The Gospel comforts and saves. But it is not easy. It is hard. In a world where we do everything we can to make life facile and accommodating, we run from pain and search for quick cures and guilt-free pleasure. We want to be Christian and we want it to be easy. Yet, you will not find this in the testament of our faith.
From Jas 1:2-18 (NLT), written to a community of believers suffering a myriad of trials:
Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing.
If you need wisdom, ask our generous God, and He will give it to you. He will not rebuke you for asking. But when you ask Him, be sure that your faith is in God alone. Do not waver, for a person with divided loyalty is as unsettled as a wave of the sea that is blown and tossed by the wind. Such people should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Their loyalty is divided between God and the world, and they are unstable in everything they do.
Believers who are poor have something to boast about, for God has honored them. And those who are rich should boast that God has humbled them. They will fade away like a little flower in the field. The hot sun rises and the grass withers; the little flower droops and falls, and its beauty fades away. In the same way, the rich will fade away with all of their achievements.
God blesses those who patiently endure testing and temptation. Afterward they will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love Him. And remember, when you are being tempted, do not say, “God is tempting me.” God is never tempted to do wrong, and He never tempts anyone else. Temptation comes from our own desires, which entice us and drag us away. These desires give birth to sinful actions. And when sin is allowed to grow, it gives birth to death.
You needn’t read far into that passage to be challenged, to be faced with the hard parts of Scripture. When troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. This isn’t talking about having a bad day, or being short for your rent, or having a spat with your spouse. These troubles are biblical trials—persecution, hunger, famine, disease, poverty, etc. You get the picture. Circa 2017, it is calamities like the fires in Northern California where I saw first hand the devastation in Santa Rosa during a visit speaking to the California Highway Patrol.
Homes destroyed. People turned to ash. A fifth of the town burned to the ground. Shocked faces wandering around refugee centers unable to comprehend the disaster that had just completely altered their lives forever. And what is the message of our faith? Let us consider again:
Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy.
And to the poor:
Believers who are poor have something to boast about, for God has honored them.
Honored them? The poor? An opportunity for great joy! You can’t be serious! I know more than a few of you might be thinking that. Our faith is hard. Especially when you are staring into the faces of the dispossessed to whom any talk of joy would seem a cruel joke.
Why must it be so hard? Truly, we can only speculate; yet, I can hope to reason why. I would concur with the writings of Saint Gregory the Theologian. From his Oration 16:7 written to a community facing incredible natural disasters in AD 373:
I know the glittering sword (Ez 21:9), and the blade made drunk in heaven, bidden to slay, to bring to naught, to make childless, and to spare neither flesh, nor marrow, nor bones. I know Him, Who, though free from passion, meets us like a bear robbed of her whelps, like a leopard in the way of the Assyrians (Hos 13:7-8), not only those of that day, but if anyone now is an Assyrian in wickedness: nor is it possible to escape the might and speed of His wrath when He watches over our impieties, and His jealousy, which knows to devour His adversaries, pursues His enemies to the death (Hos 8:3). I know the emptying, the making void, the making waste, the melting of the heart, and knocking of the knees together (Nah 2:10), such are the punishments of the ungodly. I do not dwell on the judgments to come, to which indulgence in this world delivers us, as it is better to be punished and cleansed now than to be transmitted to the torment to come, when it is the time of chastisement, not of cleansing. For as he who remembers God here is conqueror of death (as David has most excellently sung) so the departed have not in the grave confession and restoration; for God has confined life and action to this world, and to the future the scrutiny of what has been done.
Without trials, and I mean incredible trials, mankind would over time lose sight of the eternal and focus only on the temporal. We would make ourselves Gods, and in doing so turn our world into a hell directed by smiling faces and comforting platitudes. Given the chance, mankind truly feeds its indulgences above all else. Whatever you believe about God, that is our nature. One need only consider the easily accessible dark corners of the internet and the growing addiction to devices and drugs, prescription and otherwise. Or maybe the allure of shiny homes, fit bodies, indulgent vacations and easy living, the less threatening but equally soul-destroying modern comforts that everyone on Facebook and Pinterest seems to enjoy and be fulfilled by, except us. It is a lie. As faith wanes, society searches for meaning in itself. The result is disconnection and the exact opposite of holiness. It is nothing but shallow consumption and the dark night of a soul feeding on an emptiness that only makes one hungrier, never satisfied.
And when sin is allowed to grow, it gives birth to death.
Sin does not just corrupt us, it corrupts the entire universe, and the fires of life are what provide the opportunity to see our fragile nature in its true light and give us our last desperate chance to seek redemption. This is why the Holy Fathers see joy and thanksgiving in trials.
