Nobody enjoys difficulty. No one likes opposition. No one appreciates pain. But they are necessary to progress. You can see it in business; competition and problem-solving drive innovation. You can see it in history; the great creeds of the Christian faith developed to refute heretics. The truth is that if you’re paying attention, you can see just about anywhere you look.
I recently heard a sermon by Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon explain how basic a truth this is. A bird cannot fly without the resistance of the air, he said. A fish cannot swim without the resistance of the water. A human cannot walk without the resistance of the ground. It’s simple kinetics. Climbing the mountain, said Fr. Pat, is difficult and also only possible because the slope rises up against us.
This doesn’t suit many of us very well, me included. We crave expediency and ease. We want to walk through life unopposed. We want to implement our plans, purposes, and proposals without pushback, friction, or frustration. But the earth doesn’t spin on that axis. A world without difficulties is not the utopia so easily imagined. The simple and surprising truth is that nothing happens in a world without difficulty. That’s true for physics, economics, politics, and the spiritual life.
Whether we know it or not, our troubles are means of growth and grace. St. James tells us to “count it all joy” when we face trials because they lead to maturity and perfection. Spiritual effort and exertion are tiring and rewarding in ways similar to physical effort and exertion. We push against what resists us, and we overcome.
This is even true—maybe especially true—for high-torque spiritual warfare and temptation. Naturally, we’d rather never face these sorts of tests, but, as St. Isaac the Syrian says, “[w]ithout temptations, God’s concern is not perceived, nor is freedom of speech with Him acquired, nor is spiritual wisdom learnt, nor does the love of God become grounded in the soul.”
For those who have emerged victorious on the other side of such bouts, St. Isaac’s words ring true. Trust, spiritual intimacy, wisdom, and confidence all increase as the result of our trials. And as St. James says, it is only after we prevail in our temptations that we receive the crown of life.
The irony is that we resent difficulty and opposition, though they are the very things that move us forward. Through the special alchemy of resistance, our pain and trouble turn to progress and triumph. It’s a truth simple and surprising but also (speaking personally here) challenging, though for me it is one of the surest footholds when I find myself wearied on the mountain trail. The painful climb up the slope is the same ascent that inclines my heart evermore toward my God and savior.