Conversatio Divina

Part 11 of 18

The School of Suffering

Ancient Christian Wisdom for a Postmodern Age

Michael Glerup

It is not unusual for Christians young in their faith to be convinced that their Christian commitment will free them from many of the painful circumstances that they experienced in their pre-Christian lives. I’m never quite sure how and where this belief takes root. Its source might be found in the initial presentation of the gospel.

Ancient Christian Commentary on ScriptureSee

Many well-meaning evangelists have “softened” the gospel demand “to pick up your cross and follow Me” for the gospel of personal well-being. Or is its source the Bible? Theophylact, the eleventh century archbishop of Ohrid (modern day Bulgaria), suggests that even members of early Christian communities believed that life for the faithful, based on their reading of the Hebrew Scriptures, should be prosperous and secure:See <>

Many Christians found afflictions hard to bear because they had read in the law that a prosperous and secure life was promised to those who serve God. Peter therefore approaches the subject by telling them that they are greatly beloved. He then goes on to warn them not to be surprised at their sufferings, which come to them as tests from God.ACCS NT XI:118.

Whatever the case, it has been a persistent belief throughout Christian history that righteous living will protect you from misfortune and hardship. But for Christian leaders like Chrysostom such thinking is a misreading of the lives of the righteous:

You cannot say that any righteous person is without affliction; even if that one appears to be so, we do not know that person’s other afflictions. Of necessity every righteous person must pass through affliction. For it is a declaration of Christ that the wide and broad way leads to destruction but the straight and narrow one to life.Mt. 7:13–14. If then it is possible to enter into life by that means and no other, then all have entered in by the narrow way, as many as have departed unto life.ACCS NT X: 214, cf. On the Epistle to the Hebrews 29.2.

Chrysostom turns the tables on his listeners suggesting that it is only possible to become a righteous person through the narrow gate of painful experiences. Later on he suggests to his listeners not to be distraught if they suffer many evils thinking that God has either abandoned them or hates them. Rather it is the opposite that is true—if you do not suffer then you have probably been abandoned by God.

01.  Character Formation

The basic belief that resonates through much of the church’s thinking on the subject of pain and suffering is the biblical statement, “The Lord disciplines the one he loves.”See Deut. 8:5, Prov. 3:12, Heb. 12:6. The word “discipline” is the English translation of the Greek root word paideia. Typically paideia is translated as training or teaching or education. Though properly applied training is corrective, unlike the English word “discipline,” paideia doesn’t entail the negative connotations of punishment.

Many of the early Christian writers used the analogy of the training of athletes to explain the role painful circumstances play in the life of the follower of Christ. Basil, the great bishop of Caesarea, an important defender of the Trinity wrote:

In truth, tribulations are, for those well prepared, like certain foods and exercises for athletes which lead the contestant on to the hereditary glory, if, when reviled, we bless; if when maligned, we entreat; if ill-treated, we give thanks; if afflicted, we glory in our afflictions.See 1 Cor 4:12–13. It is indeed shameful for us to bless on favorable occasions but be silent on dark and difficult ones. On the contrary, we must bless even more at that time, knowing that “the Lord disciplines him whom he loves and chastises every son whom he receives.”ACCS OT, cf. Homilies on the Psalms 16.1 (Psalm 33).

Basil also emphasizes the educative purposes of pain:

Not in the amount of money, not in the pride of power, not in the height of glory is victory gained, but the Lord freely gives his help to those who seek him through excessive affliction. Such was Paul,Rom. 5:3. who made his afflictions his boast. Therefore he was able to say, “When I am weak, then I am strong.”2 Cor. 12:10. “Give us therefore, O Lord, help from trouble,” since “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint.”Rom. 5:3-5. Do you see where affliction leads you? To hope that does not disappoint. Are you ill? Be of good cheer, because “the Lord disciplines him whom he loves.”ACCS OT, 214, cf. Homilies on the Psalms 20.5 (Psalm 59).

02.  Pain and Providence

A particularly problematic question for the church fathers and mothers was the relationship between pain and providence. Though the providence of God was considered to be beyond human comprehension, the church fathers and mothers did discern some general principles on why God allows his saints to go through painful circumstances. John Damascene, the 8th century Syrian monk and priest, wrote:

The things which are permitted are of several kinds. The just man is often permitted to meet with disasters, so that he may show to other men the virtue hidden within him; this happened in the case of Job. On occasion he permits something outrageous to be done, so that through the apparently outrageous act some great and wonderful success can be achieved, like the salvation of men through the cross. In yet another variation he allows a holy man to suffer harshly, so that he may not forsake his right conscience, or become proud as the result of the power and grace allotted to him, as in the case of 2 Cor. 12:7. A man is deserted for a time to put another to rights, so that when others consider his position they may gain instruction. Lazarus and the rich man are a case in point;cf. Luke 16:19ff. when we see people suffer, our nature makes us humble.“On the Orthodox Faith” 2.29, Divine Providence & Human Suffering, James Walsh and P.G. Walsh, trans., (Wilmington, NC: Michael Glazier, 1985), 119.

Prior to John of Damascus, other theologians such as Maximus the Confessor affirmed these four principles: testing in order to reveal hidden virtue (Job), salvation of humanity (Christ crucified), fatherly instruction or protection (the humbling of Paul) and repentance.