Through suffering, our bodies continue to share in the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be seen in our bodies (2 Cor 4:7 [NLT]).
Our Fathers show us a path to hope that rises above our base instincts and most deeply rooted sins. Yet, we never seem to learn: death is a testimony to that fact. Sadly and often, as the Bible and life show again and again, sometimes the only thing that can awaken us when we are lost is fire. With the fire comes the opportunity for repentance and redemption, and with that, hope. We are called as Christians to spread this hope. Not a false hope of sentimental indulgence, but a true hope that the fire is a reminder to look upwards in both the good and bad times and face the truth that all death is a disaster and the only answer to death is Christ. That’s a mouthful and much easier to say than do.
I would like to provide you direction in helping those impacted by trauma find hope. Or to put it another way, how would one best engage those impacted by trauma and disaster, especially those who are unbelievers? Let me share some advice I gave to my friends at St. Seraphim of Sarov Orthodox Cathedral in Santa Rosa, California, a community on the front line of the raging fires. I urge you to follow this advice in your community. Disaster is not just a “raging fire.” It is the opioid epidemic, violence, and broken families, people without faith muddling through life toward death. It is a culture of consumption and meaninglessness. Join us, as we heed the call of Christ and our Holy Fathers in bringing the hope of our faith to all of those suffering in our midst.
As I wrote to St. Seraphim of Sarov Orthodox Cathedral for Sunday, October 21, 2017, the 20th Sunday after Pentecost:
It was with joy and sadness I was able to join with your community last Thursday as we prayed together for rain and asked God’s comfort and respite from all the destruction in our midst. The joy was being surrounded with such true love and a heartfelt reminder of a community I last visited seventeen years ago.
The impact of the fires will be deep and long-lasting. For the near term, I would ask you to do two things: 1) help with the immediate needs of the victims as best you can—food, shelter, money, prayer, etc.; and 2) begin to reach out and build relationships, old friends and new, with those impacted by this unfathomable tragedy. By impact, I mean not just the victims, but the first responders, the caregivers, basically anyone directly or indirectly associated with the fires. Trauma also impacts those indirectly involved with a tragedy, and because of thoughts like “Well, my home wasn’t burnt down,” or “I wasn’t even there,” survivor’s guilt can take hold and fester.
As time goes on, you will need to engage your community on a deeper, more spiritual level. For many, the fire has opened up or widened the hole we all have. The hole of mortality and the desire in this temporal world to find meaning. So often we try to find meaning in our stuff—our home, our car, the shiny things. A fire turns these to ashes and reminds us all that ash is the consequence of death. Our call as Orthodox Christians is to bring them hope, hope that ashes can be turned to life. We cannot leave them with only the hole.
I would start by planning something both individually and as a group to begin your deeper engagement some time over the next few months. As an individual, meet the person or family you wish to help where they are comfortable, over coffee, lunch, on a walk or long drive. Begin with making yourself vulnerable. Explain the impact of the fire or other trauma in your life not by saying “I understand” but with something like “I can’t completely understand what you’ve been through, but because of the trauma I survived I have a desire to help you. I don’t want you to walk alone.” To help them with their vulnerability, make yourself vulnerable.
Then you listen. If they are ready to talk, they will, and you’ll be able to identify their needs and go from there. If they aren’t ready to talk, you will be patient. As love is patient. And you will then be patiently persistent, reaching out as appropriate for similar talks and listening sessions. As a volunteer who rocked drug-addled newborns whose mothers were in jail once said to me, “Sometimes the best prayer is just listening.” I’m sure St. Seraphim would agree. You need no skills to do that, only love.
As a church, you must make a plan to engage the survivors. This must be a long-term strategic plan. With this tragedy, you have the greatest opportunity you’ve ever been given to minister to your community. As you must do with individuals, meet your community where they are. Sponsor a trauma event with other groups and churches at a neutral site and show them your love. Invite all who would come for a dinner or dinners. Hold a festival specifically for the community as a celebration to the commitment of all to rise from the tragedy. How about a super-charged Glendi! You get the picture. Build relationships first on the ground where those you want to help feel comfortable, show them your love, then the door will be opened to share the bright light of our faith that burns but doesn’t sting. Ours is a holy fire.
Many blessings to you all. I hope to see you again soon.
In Christ’s love,
Silouan Green has a BS in mathematics and psychology from Vanderbilt University. A former US Marine, he is a speaker and writer with interests in PTSD, peer support, leadership, and overcoming adversity. His “Death and Life” appeared on Orthodoxy in Dialogue in September. He lives in the woods with his wife of 19 years and their 9 children, where they home-school and live with much enthusiasm. Read more about his life and work at Silouan Green.