Life of Virtue & Righteousness (21)
Pope Shenouda III | 28 November 2010
Hindrances Not Preventives
Life of virtue and righteousness is not always easy, for there may be some hindrances on the way, facing even saints, as we know from their biographies. Why then does God permit such hindrances, what are their sources, causes, and benefits?
Causes and sources of hindrances:
1. Some are caused by the devil, for he walks about like a roaring lion, seeking a prey, and sowing tares everywhere, as he did to Eve our mother, giving her a destructive counsel. We ought to be on our guard, "for we are not ignorant of his devices" (2 Cor 2: 11). That is why St. Athansius in his struggle against the Arians said, 'Our first enemy is not Arianism, but the devil.'
The crowns that may be received in case of overcoming such hindrances are an encouraging factor. Man's love for God and insistence to walk in virtue and overcome hindrances entitles him to receive crowns of love, struggling, and triumph. Nobody should therefore take as an excuse the hindrances he may face at home, at work or around, for this is the nature of the spiritual way. The devils envy the righteous for their righteousness and their success in what they themselves failed, for their experiencing the life of holiness and purity and their attachment to God, for the grace accompanying them, for the work of the Holy Spirit in them, and even for their life with God. So, the devils wage wars against the righteous so that they may fail and join them in their kingdom.
If hindrances exist, this means that we are on the right way, for if we were in the way of the devil why would he fight us! He would rather make his way easy for us and encourage us. The fact that he or his assistants fight us is certain evidence that our way troubles the devil. That is why the Lord Christ says:
"If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you."
"If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you." (Jn 15: 19, 18) Such hatred is natural and ought to give us peace and be a trait for us. The Lord described the gate as narrow and the way as difficult (Mt 7: 14)
Actually, the adversary fights only the great work that deserves. He also fears a good beginning lest it grow and bear fruit, that is why beginnings are often difficult, for whenever a person starts a successful work, the devil and his supporters start an anti-action.
Even the apostles and great saints faced hindrances in their ministry and evangelism.
Emperors, kings, governors, rulers, and judges rose against them, sent them to trials, and cast them into prisons and exiles. They faced oppression, persecutions, and resistance from old religions and philosophies. The Lord said it clearly, "You will be hated by all for My name’s sake." (Mt 10: 22) "The time is coming that whoever kills you will think that he offers God service." (Jn 16: 2) However, all these are hindrances not preventives.
Many hindrances arose against evangelism, but such hindrances did not prevent them from evangelizing. Faith spread, and churches extended, for the Scripture says, "Those who were scattered went everywhere preaching the word." (Acts 8: 4) Even in the Old Testament, the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and grew (Ex 1: 12). As for the church it is written, "No weapon formed against you shall prosper" (Isa 54: 17)
The whole world stood against Athanasius the Apostolic. He was exiled and deposed, yet he prevailed.
2. Love of the world, and the senses and their deviation are among the hindrances. The senses are the gates of thoughts leading to the heart and the emotions; and the world has its wars and puts hindrances in the way of the spirit. The same applies to the flesh and its hindrances.
3. Among the hindrances also are the false brothers, misleading guides, and evil company, as God said to Israel, "Those who lead you cause you to err," (Isa 3: 12) The Lord likewise described the scribes and Pharisees as "blind guides" (Mt 23) and said, "And if the blind leads the blind, both will fall into a ditch." (Mt 15: 14) This applies to the wrong concepts that may spread among people, misleading them and hindering their way to God. Peter, with his wrong understanding of passions stood as an offense to the Lord, so the Lord rebuked him, saying, "Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me." (Mt 16: 23) Misleading books and printed material then are hindrances.
4. Among the hindrances is one's nature, whether inherited, acquired from the surroundings, or established by practice. A person has to overcome this nature, even though a person is quick to anger, irritable, rash …etc.
