Emulating God’s Mercy
Let us commend ourselves to God, my brothers and sisters, by works of mercy. “O praise the Lord, for He is good; for His mercy endures forever.” Give praise since God is merciful, and He wishes to forgive the sins of those who praise Him. Also, offer sacrifice to Him. And what sacrifice are You to offer Him? Be merciful to your fellow mortals, and God will show mercy to you. You are a mortal and the other is a mortal as well, and so both of you are in need of God’s mercy. On the other hand, God is not in need of mercy, but yet He is merciful. If, however, the person who is in need of mercy does not show mercy to another who is in need of mercy, how shall he or she expect to receive mercy from God who will never be in need of mercy?
Consider what I am sayings, brethren. For example, whoever does not take pity on a shipwrecked person remains without pity until he himself suffers shipwreck. But once he has been shipwrecked, whenever he sees a shipwrecked person he recalls his former behavior and he experiences feelings of mercy. Thus, personal experience of misfortune softens the one whom the common bond of human nature was not able to incline to mercy. How readily is the person who has been in servitude in the past has compassion on a servant! How readily he who was once a hired laborer feels sorry for a laborer who has been deprived of his pay! The person who has once suffered the loss of a child sympathizes most sincerely with a parent lamenting the loss of a child. Therefore, a similarity of suffering softens any degree of hardness in a human heart. If, then, you who either has needed mercy or who fear that you may be in such need (for as long as you are here on this earth, you ought to fear what you have not been, to remember what you have been and to consider what you may be)—if, then, encompassed with the memory of your former need of mercy, with the fear of future needs and with the suffering of present miseries, you do not have mercy on a person who is in trouble and in need of your help, do you expect Him whom misery has never afflicted to have mercy on you? And do you fail to give of the abundance that you have received from God and then wish God to give to you from that which he has not received from you?
Taken from Sermon 259 by St. Augustine
The Acquisition of the Holy Spirit
However prayer, fasting, vigil and all the other Christian practices may be, they do not constitute the aim of our Christian life. Although it is true that they serve as the indispensable means of reaching this end, the true aim of our Christian life consists of the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God. As for fasts, and vigils, and prayer, and almsgiving, and every good deed “However prayer, fasting, vigil and all the other Christian practices may be, they do not constitute the aim of our Christian life. Although it is true that they serve as the indispensable means of reaching this end, the true aim of our Christian life consists of the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God. As for fasts, and vigils, and prayer, and almsgiving, and every good deed done for Christ’s sake, are the only means of acquiring the Holy Spirit of God. Mark my words, only good deeds done for Christ’s sake brings us the fruits of the Holy Spirit. All that is not done for Christ’s sake, even though it be good, brings neither reward in the future life nor the grace of God in this life….
Some say that the lack of oil in the lamps of the foolish virgins means a lack of good deeds in their lifetime. Such an interpretation is not quite correct. Why should they be lacking in good deeds, if they are called virgins, even though foolish ones? Virginity is a supreme virtue, an angelic state, and it could take the place of all other good works. “I think that what they were lacking was the grace of the All-Holy Spirit of God. These virgins practiced the virtues, but in their spiritual ignorance they supposed that the Christian life consisted merely in doing good works. By doing a good deed they thought they were doing the work of God, but they cared little whether they acquired the grace of God’s Spirit. These ways of life, based merely on doing good, without carefully testing whether they bring the grace of the Spirit of God, are mentioned in the patristic books: “There is another way which is deemed good in the beginning, but ends at the bottom of hell.”
