A mountain ahead. Hurray?
As a rule, when running up against difficulties in our ordinary, daily life, we try to get around them however we can. This is perfectly natural—after all, if we, let’s say, are walking home and on our path is an icy hill, it would be more reasonable to take another route rather than risk slipping and breaking a limb. Or, let’s say we are looking for an apartment and find out that in such-and-such a building the elevator doesn’t work, then it would be perfectly natural for us to strike that building off the list and not get all enthused about walking up ten flights of stairs all the time. This is probably the first thing to which it would make sense to pay attention: As Christians and simply as adults, responsible people, we should not create hardships for ourselves artificially. Our lives are hard enough without that.
Nevertheless, a person who categorically avoids whatever difficulties that may be rarely succeeds in life. He can graduate from school, university, find a relatively comfortable and easy job, but he will not attain any important thing that a different attitude towards life might attain. After all, only truly difficult situations, moreover, stressful situations force us to mobilize all our strength, and stimulate us to learn how to “outgrow” them. Therefore, while avoiding difficulties where it is rational to do so, we must under no circumstances hide from them where they might be able to teach us something essential. This applies to study, work, sports, and of course to Christian life.
Why must we definitely struggle with difficulties in Christian life? Because, as St. John Climacus formulates it, when we are warred against we fight back; that is, when we run up against an inner struggle, when we have to do something with psychological difficulty, with effort, we understand that our passions are behind this along with our direct enemy [the devil], who does not sleep. And this understanding arouses us to overcome fear and laziness, and do the very thing that is salvific for us.
And what in Christian life is especially hard for us? Deeds and acts directed against the passion that is acting most forcefully at that moment in us. It is even somehow strange at times to see how one thing is hard for one person, another thing for another, a third for a third; and each of them would gladly do what is hard for the others. This is not so much because these people are so very different as it is because different passions act in them to different degrees.
What does it mean to “overcome difficulties”? It practically always means growing out of our faintheartedness. And of course when we are already adults this becomes more and more difficult if we have not been accustomed to it from childhood. Thus, when a child comes to confession and tells about some dishonesty, for example that he made a mess and blamed it on his younger brother, the priest might say to him, “Understand that there is only one way to set things straight: God to your mom and dad and admit everything.” And the child has to admit the reason for his deceit: thinking that the truth would not come out, or that he was afraid of punishment, or that he just didn’t want others to think badly of him.
And not only a priest but any adult that the child trusts can reveal this spiritual law to him: “Do you know that if you do not admit it now then in all likelihood you will not admit to something the next time, because then it will be much harder than today. You will get used to deceiving, and this will lead to your doing it that way every time. And later, when you grow up and want to become a different person, it will be very, very hard for you to change. I can’t force you to do this, but I strongly advise you to overcome your fear now, today, so that it won’t be so hard for you to do it later.” And it must be said that quite a few children decide to follow this advice, and you will see how this child outgrows himself, how he becomes stronger.
And for the most part, the same thing happens with an adult when he decides not to run away from a situation in which he is ashamed and fearful, but to take a step toward the truth and bear all possible consequences…