Carrying the Cross and Suffering in Hope

Carrying Our Cross in Hope

Jesus didn’t suffer so that we wouldn’t have to. He suffered so that we could handle suffering with him.

In other forms of Christianity, one is often told that Christ suffered and died so that we could be freed from a similar fate. A focus in Protestant theology is Christ appeasing the wrath of the Father, freeing us from a rightful punishment.

But for the Greek fathers and Orthodox Christianity, the focus is largely on Christ as the Great Physician—the God who suffers and dies so that he can wipe away our sins, cleanse us from defilement, and reunite us with the Father in him. Rather than presenting a Trinitarian nightmare in which the Father and Son are at odds, Orthodox Christology declares that Christ voluntarily lays down his life for the sake of the world—and that this is the unified, Divine will. In other words, while we are sinners, Christ dies for us.

One of my personal struggles is that of a severe and even crippling empathy. I have trouble disassociating myself from the sufferings or experiences of others, grafting their experiences into my own. In these times of distress, I can turn to prayer, petitioning God for his mercies. But in these prayers, I catch myself assuming that suffering is only a negative. While it might seem noble to ask for God’s deliverance, we should adjust our hearts and prayers in light of what I wrote already: “Christ suffered so that we could handle suffering with him.” Better than praying for deliverance from suffering, we must pray for salvation through suffering.

In the Christian context, hope is inextricably linked with suffering. Of this, the apostle Paul writes (Rom. 8:16–18):

The Spirit Himself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are children of God. And if children, also heirs—on the one hand heirs of God, on the other hand joint-heirs of Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, in order that we might also be glorified together. For I reckon that the sufferings of the present time are not worthy in comparison to the future glory to be revealed in us.

Paul is speaking here of “adoption” (Rom. 8:14–15). As Christians, we are adopted into God’s family. But if we are to receive our inheritance (as God’s children), we are called to suffer, becoming “joint-heirs” of the true Son of God. This, Paul explains, is why we endure the “sufferings of the present time,” living according to hope.

A falsehood spread throughout the broader Christian world today is that God adopts us into his family without anything expected of us. Or even worse, we are promised a better life, happiness, and even material wealth or worldly success. But this is really the opposite of what the scriptures promise. Paul again reminds us that “we were saved by hope” (Rom. 8:24). Our salvation is not realized immediately, nor is it a ‘flip of the switch’ in one’s mental assent of faith, but is rather a journey that begins in Baptism and is consummated on the Last Day. And until that day, we are awaiting our true salvation. From the beginning of our salvation journey to the end is a whole lifetime of trials, temptations, suffering, discipline, asceticism, struggle, and growth.

Being “saved in hope” also means knowing in whom we place our trust:

Who shall separate us form the love of Christ? Affliction, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? . . . But in all these things we more than conquer through the One Who loved us. —Rom. 8:35,37

While we are almost guaranteed a life marked by affliction, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, and sword, we have assurance of victory through the love of Christ. Our hope is in him. He is our assurance, just as he is true Life.

Since we are guaranteed as much, our prayer should be to see suffering transformed into salvation. As Elder Paisios has said:

In every test, let us say: “Thank you, my God, because this was needed for my salvation.”

Similarly, Fr. Seraphim Rose:

Only struggle a little more. Carry your cross without complaining. Don’t think you are anything special. Don’t justify your sins and weaknesses, but see yourself as you really are. And, especially, love one another.

When faced with struggle or temptation, ask God that we might struggle a little more. Give thanks to God that we are being provided an opportunity for our sanctification and salvation in him. Look to Christ as a source of strength—as one who suffered all, and yet without sin. Consider the lives of the Saints, who have imaged Christ in their own struggles.

In the end, remember that Christ didn’t suffer so that we wouldn’t have to. He suffered, died, and conquered death-by-death so that we could handle suffering with him. Casting our lot with Christ is a calling to suffering, a calling to carry a Cross—whether great or small.

But through Christ, through the mysteries of the Church, and through our own individual struggle and ascesis, we can live as co-heirs of him, prepared for future glory.