Anthony the Great in his letters to monks says of such virgins: “Many monks and virgins have no idea of the different kinds of will which act in a person, and they do not know that we are influenced by three wills: the first is God’s all-perfect and all-saving will; the second is our own human will which, if not destructive, neither is it saving; and the third will is the devil’s will – wholly destructive.” This third will of the enemy prompts a person not to do any good deed, or to do them good out of vanity, or merely for virtue’s sake rather than for Christ’s sake. The second, our own will, prompts us to do everything to flatter our passions, or else it teaches us like the enemy, to do good for the sake of good and not care for the grace which is acquired by it. But the first, God’s all-saving will, consists in doing good solely to acquire the Holy Spirit, as an eternal, inexhaustible treasure which is priceless. The acquisition of the Holy Spirit is, in a manner of speaking, the oil, which the foolish virgins lacked. They were called foolish just because they had forgotten the necessary fruit of virtue, the grace of the Holy Spirit, without which no one is or can be saved, for: “Through the Holy Spirit every soul is made alive and through purification is exalted and illumined by the Triune Unity in a Holy mystery.”
Taken from On the Acquisition of the Holy Spirit by St. Seraphim of Sarov
Who Are You Feeding?
If we greatly fear the Devil taking the possession of the body of another, how much more should we be afraid that we may nourish him in our hearts by bad actions? Every person, beloved brethren, feeds either Christ or the Devil at the banquet of his or her heart. If a person is willing to observe justice, peace, chastity, mercy, and charity, he [or she] in doubt feeds and refreshes Christ within him, according to the words: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone opens the door to Me, I will come to him and will dine with him.” This shows with what kind of food a pious soul feeds and refreshes Christ.
On the contrary, a person who willfully loves pride, malice, envy, dissipation, and other similar evils should not doubt that he is invigorating the Devil and preparing desirable pleasures for the devil through such vices. Anyone can tell from one’s actions what kind of a guest he seeks to receive in his heart. It is certain that you will merit to have guests according to the nature of the feast you prepare. Many people dread the Devil in the body of another but neglect to fear him in their own heart…
Since we feel that we are subject to many sins and offenses, are we to despair? Let such a thought be far away from Christians! Indeed, we should not despair, but neither should we persevere in those sins. The same One who said: “When you shall be converted and groan aloud, you shall be saved,” also said, “Delay not to be converted to the Lord, and delay it not from day to day.” A soothing herbal solution or clamp is best applied to wounds that are still fresh, for a wound is quickly healed that has not been allowed to become infected. Therefore, as soon as any of us has contracted the wound of sin, he should have recourse to the remedies of repentance with all speed before the injury putrefies and acquires a bad odor from long-standing. If sin is allowed to get control, it is known to emit a most offensive stench to the saints and to all who fear God.
Therefore, with God’s help let us work hard to correct or destroy all our sins, so that virtues may take the place of the vices. Let humility occupy the position that pride held; let almsgiving protect the person who avarice was ravaging; let chastity cleanse and restore what dissipation was defiling. Let benevolence take possession of the person whom envy held down, and where deceit appeared let truth hold sway. If with Christ’ help we endeavor to do this, brethren, not only will we not fear the demons in the bodies of others, but with God’s grace we will also rout and dispel them far from our own hearts with the help of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom is honor and glory world without end. Amen.
By St. Caesarius
We are In Need of Each Other
Why do many pursue wealth? “I fear,” one says, “lest I am compelled to go to other peoples’ doors and beg from my neighbor.” And I also constantly hear many praying, saying, “Allow me not at any time to stand in need of people.” And I laugh exceedingly when I hear these prayers for this fear is childish. For every day and in everything do we stand in need of one another. Thus, these are the words of an unthinking and puffed up spirit; this person does not clearly discern the nature of things. Do you not see that all of us are in need one of another? The soldier needs the builder, the builder needs the merchant, the merchant needs the farmer, the servant needs the master, the master needs the servant, the poor person needs the rich, the rich man needs the poor, the person that does not work needs him who gives alms, and he who gives alms needs the person who receives it. For he who receives alms supplies a very great need, a need greater than any. For if there were no poor, the greater part of our salvation would be overthrown in that we wouldn’t have anywhere to give our wealth. So even the poor person who appears to be more useless than any is the most useful of any.
