation of suffering’s origins, significance, and proper spiritual use. We learn to respond to it in a new way. But suffering itself is still there and still itself.
Does it mean the Christian life exists upon some higher plane than do the joys and sorrows of this world, that while on one plane we do experience earthly ups and downs, yet on another plane somehow we transcend them, or are above the ordinary fray?
The idea appeals to pride, but it cannot be for, for our life in Christ is not schizoid. There are indeed two levels, the spiritual and the secular, God and mammon. We live in one or the other; we alternate between them. But if (and to the extent that) we live in Christ, life is fully integrated, whole, one. We bring into the life in Christ all our circumstances, our earthly joys as well as our earthly sorrows. On this side of the grave, we do not yet leave them behind.
In this very integration, this incorporation of everything into Christ, lies the secret known to every generation of Christians. Earthly joys and sufferings are real. Yes, they are a big deal. And no, there is no way to sidestep them. But Christ is more, infinitely more. Life in Him is infinitely greater than everything earthly put together.
Furthermore, life in Christ is always a life of great suffering and of far greater joy, always, regardless of any other circumstance. It is taking up one’s cross and sharing in the Resurrection. It is mourning everything in us that keeps us from fuller union with the Lord, but being more than comforted by such union as is already realized and the promise of its fulfillment. No other sorrow approaches this, and no other joy.
So when life is easy, we still grieve for our sin and for all of humanity but we swim in the infinite Ocean of Mercy. When life is hard, we still rejoice in Him, and in the strength He lends us, strength beyond our own, to endure whatever we must. As the Holy Apostle says, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” and, “God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make a way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.” That is why, in faith, our forebears were able to undergo “trial of mockings and scourgings, yes and of chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted, were slain with the sword. They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented – of whom the world was not worthy.”
All our life is taken up into Christ and because He is All-Glorious we “consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” They are not worthy to be compared even with the glory that has already been revealed in us – Christ Himself – and neither are the ephemeral joys and pains.
“…Indeed,” says St. Paul, “I count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him…that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attains to the resurrection from the dead.”
In Christ, then, we are always truly dying and always truly living, regardless of any outward circumstance. This experience remains constant. We find everything else that befalls us utterly beside the point. No matter how terrible or how wonderful it may be, compared with gaining Christ and being found in Him, we count it rubbish.
“Whatever may happen to me, O Lord,” we cry, “so long as it may never separate me from You and Your love, let it be, let it be. Only let no one steal me out of Your hand and fold; all the rest, for me, will be equal. Whether I face trial or ease, only let me by Thine.”
“Whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”