Facing Trials in Our Flesh: The Ordeal of Christian Suffering

A friend, who is also a member of my local church, has recently undergone a great blow to her body and soul. This sister in Christ has been diagnosed with a very difficult cancer that is extremely rare and very hard to treat. She is a young woman with a desire to minister and presently is in seminary study for ministry. Our church has been praying for her from the first news we received of her ordeal. This week she went into a Chicago hospital to begin very intense treatments. We were encouraged again last weekend to pray for her and also to write her. I have found it hard to know what to write but finally sent an email today. In my own halting way I sent the following letter:
Dear ––––
From the first moment that I learned of your medical crisis I was deeply moved to pray for you. I have only seen you once, sitting to my left side several sections of the church sanctuary removed from where I was seated, on a “rare” Sunday when I was in church (arriving late as I recall).  As you know I often attend vespers on Saturday evening, which has become my normal practice. I was, even that morning a few weeks ago, not sure exactly what to do because of my own viral condition related to CFS. Since so little is known about my illness I hate to expose you to what could be a virus that would add to your compromised immune system. Instinctively I wanted to come up and speak personally but I felt it was better to not do that at the time. I am so unsure about all of this but my response was one of kindness and love I assure you.
I have followed the news of your ordeal closely and, like everyone else at church, know what is happening through the pastor’s  reports. I have not had a personal friend face the exact illness that you now must address but I have a nephew who is a cancer specialist at St. Jude Research Hospital thus I am well aware of the nature of your battle. To face this trial at any time is terrible but to face it when you have so much to look forward to in life must only add to your burden and mental anguish. I have asked the Father to grant you his peace and to give you the Holy Spirit as YOUR Comforter in these dark and difficult moments. May you know joy in trial but even more may you know his peace. These words are so easy to write but so hard to think through thus I hope I am not writing without deep and measured care. Each of us faces trials, one way or the other, but so few of us face them as you do, in the midst of so much desire to live for the glory of God and to serve his church, and at such a young age. My heart truly goes out to you as my sister in Christ.
I was pondering this morning, especially as I prayed for you in your suffering of this trial, and came across a ancient text from the church father Cyprian. This was written at the time of a great plague, thus the context is very important to it.
It disturbs some that the power of this disease attacks Christians and pagans alike. They think that if a Christian is immune from contact with evils, then he should happily have full enjoyment in this world and age and be preserved for future joy without experiencing all of the contrary things here. It disturbs some that mortality is common to us as well as to others. For what in the world is not common to us and others, as long as we have this body in common, according to the law of our first birth? As long as we are in the world, we are joined equally with the human race in the flesh, but we are separated in the spirit. Therefore, until this corruptible is clothed with incorruption and this mortal receives immortality [1 Cor. 15:53], and the Spirit leads us to God the Father, whatever disadvantages of the flesh there may be are common to us and the human race. When there is a lack of food owing to the earth being barren, famine distinguishes no one. When any city is captured by the invasion of an enemy, captivity devastates all alike. When the calm clouds withhold rain, there is one drought for all. When craggy rocks break up a ship, the shipwreck is common to all who sail on the ship without exception. A weakness of the eyes, an attack of fever, or health of the members is common to us and others, as long as this common body is borne in the world. 

Moreover, if the Christian knows and maintains the conditions in which he believes, he knows that he must have more difficulties than others in this world, since he must struggle more with the attacks of the devil (St. Cyprian, On Mortality, 8-9).
In our bodily weakness and trials we must suffer many trials in order to enter the eternal kingdom. It seems we are each fitted for the trials our Father knows best for us. This never makes our way easy, but in fact very hard. But by these trials we learn that God is with us in the fire and by us all the way. What struck me about Cyprian’s wise words is the reference to our unique struggle with the evil one who attacks our faith in the trials we face. I am sure that I carelessly overlook this reality far too easily, especially when my body is weak and my will broken.
May you know the mind of Christ your Savior and may you find his grace your deepest treasure for this day and each single day in coming weeks and months, especially during these days of treatment. We love you and we are praying for your well-being in both body and soul.
In his love and grace,
John
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