There are hindrances from the inner lusts and wrong goals, for the Scripture says, "No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man." (1 Cor 10: 13) We therefore pray God to save us from all such hindrances whatever their sources may be, and in spite of all such hindrances and wars, I want you to have peace. Do not be afraid, be steadfast, and go on. You are not alone in your wars, for you have the divine support. The devil may hinder you, but the grace encourages and strengthens you. God may permit hindrances, this is half the fact, but the other half is that God at the same time gives you the strength by which you can struggle and overcome. He himself leads you in triumph in Christ (2 Cor 2: 14).
He permits trials, but "God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it." (1 Cor 10: 13)
One may wonder why God permits trials and hindrances to befall us! This brings us to the reasons:
God may permit hindrances to test our love, our will power, and our obedience. Everybody can offer good intentions and promises, as Peter did when he said to the Lord, "Even if all are made to stumble because of You, I will never be made to stumble." "Even if I have to die with You, I will not deny You!" (Mt 26: 33, 35) Yet at the time of action, at the time of fears and danger, all such words and good intentions were tested.
Some examples of hindrances for testing:
a) When a rich charitable person faces some hindrances like need or poverty, these will be a test to his virtue of charity. The virtue of the widow who gave out of her poverty deserved the Lord's praise (Mk 12: 44). The widow of Zarephas of Sidon likewise gave Elijah in the days of the famine all she had of flour and oil kept for a last meal for her and her son before they die! (1 Kgs 17: 12)
b) Giving of the needs applies to one's time, tithes, strength, and health. A person who pays the tithes when being poor with very little to cover his needs, overcoming the hindrance of poverty and obeying the commandment, certainly differs from a person who takes the need as an excuse to cover or justify his disobedience. Likewise, a minister who serves even when he has exams with no minute free, or the minister who serves in spite of his weakness, all those having overcame hindrances proved their love for God, for the others, and for good in general.
c) A person who bears with someone in spite of the offense or embarrassment caused by him reveals the prevalence of the virtue of longsuffering over all hindrances. The Lord says, "If you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so? But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you (Mt 5: 44- 47). He requires us to have love and peace with longsuffering. The person who suffers the betrayal of a friend and its results has the virtue of longsuffering.
d) A person who says a word of truth in spite of the results overcomes hindrances. It is easy to say a word of truth if it is safe, but to insist on saying it in spite of the persecution that may result is evidence of concern about testifying to the truth and of courage. John the Baptist is an example, for when he said to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife,” (Mk 6: 18) he was beheaded in prison, and his head was brought on a platter (Mt 14: 11).
e) Another example is giving thanks in spite of the hindrances. Everybody can give thanks to God for health, comfort, wealth, or success, but, to give thanks in case of poverty and need, or in case of prayers not responded, is evidence of the deep virtue of thanksgiving and love for God Himself, not for His good things. Hindrances reveal one's steadfastness in faith and in the relationship with God and the others.
The martyrs revealed deep faith in spite of the threats, the tortures, the jail, and the exile, and in spite of the many temptations. They proved stronger, overcame suffering and temptation, and received crowns.
Job the Righteous revealed his virtue in spite of losing his money and children and health, and even the compassion of his friends and wife and the respect of his servants. He lost everything, but he could say, "The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; Blessed be the name of the Lord." (Job 1: 21)
In our dealings with the others the depth of the relationship appears if a person could keep his love in spite of a fault or negligence on the part of the others, whether intended or not, or some default, tongue slip … etc.
Virtue that is firm in spite of hindrances resembles a house built on the rock. It overcame rain, floods, and winds (Mt 7). Likewise, the good nature and strength of a spiritual person is clear if he is steadfast in faith, not easily loses his calmness, peace, or love in spite of all the hindrances, not shaken, changed, confused, suspecting or weakened. This enables a person to lead a successful life always.
An example is our father Abraham in all the trials testing his faith.
His first call was to leave his country, his family and his father's house (Gen 12), not knowing where he had to go (Heb 11: 8)! Yet, he obeyed without arguing. Then came the second test which was harder, to take his only son whom he loves and offer him to God as a burnt offering on one of the mountains (Gen 22: 2). This also was not a hindrance for Abraham's love for God, faith in Him, and obedience to Him.