But if to be in need of another is disgraceful, then the only thing that remains for us is to die, for it is not possible for a person to live who is afraid of this…So ignorant are you when you ask for wealth in order to be in need of no person… for if you are desirous of being exceedingly independent of everyone pray for poverty. For in this case you will be dependent on others only for bread and clothes. However, if you live in luxury, then you will be in need of others: for lands, houses, payments, wages, for rank, for safety, for honor, and for magistrates and those subject to them, both those in the city and those in the country, and for merchants, and for shopkeepers. Do you see that those words are words of extreme carelessness? For if to be in need of others appears to you a dreadful thing, know that it is impossible altogether to escape it…
For if we were independent of each other then we would be like untamed wild beasts. By necessity and by compulsion God has subjected us one to another, and every day we are in collision with one another. And had He removed this necessity, who is there who would readily have longed after his neighbor’s love? Let us then neither deem this to be disgraceful nor pray against it and say, “Grant us not to stand in need of anyone,” but let us pray and say, “Allow us not, when we are in need, to refuse those who are able to help us.” It is not the standing in need of others, but seizing the things of others that is grievous…
Paul stood in need many times, and was not ashamed; no, he even prided himself upon it, and praised those who ministered to him, saying, “For you sent once and again to my need.” …For it is even God’s decree that we should stand in need one of another…Christ emptied Himself of so great glory for your sake, but do you not count Him deserving even of a loaf bread? But even your dog is fed to fullness while Christ wastes with hunger… Be reconciled to God, for ignoring the needs of others are the deeds of enemies. Let us then think with shame on the great benefits we have already received from Him, and the great benefits we are yet to receive. And if a poor man comes to us and begs, let us receive him with much goodwill, comforting, raising him up with our words, that we ourselves may also be met with the same, both from God and from men. “Whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them.” Do you want mercy shown to you? Then show mercy. Do you want to obtain forgiveness? Then grant it. Do you not want to be spoken evil of? Then do not speak evil. Do you long to receive praise? Then bestow it. Do you not want to be wronged? Then do not plunder.
By St. John Chrysostom (Taken from Homily 17 on 2nd Corinthians)
The Two Types of Alms
We have no other hope for our forgiveness but in our forgiveness of the injury other people have done to us. Let no one deceive us: we owe no other greater sacrifice to God than to do good to others, even to the wicked. God says to you: “I do not grow because of you, but you do because of Me. I want a sacrifice that will benefit people, and thus I will receive what will be for your good.” You may say: “I have nothing to give to the needy; I cannot fast frequently and abstain from wine or meat.” Can you tell me you cannot practice charity?…
Let go of [the anger] you are clinging to, lest He in whom you have nothing to forgive may hold something against you. “Forgive, and you shall be forgiven; give, and it shall be given to you” (Lk. 6:37-38). Realize that there are two kinds of alms, dearly beloved: one of the heart, the other of money. Alms of the heart is to forgive whatever injury you may have suffered. Sometimes you look for something to give to the poor and have nothing; but forgive the sinner as often as you will, and it always comes back to you. It is possible that at times you will not have gold, silver, clothing, grain, wine or oil to give to the poor. However, you can never excuse yourself from loving all people and doing to others what you want them to do to you, even forgiving your enemies. If you have nothing in the cellar or the granary to give, you can offer something from the treasury of your heart. Now, since good will, and that alone, suffices for all people, and alms of the heart is much greater than material alms, who could offer the shadow of an excuse? Notice this, brethren: the alms of charity without earthly wealth is enough, but an alm which is given materially but not with a kindly heart is not at all satisfactory.
For this reason let us endeavor to love all people with our whole heart, praying that the righteous may become better and persevere in good works, and that the wicked may quickly amend their lives. Let us fear the Lord’s threat when He says, “If you do not forgive men their offenses, neither will your Father forgive you your offenses” (Matt. 6:15)…Let us forgive our enemies so that we may be able to say with a clear conscience in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors” (Matt 6:12).