03.  Necessary for Restoration

For the early Christian commentators suffering found its origin in the pleasure-seeking betrayal of Adam and Eve. As a result, the disastrous consequences of pleasure could only be healed by the proper application of pain. Only through pain could the soul be released from unhealthy attachments formed through pleasure seeking:

The soul becomes psychologically attached to the things that are pleasurable through the bodily senses. It is through the eyes that we take pleasure in things of beauty. It is through the ears we are attracted to pleasant sounding music, through smell, taste, and touch, and so forth, we are affected by the attachment naturally formed by each. These attachments formed are so strong it becomes difficult to turn our backs to them. In fact, over time we grow together with these attachments much like a turtle or a snail is attached to their shells. And like the snail, we slowly drag around these attachments gained over a lifetime. Weighed down by these burdens, the soul is easily caught by its persecutors, . . .

But when the Word of God, which as the Apostle writes, “is sharp as a surgeon’s scalpel, cutting through everything,”Heb. 4:12, The Message. pierces the person who has made a genuine faith commitment to Christ, he severs these unhealthy attachments from the inner person, disrupting the shackles of habit. And then that person becomes like a long distance runner, throwing off unhealthy attachments bonded to the soul, and with his load lightened he kicks it into high gear making his way through the course. No longer focused on what is behind, he turns his attention to what is ahead. He doesn’t entertain second thoughts about abandoned pleasures but presses forward to what’s really important. He feels no remorse over the loss of worldly amusements but enliven by securing the heavenly. As a result, he willing receives every method of torture as a means that will help him to grab hold of the joy he desires. He accepts fire as a means for burning off impurities, the sword as a means to dislodge the mind from destructive attachments. All techniques devised to inflict pain are willingly received as a remedy to the toxicity of pleasure. It is like someone experiencing nausea is willing to consume some badly tasting medicine to relieve their symptoms. In the same way a person, facing persecution, turns to God and accepts the wave of agony as a means to check the allure of pleasure. A person in pain cannot enjoy pleasure. And so, as sin entered into human experience through pleasure so is it removed by the opposite. Those therefore that persecute the faithful for confessing the Lord, devising the most heinous methods of torture inadvertently provided a cure to those souls through suffering—healing the infection of pleasure by the application of pain.Gregory of Nyssa, Homilies on the Beatitudes.

Early Christian reasoning might not make sense at first glance but think of this way: the only way to lose those extra pounds gained by one too many trips to the refrigerator is through reducing your caloric intake (hunger) and increased physical activity to the point of muscle fatigue (physical exhaustion.) It follows that the proper application of pain—hunger and physical exhaustion— heals the infection of pleasure (weight gain from overeating.) Like a personal trainer the early Christian spiritual writers instruct—no pain; no gain.

04.  Suffering for the Salvation of the Others

Finally, Christ “a man of suffering and familiar with pain,” as prophetically proclaimed in Isaiah “took on our pain . . . so that by his wounds we are healed.”Is. 53:3–5. Jesus embraced suffering in order to redeem all humanity. Likewise, as mature disciples of Christ, bearing the burdens of others, we participate in the Lord’s redemption of humanity. This is a profound mystery and one taken seriously by early church leaders. The following is a selection is from the Apostolic Constitutions, a fourth century work compiled in Syria from earlier church orders:

[To bishops.] For as yours is the burden, so you receive as your fruit the supply of food and other necessities. For you imitate Christ the Lord; and as he “bore the sins of us all on the tree” at his crucifixion, the innocent for those who deserved punishment, so also you ought to bear the sins of the people your own. For concerning our Savior it is said in Isaiah, “He bears our sins and is afflicted for us.” . . . For do not you imagine that the office of a bishop is an easy or light burden.Constitutions of the Holy Apostles 2.4.25. ANF 7:409*.

Chrysostom, a man familiar with prolonged and intense suffering, comments on 2 Timothy 2:10 “I endure everything for the sake of the elect that they too may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory.”Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture quotations taken from The Holy Bible, New Inter-national Version®. NIV®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™

Behold another incentive. I endure these things, he says, not for myself, but for the salvation of others. It was in my power to have lived free from danger; to have suffered none of these things, if I had consulted my own interest. On what account then do I suffer these things? For the good of others, that others may obtain eternal life. What then does thou promise thyself? He has not said, simply on account of these particular persons; but “for the elect’s sake.” If God has chosen them, it becomes us to suffer everything for their sakes. “That they also may obtain salvation.” By saying, “they also,” he means, as well as we. For God hath chosen us also; and as God suffered for our sakes, so should we suffer for their sakes.John Chrysostom, Homily 4 on Second Timothy. NPNF 1 13:506.

05.  Conclusion

Pain or affliction is medicinal. Properly administered by the Good Doctor painful circumstances result in healing and restoration. In addition, affliction like training for an athletic event, conditions those in Christ for attaining and living in the kingdom of God. In both forms the promise is that affliction, whether intended by others for harm or not, will be to our advantage. Finally, our affliction, by the mystery of God’s grace, is used redemptively in the lives of others. In summary, in God’s economy, painful circumstances are not “wasted” but lovingly ordered by God for our good and the good of others.


Michael Glerup, PhD, serves as Research and Acquisitions editor for the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (ACCS), a twenty-eight volume patristic commentary on Scripture. ACCS, published by InterVarsity Press, is an ecumenical project promoting a vital link of communication between the varied Christian traditions of today and their common ancestors in the faith. Read more at