  1. David French says

    We are deeply indebted to you and your fellow writers for the steady stream of inspirational teaching that flows from this blog. To those of us just finding our way into Orthodoxy, it is a wonderful well from which to draw.
    Thank you for your sacrificial ministry

    • John Burnett says

      Dave French, .. ? Is this the same Dave French that I studied under In Selah? Are you in the process of converting to Orthodoxy? I converted 3 years ago after a conversation with Steve Poole, .. graduation week @ Enders Island.

      John Burnett

  2. Chris says

    Awesome post! Great analysis of identification and union vs substitution in atonement theology.

  3. Peter says

    Im an orthodox too, and not intending to defend the protestant position but if God the father was to lay all the “punishment” we deserve onto Jesus would that not be seen as an act of sacrifice of the son and love for us rather than the father’s abandonment of the son(trinitarian nightmare in which the son and father are at odds. Thats how the protestants see it i believe. An act of sacrificial love not dispute amongst the trinity. Can u help me reason this?

    • Karen says

      Hi Peter,

      Having been a Protestant and Evangelical for most of my 50-odd years of life (Orthodox since 2007), I observe a lot of variation within Protestantism around how this is understood. Penal Substitution has, of late, become a hotly debated subject even within Evangelicalism. A lot of the official language around how it has been historically explained and popularly described in many Evangelical Protestant circles does indeed suggest “parts” of the Trinity are at odds with other of its “parts” (typically, God’s attribute of “love/mercy” is opposed and contrasted with His “justice”), such that it infers (whether intentionally, or not) that what the sinner is being delivered from is not so much his own sin–and, consequently, the death and hell that result as the natural consequence of that–but rather from God Himself in His righteous “wrath” and obligation (many Orthodox, rightly I believe, detect an element of the pagan notion of “necessity” in this language) to punish sin.

      An example of this sort of inference which I have offered before for Orthodox readers was a statement by Erwin Lutzer (an Evangelical in the Reformed tradition, longtime pastor of Moody Church in Chicago) in a sermon I was listening to on radio a number of years ago shortly after I had become Orthodox, in which he suggested that the Cross is where the “mercy” and “justice” of God collide (emphasis his). Notice He says “collide” and not “cooperate”. Contrast that with the Orthodox perspective of St. Isaac the Syrian, who understood God’s chastisement of sin as His mercy as it is manifested upon the unrighteous (and is also for the purpose of their salvation). For the Orthodox, God’s mercy and His justice are essentially the same thing.

    • Karen says

      I would also add, Peter, that most Evangelicals, having been influenced in their mindset by the Medieval Scholastic method that compartmentalizes different aspects of the Bible’s teaching into separate categories and seeks to define and understand them this way, rather than seeking to unite all these aspects into a coherent whole (which would properly be the nature of God Himself as it is revealed in the Person of Jesus Christ), do tend to focus on the beauty of Christ’s sacrifice in their understanding of nature of the Cross and do often understand the sacrifice also to have been the Father’s on some level as well. But, as they compartmentalize this separately from consideration of how the Cross also manifests the justice of God and His punishment of sin, they essentially allow for–in different compartments–two “Gods” which are at odds with each other, and they tend to dismiss the obvious internal logical contradiction and lack of cohesion this introduces into the Godhead by affirming (out of context) “God’s ways are not our ways”, His “thoughts are not our thoughts.” That mentality resulted in a spiritual “itch” for me that could not be relieved while I was Evangelical and was the driving motivation that led me to Orthodoxy and its more biblically coherent understanding of the nature of our salvation in Christ.

      • Peter says

        Thank you karen for your thorough response. The opinion i had was from a presbyterian church i used to attend out of curiousity.. It was either to dialogue with protestants when i actually knew what they believed rather than assuming. The presbyterians seem to have it better than the more charismatic churches. But i do see what ure saying that their explanation can infer that two members of the trinity are at odds or one is punishing the other because Jesus takes on himself the “wrath” we deserve rather than just healing our state of sin. But through this presbyterian church i have often heard by some very elaborative preachers that they mix the two in a way that sounds almost orthodox. They say that he bore this wrath on our behalf out of willingness and love, not that God threw His son away but that it was all the trinity’s combined divine will that Jesus lay his life for us and recieve this wrath.