By Caesarius of Arles (Taken from Sermon 38)
Is God the Creator of Evil
Hold fast this argument then with me, and let it ever be fixed and immoveable in your minds, that not only when God confers benefits but even when He chastises God is good and loving. For even His chastisements and His punishments are the greatest part of His beneficence, the greatest form of His providence.
Whenever therefore you see that famines have taken place, pestilences, and drought and immoderate rains, and irregularities in the atmosphere, or any other of the things which chasten human nature, be not distressed nor be despondent, but worship Him who caused them, marvel at Him for His tender care. For He who does these things is such that He even chastens the body that the soul may become sound. “Does God then cause these things?” one may ask. God does these things, and even if the whole city, no even if the whole universe were here I will not shrink from saying this. I do not say these things in arrogance but I have the prophet standing at my side, crying and saying, “There is no evil in the city which the Lord has not done” (Amos 3:6)—now evil is an ambiguous term; and I wish that you shall learn the exact meaning of each expression, in order that on account of ambiguity you may not confound the nature of the things, and fall into blasphemy…There is then evil, which is really evil: fornication, adultery, covetousness, and the countless dreadful things, which are worthy of the utmost reproach and punishment.
Again there is evil, which rather is not evil, but often called so, such as, famine, pestilence, death, disease, and others of a like kind. For these are not evils, but are only given the term evil. Why are they not evil? Because if they were evils they would not have become the sources of good to us, chastening our pride, goading our sloth, and leading us on to zeal, making us more attentive. The Psalmist says, “When He slew them, then they sought Him, and they returned and sought for God” (Psa. 78:34). He calls this “evil” therefore which chastens them, which makes them purer, which renders them more zealous, which leads them on to love of wisdom; but [the prophet does not say God creates the evil] which is worthy of reproach; for that [type of evil] is not a work of God, but an invention of our own will, but this [“evil”] is for the destruction of the other true evil. He calls then by the name of evil the affliction, which arises from our punishment; thus naming it not in regard to its own nature, but according to that view which we perceive it. For since we are accustomed to call by the name of evil, not only thefts and adulteries, but also calamities; so he has called the matter, according to the terminology of mankind. This then is that which the prophet Amos says: “There is no evil in the city which the Lord has not done.” This too by means of Isaiah God has made clear saying “I am God who makes peace and creates evil,” (Isa. 45:7) again naming calamities evils. This “evil” also Christ hints at, saying to the disciples, “sufficient for the day is its own evil,” that is to say the affliction, the misery. It is manifest then on all sides, that [the prophet] here calls punishment evil [calamities]. Through this the prophet reveals and gives us the greatest view of God’s providence. For the physician is not only to be commended when he leads forth the patient into gardens and meadows, nor even into baths and pools of water, nor yet when he sets before him a well furnished table, but when he orders him to remain without food, when he oppresses him with hunger and keeps him thirsty, confines him to his bed, both making his house a prison, and depriving him of the very light, and shadowing his room on all sides with curtains, and when he cuts, and when he cauterizes, and when he brings his bitter medicines, he is equally a physician…
How is it not then preposterous to call him a physician who does so many evil things, but to blaspheme God, if at any time He does one of these things, if He bring on either famine or death, and to reject His providence over all? And yet He is the only true physician both of souls and bodies. On this account He often seizes this nature of ours wanting in prosperity, and suffering with a fever of sins, and by want, and hunger, and death and other calamities and the rest of the medicines of which He knows, frees us from diseases. How is it not then preposterous, that we should thus approve of a father indeed and a physician and a judge, and a husbandman, and should neither blame nor censure him who casts his son out of his house nor the physician who puts his patient to torture nor the judge who corrects, nor the husbandman who prunes, but that we should blame and smite with countless accusations God, if He seeks at raise us up, when we are as it were, intoxicated through the great drunkenness which comes of wickedness?
