Another reason why human suffering is a mystery to an unbeliever is because his very idea of God is false.
Father Seraphim (Rose)
Modern man is shocked when the Holy Fathers speak of God in the following way: “Whether God brings upon us a famine, or a war, or any calamity whatsoever, He does so out of His exceeding great care and kindness” (St. John Chrysostom, Homily 7, On the Statutes). The God-bearing Elder Macarius of Optina, in 19th century Russia, wrote thusly to a friend:
Being weak in health as you yourself are, I cannot fail to feel much sympathy for your plight. But kind Providence is not only more wise than we are; it is also wise in a different way. It is this thought which must sustain us in all our trials, for it is consoling, as no other thought is.
Wise in a different way - here we can begin to see that the Patristic understanding of God’s ways is contrary to the world’s view. In fact, it is unique: It is not speculative, scholarly, or “academic.” As Bishop Theophan the Recluse has written:
Christian faith not is not a doctrinal system but a way of restoration for fallen man. Therefore, the criterion of faith — true knowledge of God — is not intellectual.
The measure of truth, as Professor Andreyev wrote, is life itself…Christ spoke of this clearly, plainly, and definitely: I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6). That is, I am the Way of perceiving the Truth; I am Myself the incarnate Truth (everything I say is true) and I am Life (without Me there cannot be life). (Orthodox Christian Apologetics).
This is very far from the wisdom of this world.
We can either believe or disbelieve Christ’s words about Himself. If we believe, and act upon our belief, then we can begin to ascend the ladder of living knowledge, such as no textbook or philosopher can ever give: Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this world? Hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? (I Corinthians 1:20).
One of the difficulties in compiling a handbook of Patristic teaching on illness is that sickness cannot be strictly separated from the general question of pain (e.g. psychological pain and the suffering which results from war, famine, etc.). Some of what the Holy Father’s have to say here about illness also establishes a foundation for their teaching about adversity. Another difficulty is that the Orthodox Fathers sometimes use such words as “sin,” “punishment,” and “reward” without limiting themselves to the meanings our modern society gives them. For instance, “sin” is a transgression of the Divine Law. But in Patristic thought is it also more than this: it is an act of “treachery,” a faithlessness to God’s love for man and “arbitrary violation of [man’s]sacred union with God” (Andreyev, Ibid.). Sin is not something we should see within a strict legal framework of “crime and punishment;” man’s faithlessness is a universal condition, not limited to just this or that transgression. It is always with us, for all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).
God’s dealings with man are not limited to our legalistic ideas about reward and punishment. Salvation, which is the ultimate goal of Christian life, is not a “reward,” but a gift freely given by God. We cannot “earn” or “merit” it by anything we do, not matter how pious or self-effacing we think ourselves.
In everyday life we naturally think that good deeds should be rewarded and crimes punished. But our God does not “punish” on the basis of human standards. He corrects and chastises us, just as a loving Father corrects his erring children in order to show them the way. But this is not the same thing as being “sentenced” to a “term” of pain and suffering for some misdeed.
Our God is not vindictive.
He is at all times perfectly loving, and His justice has nothing to do with human legal standards. He knows that we cannot come to Him without purity of heart, and He also knows that we cannot acquire this purity unless we are free from all things: free of attachments to money and property, free of passion and sin, and even detached from bodily health if that stands between us and true freedom before God. He instructs us, through both Revelation and correction, showing us how we may acquire this freedom, for Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free (John 8:32).
As St. John Cassian teaches: God “leads you on by a still higher step which is free of fear. Through this you begin effortlessly and naturally to observe all those things you originally observed out of fear of God and punishment, but now you do them no longer from fear of punishment, but from love of Goodness itself, and delight in virtue” (Institutes).
Keeping in mind this deeper spiritual meaning of such words as “sin,” “reward,” and “punishment,” we can proceed to study the divinely-wise discourses of the Holy Fathers on the subject of illness, thanking God that “our Faith has been made secure by wise and learned Saints” (St Cosmas Aitolas), for “truly, to know oneself is the hardest thing of all,” as St. Basil the Great writes.
The Holy Fathers point the way.
Their lives and writings act, as it were, like a mirror in which we may take the measure of ourselves, weighed down as we are by passions and infirmities.
Illness is one of the ways by which we can learn what we really are. In fact, we learn who we truly are.