In the field of ministry, there is a great difference between easy and difficult ministry.
Many prefer easy and comfortable ministry, but its reward is not the same as that of the difficult ministry, which has no facilities like that of St. Mark in Egypt, or like the ministry involving difficulties and hardships from the others, or from false brethren as faced by Paul the Apostle (2 Cor 11: 26; Gal 2: 4). He also once said, "I have fought beasts in Ephesus" (1 Cor 15: 32). Overcoming hindrances in the field of the ministry for the sake of edifying God's Kingdom certainly will have a great reward in heaven.
Benefits of hindrances:
1. Hindrances remind us of our weak nature, and lead us to humbleness. If the spiritual life goes easy without any hindrances and victories, a person may fall in vain glory and a feeling of power. On the contrary, hindrances often put us before our real nature and make us feel how weak we are, how uneasy is the matter and needs an effort that may be beyond our level.
This will make our hearts humbled, especially if we fail in the beginning as happened to Peter, David, and Samson.
2. Such hindrances also call upon us to pray and not depend on ourselves, but on God, and say with the Psalmist, "If it had not been the Lord who was on our side … they would have swallowed us alive." (Ps 124: 2, 3) "Refuge has failed me; no one cares for my soul. I cried out to You, O Lord: I said, 'You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living.'" (Ps 142: 4, 5) Hindrances also make our prayers deeper and more fervent.
3. Hindrances provide us with spiritual experience and make us see God's hand stretched to save us, for He says, "Without Me you can do nothing." (Jn 15: 5) "I am with you always, even to the end of the age." (Mt 28: 20) We can see how God solves our problems and removes away whatever hindrances may face us, and recognize practically His words about Zerubbabel, "Who are you, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel you shall become a plain!" (Zech 4: 7) We experience how God turns evil into good, and how He interferes in the occurrences and arranges them with His will in a way that can turn to the glory of His name. We experience, through overcoming hindrances by the divine help, the explanation of the verse, "Stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord … The Lord will fight for you, and you shall hold your peace." (Ex 14: 13, 14)
This shows that the stories we read in the Scripture turn into actual acts, as the story of the three young men in the furnace of fire and the story of Daniel in the den of lions. We add to these stories an actual record of God's dealings with us, with our relatives, friends, and colleagues. This gives us courage and strength and we no more fear the hardships or the hindrances. God permits hindrances but gives with them a way of escape.
4. Seeing all this, and in spite of hindrances, we enter into the life of thanksgiving.
We thank God who delivered us, arranged, and removed away the hindrances, for it is He who opens and no one shuts, He who is more powerful than Pharaoh, Nero, and Diocletian. Therefore, we chant, saying, "Our soul has escaped as a bird from the snare of the fowlers; the snare is broken, and we have escaped. Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth." (Ps 124: 7, 8) In all hardships we see that those who are with us are more than those who are with them (2 Kgs 6: 16). The angels fighting for us are more than the devils rising against us. God's calm work is stronger than the clamor of the evil forces. The work of the Holy Spirit is deeper than the contrary temptations. Adam was not aware of all the spiritual blessings he had in the Garden of Eden, but the people lost in the wilderness of Sinai knew the value of the water springing from the rock and the manna descending from heaven, because the need reveals the value of things more than in case there is no need.
5. Hindrances revive our spirits to enable us to fight the enemy.
A heart that faces hindrances can chant, saying, "Blessed be the Lord my Rock, who trains my hands for war, and my fingers for battle." (Ps 144: 1) If there had not been Goliath, David would not have experienced the power of the Lord of Hosts, and but for the spiritual wars, we would not have received the teachings of the fathers who experienced the deceit of the enemy and described to us the enemy's ways of fighting and the ways of overcoming them. St. Paul the Simple lived under the prayers of St. Anthony the Great, who afterwards called that saint to live alone in seclusion "to experience the wars of the enemy" and to revive his soul in struggling and experience triumph!