St. John Chrysostom (Taken from Homily 1 on “Concerning the Powers of the Demons”)
On Works and Alms
Many and great, beloved brethren, are the divine benefits with which the large and abundant mercy of God the Father and Christ both has labored and is always laboring for our salvation. See how the Father sent the Son to preserve us and give us life that He might restore us; see how the Son was willing to be sent and to become the Son of man, that He might make us sons of God; see how He humbled Himself, that He might raise up the people who before were prostrate; see how He was wounded that He might heal our wounds. See how He served that He might grant to liberty those who were in bondage; how He underwent death, that He might set forth immortality to mortals. These are many and great blessings of divine compassion. But moreover, examine what great providence and how great the clemency of God that by a plan of salvation, He has provided for us that more abundant care should be taken for preserving a person after he or she is already redeemed! For when the Lord at His advent had cured those wounds which Adam had borne, and had healed the old poisons of the serpent, He gave a law to the sound man and bade him sin no more, lest a worse thing should befall the sinner. Because of the infirmity and weakness of human frailty, we would have no source of maintaining our healing, but the divine mercy coming once more to our aid, has opened a way of securing salvation by granting us works of justice and mercy. And thus, God has granted that by almsgiving we may wash away whatever foulness we subsequently contract after being healed.
The Holy Spirit speaks in the sacred Scriptures, and says, “By almsgiving and faith sins are purged.” Of course, this is not speaking about those sins which had been previously contracted, for those are purged by the blood and sanctification of Christ. Moreover, the Spirit says again, “As water extinguishes fire, so almsgiving quenches sin” (Sirach 3:30). Here also it is shown that similar to the laver of saving water, the fire of Gehenna is extinguished by almsgiving and works of righteousness…
When the pharisees pointed out that the disciples had not first washed their hands before eating, Christ replied, “Did not He who made the outside make the inside also? But rather give alms of such things as you have; then indeed all things are clean to you” (Lk 11:41). This He used to teach and show that it not the hands that are to be washed, but the heart, and that the foulness from inside is to be done away rather than that from the outside… By adding that alms must be given He showed how we may be clean and purged. He who is pitiful teaches and warns us that pity must be shown; and because He seeks to save those whom at a great cost He has redeemed, He teaches that those who, after the grace of baptism, have become foul, may once more be cleansed through almsgiving….
Beloved brethren, the divine admonition in the Scriptures, as well old as new, has never failed, has never been silent in urging God’s people always and everywhere to works of mercy; and in the strain and exhortation of the Holy Spirit, everyone who is instructed into the hope of the heavenly kingdom is commanded to give alms. God commands and prescribes to Isaiah: “Cry aloud,” He says, ” and spare not. Lift up your voice as a trumpet, and declare to My people their transgressions, and to the house of Jacob their sins” (Isa. 58:1). And when He had commanded their sins to be charged to them, He added that even if they should use supplications, prayers, and fasts to make atonement for their sins, this would not work; nor, if they were clothed in sackcloth and ashes be able to soften God’s anger. But to show that God can be appeased by almsgiving alone, he added, saying, “Break your bread to the hungry, and bring the poor that are without a home into your house. If you see the naked, clothe them; and despise not the household of your own seed. Then shall your light break forth in season, and your garments shall arise speedily; and righteousness shall go before you, and the glory of God shall surround you. Then shall you cry, and God shall hear you; while yet you are speaking, He shall say, ‘Here I am’” (Isa. 58:1-9).