        It starts to look a bit orthodox in that way it makes it very confusing for me. Do u understand what im saying? According to that explanation i gave the members of the trinity were not at odds, its as if Jesus agreed that he will take on all the Father’s wrath on our behalf. Rather than the Father throwing the Son in the fire.

        • Karen says

          Yes, Peter, I do understand what you are saying, and I affirm there is never a suggestion in Protestantism that Jesus didn’t agree to take Sin’s punishment willingly. That’s not the issue here. The issue is trying to understand why the terrible suffering and death of Christ was somehow necessary for our salvation–why God required it for God’s forgiveness/remission of sin to go into effect for repenting sinners.

          The Orthodox answer is that the Cross was necessary in view of the very nature of what Sin is (i.e., a dynamic working in mankind where the creature voluntarily turns away from God and in on himself in what amounts to a sort of spiritual suicide. This spiritual death culminates in physical death and the punishment of eternal hell. This entering of God (who is Life itself) into our death (i.e., its consequences) was what it took to destroy that dynamic of death, reverse it, and lead us to freedom from our captivity to Sin, death and hell (a.k.a., “remission of our sins” in Orthodox parlance). Hebrews 2:15 offers the insight that our bondage to sin was the result of our “fear of death”, so this is a hint as to why it is also Christ’s triumph over death by His own death in His glorious Resurrection that frees us from this bondage, and renders us capable of repentance and salvation. The Orthodox view of sacrifice is “expiatory” (it occurs to effect a change in the one offering the Sacrifice, not in the One to whom the sacrifice is offered).

          The view of Protestant “Penal Substitution” theory (PSA) is that God was somehow bound (!?) by His own “justice” (Reformer’s PSA) or “honor” (Anselm’s theory of “satisfaction”) or by His own Law to “punish” mankind’s Sin (hence the “penal” in PSA). As God is infinitely good/honorable, so also now our “debt” (Anselm) to His “honor” by falling into Sin is infinite, thus a Human who was both sinless (a spotless Sacrifice) and infinite (i.e., who was also God) was necessary to fulfill the necessity (!?) for a “just” and “holy” God to fulfill His law and punish mankind’s Sin (PSA). Sin is an “infinite” offense against God–thus infinite “justice” (in the “eye-for-eye” sense) is served by Christ’s serving as our Substitute repaying the debt of honor owed to God and incurred by our Sin (Anselm) or accepting to be the Victim of the Law’s punishment of Sin (PSA) due us, releasing God from His honorable/moral/legal obligation (!?) to punish sinners (us). This view of the Cross is that it is “propitiatory” (i.e., it changes the One to whom the sacrifice is offered). Notice there is a lot of mathematical/economic, contractual, and legal conceptual imagery at play here. This is what is known as a “forensic” paradigm for understanding the Scripture’s teaching of the nature of our salvation in Christ.

          You are right that this sort of economic/forensic “tit for tat” aspect of the Western (Anselm’s theory is part of the theological inheritance in the Catholic Church) and Protestant theories is so mixed in with the emphasis on Christ’s love and the voluntary aspect of His passion (which are indeed quite Orthodox), that it is sometimes difficult to detect these contradictory strains of reason at play in these theories with respect to how they represent the motivation(s) and nature of God in the whole economy of our salvation in Christ, as well as what is changed in our relationship to God. In Anselm’s theory and PSA, it is God’s ability/willingness to extend forgiveness to repenting sinners that changes, since it is claimed it is only as a result of Christ’s sacrifice satisfying our debt to God that God is able to forgive “believing” sinners even while they are still sinning and count them as righteous, even while they are still not so).

          • Michael says

            Karen, thank you for laboring to explain that so well and thoroughly. This is something that has drawn me to Orthodoxy also. Its refreshing to have this reminder.