Human Earthly Life: Illness, Suffering and Death

My beloved spiritual children in Christ Our Only True God and Our Only True Savior,



Our life on this earth is a sacred journey and unquestionable a gift of God. Father Alexander Schmeman wrote, "All that exists is God's gift to man, and it all exists to make God known to man, and to make man's life communion with God." Life is totally unpredictable and anything can happen to anyone of us in an instant. Our life can change dramatically when one becomes ill, has an accident, sudden death, or experience a tragic circumstance. Our life is turned upside down and we experience a sense of loss. The most profound loss occurs with the death of a loved one. Death, anticipated or sudden, is capable of devastating those left behind. We pray that God will protect us "from sudden death". It is only human for us to respond emotionally and be filled with sorrow, anxiety, tears, anger, regret and disbelief. Sadness is a human response of our love for one another, a love that continues even in their absence.  

But at a time of illness, suffering and death, where is faith? Is one so paralyzed by the tragic loss of a loved one that we find that we are unable to turn to the Almighty God and pray? Do we not find comfort in God?  

Over the many years of my diakonia I have been there with husbands and wives, with mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters who are devastated by the death of their loved one. I have visited children dying from cancer and other children who have died from accidents and whose funerals I am preparing to conduct. Speaking of faith, however, I have never been more inspired than when I would meet with young children with terminal illness. Children who never ask the question 'why'. Why is this happening to me? They never showed fear of death but were calm and accepting the end of their earthly life with confidence and joy. I recall a young child, a little girl who was dying from cancer and while visiting her at the hospital her mother walked in the room and when she saw her daughter without hair and pale started to weep uncontrollably. The young child very sternly turn to her mother and said, "Mom, if you come to see me and begin to cry I don't want you to come again." I have never seen such courage as that little girl. Another young boy who also was dying from cancer never complained of the chemotherapy and radiation and all other treatments. When the boy fell asleep in Christ the entire city turned out for his funeral as though he was the Mayor of that city. People were inspired by this little boy's faith in God.

Faith, prayers, and trust in God is the only way that a believing person responds to any unfortunate and painful circumstance. Yes, we feel the deep grief and sorrow when a loved one dies we are reminded of the words of Saint Paul the holy Apostle, who said, as Christians, we don't grieve "as others who have no hope" (1 Thessalonians 4:13). Our Lord Jesus Christ exemplified grief when He wept at the tomb of His friend Lazarus (St. John 11:32-35). However, we believe as Orthodox Christians that Christ defeated death. In the gospel of Saint John Jesus is speaking to Martha said, "Your brother will rise again. Martha said to Him, 'I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day. Jesus said to her, 'I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this? She said to Him, 'Yes, Lord, I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God, Who is come into the world" (St. John 11:23-28). This is the kind of faith that we need at time of grief, pain and death.

There are only two ways to deal with suffering and pain. Either we accept them and be transformed by them into the way of salvation for oneself and others; or one is crushed by them turn away from God with anger and a sense of hopelessness. People without a faith, even as little as a mustard seed, blame God and fall into despair and darkness.

Through adversity we, as Christian believers, become stronger in our faith and commitment to our Creator. We cannot allow fear or grief to overtake us and destroy us. Also, we cannot allow our human emotions to take control of us to the point where are not able to seek God and to find solace in Him. Saint John Chrysostom says, "Glory Be To God for all things!"

There is no question that those who suffer through sickness and disease with every virtue of Christ will receive "sufficient grace" from Him to be strong in the Lord in their bodily weakness, and so direct their sufferings "not unto death" but to the "glory of God" (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:7-10).

God allows evil, illness, suffering, and death as an expression of respect for our freewill knowing that the greatest human good is possible in the midst of these terrible experiences. As the holy Apostle Paul says, "All things work together for good to those who love God" (Romans 8:28). "My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials. Knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing" (St. James 1:2-4).

"And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance, and perseverance, character; and character, hope. Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit Who was given to us" (Romans 5:3-5).

"The Grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God and Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all." Amen (Divine Liturgy) 

With sincere agape in Our Risen and Merciful God,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George