And in Solomon we read, “Shut up alms in the heart of the poor, and these shall intercede for you from all evil” (Sirach 22:12). And again, “Whoever stops his ears that he may not hear the weak, he also shall call on God, and there will be none to hear him” (Prov. 21:13). For the one shall not be able to deserve the mercy of the Lord, who himself has not been merciful; nor shall a person obtain anything from the Divine pity in his or her prayers, who shall not have been humane towards the poor person’s prayer. And this also the Holy Spirit declares in the Psalms, and proves, saying, “Blessed is the one who thinks of the poor and needy; the Lord will deliver him in the evil day.” Keep also in mind the teachings of Daniel, when king Nebuchadnezzar, was in anxiety being frightened by an adverse dream, how Daniel gave him give a remedy for the turning away of evils and a remedy to obtain the divine help by saying, “Therefore, O king, let my advice be acceptable to you; break off your sins by being righteous, and your iniquities by showing mercy to the poor” (Dan. 4:27). And as the king did not obey him, he underwent the misfortunes and mischiefs which he had seen, and which he might have escaped and avoided had he redeemed his sins by almsgiving. Raphael the angel also witnesses the same, and exhorts that alms should be freely and liberally bestowed, saying, “Prayer is good, with fasting and alms; because alms does deliver from death, and it purges away sins” (Tobit 12:8-9). He shows that our prayers and fasts are of less avail, unless they are aided by almsgiving; that entreaties alone are of little force to obtain what they seek, unless they be made sufficient by the addition of deeds and good works. The angel reveals, and manifests, and certifies that our petitions become efficacious by almsgiving, that life is redeemed from dangers by almsgiving, that souls are delivered from death by almsgiving.
In the Acts of the Apostles the faith of the fact is established; and that souls are delivered by almsgiving not only from the second, but from the first death, is discovered by the evidence of a matter accomplished and completed. When Tabitha, being greatly given to good works and to bestowing alms, fell sick and died, Peter was summoned to her lifeless body; and when he, with apostolic humanity, had come in haste, there stood around him widows weeping and entreating, showing the cloaks, and coats, and all the garments which they had previously received, and praying for the deceased not by their words, but by her own deeds. Peter felt that what was asked in such a way might be obtained, and that Christ’s aid would not be lacking to the petitioners, since He Himself was clothed in the clothing of the widows. When, therefore, falling on his knees, he had prayed, and had brought to the Lord the prayers entrusted to him, turning to the body, which was now lying washed on the bier, he said, “Tabitha, in the name of Jesus Christ, arise!” (Acts 9:40). Therefore death is suspended, and the spirit is restored, and, to the marvel and astonishment of all, the revived body is make alive into this worldly light once more; so effectual were the merits of mercy, so much did righteous works avail!
Therefore in the Gospel, the Lord, the Teacher of our life and Master of eternal salvation… commands and prescribes nothing more frequently than that we should devote ourselves to almsgiving, and not depend on earthly possessions, but rather lay up heavenly treasures. “Sell,” He says, “your goods, and give alms.” And again: “Lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust do corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal. But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust does corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
St. Cyprian – Selections from Treatise 8
Tribulation Perfects Patience
Again, my beloved brethren, I am ready to notify you of the saving feast, which will take place according to annual custom. For although the opponents of Christ have oppressed you together with us with afflictions and sorrows; yet, God having comforted us by our mutual faith, behold, I write to you even from Rome. Keeping the feast here with the brethren, still I keep it with you also in will and in spirit, for we send up prayers in common to God, “Who has granted us not only to believe in Him, but also now to suffer for His sake” (Phil. 1:29). For troubled as we are, because we are so far from you, He moves us to write, that by a letter we might comfort ourselves, and provoke one another to good. For, indeed, numerous afflictions and bitter persecutions directed against the Church have been against us. For heretics, corrupt in their mind, untested in the faith, rising against the truth, violently persecute the Church, and some of our brethren are scourged, while others torn with stripes, and most difficult of all, their insults reach even to the Bishops. Nevertheless, it is not fitting, on this account, that we should neglect the feast. But we should especially remember it, and not at all forget its commemoration from time to time. Now the unbelievers do not consider that there is a season for feasts, because they spend all their lives in reveling and follies; and the feasts which they keep are an occasion of grief rather than of joy. But to us in this present life they are above all an uninterrupted passage [to heaven] — it is indeed our season. For such tribulations as these serve for exercise and testing, so that, having approved ourselves zealous and chosen servants of Christ, we may be fellow-heirs with the saints. For thus Job said, “The whole world is a place of trial to men upon the earth” (Job 7:1). Nevertheless, we are proved in this world by afflictions, labors, and sorrows, to the end that each one may receive of God such reward as is proper for him, as He says by the prophet Jeremiah, “I am the Lord, Who tries the hearts, and searches the reins, to give to every one according to his ways” (Jer. 17:10).
Not that He first knows about the things of a person upon his being tested (for He knows them all before they come to pass), but because He is good and philanthropic, He distributes to each a due reward according to his actions, so that every person may exclaim, “Righteous is the judgment of God!” As the prophet Jeremiah says again, “The Lord tries the just, and discerns the reins.” Again, for this reason He tries each one of us, either that to those who know it not, virtue may be manifested by means of those who are proved, as was said concerning Job; “Do you think that I was revealed to you for any other reason than that you should be seen righteous?” or that, when people come to a sense of their deeds, they may be able to know of what manner they are, and so may either repent of their wickedness, or abide confirmed in the faith. Now the blessed Paul, when troubled by afflictions, and persecutions, and hunger and thirst, “in everything was a conqueror, through Jesus Christ, Who loved us” (Rom. 8:37). Through suffering he was weak indeed in body, yet, believing and hoping, he was made strong in spirit, and his strength was made perfect in weakness (cf. 2 Cor. 12:9).
The other saints also, who had a similar confidence in God, accepted similar trials with gladness, as Job said, “Blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). But the Psalmist, “Search me, O Lord, and try me; prove my reins and my heart.” For since, when the strength is proved, it convinces the foolish, and the righteous perceiving the cleansing and the advantage resulting from the divine fire, were not discouraged in trials like these, but they rather delighted in them, suffering no injury at all from the things which happened, but being seen to shine more brightly, like gold from the fire, as [David] said, who was tried in such a school of discipline as this: “You have tried my heart, You have visited me in the night; You have proved me, and have not found iniquity in me, so that my mouth shall not speak of the works of men” (Psa. 17:3,4). But those whose actions are not restrained by law, who know of nothing beyond eating and drinking and dying, account trials as danger. They soon stumble at them, so that being untried in the faith, they are given over to a reprobate mind, and do those things which are not fitting (cf. Rom. 1:28) Therefore the blessed Paul, when urging us to such exercises as these, and having before measured himself by them, says, “Therefore I take pleasure in afflictions, in infirmities.” And again, “Exercise yourself to godliness.” For since he knew the persecutions that befell those who chose to live in godliness, he wished his disciples to meditate beforehand on the difficulties connected with godliness; that when trials should come, and affliction arise, they might be able to bear them easily, as having been exercised in these things. For in those things with which a person has been familiar with in mind, he ordinarily experiences a hidden joy. In this way, the blessed martyrs, becoming at first familiar with difficulties, were quickly perfected in Christ, regarding as nothing the injury of the body, while they contemplated the expected rest.
But all those who “call their lands by their own names,” and have wood, and hay, and stubble (cf. 1 Cor. 3:12) in their thoughts; such as these, since they are strangers to difficulties, become aliens from the kingdom of heaven. Had they however known that “tribulation perfects perseverance,; and perseverance, character; and character, hope, and hope does not disappoint,” they would have exercised themselves, after the example of Paul, who said, “I keep under my body and bring it into subjection, lest when I have preached to others, I myself should be a disqualified.” They would easily have borne the afflictions which were brought on them to prove them from time to time, if the prophetic admonition had been listened to by them; “It is good that one take up Your yoke in his youth; he shall sit alone and shall be silent, because he has taken Your yoke upon him. He will give his cheek to him who smites him; he will be filled with reproaches. Because the Lord does not cast away forever; for when He abases, He is gracious, according to the multitude of His tender mercies” Lam. 3:27-32). For though all these things should proceed from the enemies, stripes, insults, reproaches, yet shall they avail nothing against the multitude of God’s tender mercies; for we shall quickly recover from them since they are merely temporal, but God is always gracious, pouring out His tender mercies on those who please Him. Therefore, my beloved brethren, we should not look at these temporal things, but fix our attention on those which are eternal. Though affliction may come, it will have an end, though insult and persecution, yet are they nothing to the hope which is set before us. For all present matters are trifling compared with those which are future; the sufferings of this present time not being worthy of being compared with the hope that is to come. For what can be compared with the kingdom? Or what is there in comparison with life eternal? Or what is all we could give here, to that which we shall inherit yonder? For we are “heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:17). Therefore it is not right, my beloved, to consider afflictions and persecutions, but the hopes which are laid up for us because of persecutions.
By St. Athanasius (Taken from Festal Letter 13)
God Tries People Four Ways
We must know that all humans are tried in three different ways. Often for their testing, sometimes for their improvement, and in some cases because their sins. Some are tried for their testing indeed, as we read that the blessed Abraham and Job and many of the saints endured countless tribulations. It also said of the people in Deuteronomy by Moses, “And you shall remember that the Lord your God led you all the way these forty years in the wilderness, to humble you and test you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not” (Deut. 8:2), and this which we find in the Psalms, “I tested you at the waters of Meribah” (Ps. 81:7). To Job also: “Do you think that I have spoken for any other reason than that you might be seen to be righteous?”
Some trials occur for improvement, such as when God chastens His righteous ones for some small and venial sins, or to raise them to a higher state of purity, and delivers them over to various trials, that He may purge away all their unclean thoughts, and, to use the prophet Isaiah’s word, the dross (cf. Isa. 1:25), which He sees to have collected in their secret parts, and thus He may transmit them like pure gold… “Many are the tribulations of the righteous.” And, “My son, neglect not the discipline of the Lord, neither be wearied while you are rebuked by Him. For whom the Lord loves He chastises, and scourges every son whom He receives. For what son is there whom the father does not correct? But if you are without chastisement, of which you all are partakers, then are you illegitemate, and not sons” (Heb. 12:5-8). And in the Apocalypse: “Those whom I love, I reprove and chasten” (Rev. 3:19)… To whom under the figure of Jerusalem the following words are spoken by Jeremiah, in the person of God “For I will utterly consume all the nations among which I scattered you, but I will not utterly consume you; but I will chastise you in judgment, that you may not seem to yourself innocent” (Jer. 30:11). And for this life-giving cleansing David prays when he says, “Prove me, O Lord, and try me; turn my reins and my heart.” Isaiah also, well knowing the value of this trial, says, “O Lord, I will praise You; though You were angry with me, Your anger is turned away, and You comfort me. Behold, God is my salvation, I will trust and not be afraid; for the Lord, is my strength and song; He also has become my salvation.”
But some trials come as a punishment for sins, as where the Lord threatens that He will send plagues on the people of Israel, “I will send the teeth of beasts upon them, with the fury of creatures that trail upon the ground” (Deut. 32:24), and “In vain have I struck your children; they have not received correction” (Jer. 2:30). In the Psalms also: “Many are the scourges of the sinners,” and in the gospel, “Behold you are made whole. Now sin no more, lest a worse thing happen to you” (Jn. 5:14). We find, it is true, a fourth way also in which we know based on the authority of Scripture that some sufferings are brought on us simply for the manifestation of the glory of God and His works, according to these words of the gospel: “Neither did this man sin nor his parents, but that the works of God might be manifested in him” (Jn 9:3), and again, “This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God that the Son of God may be glorified by it” (Jn 11:4). ….
We are well aware that there are other reasons also of the punishment and vengeance which is inflicted on those who have sinned grievously — not to expiate their crimes, nor wipe out the deserts of their sins, but that the living may be put in fear and amend their lives.
St. John Cassian (Taken from “Conferences”)
Church Fathers Commentary: