“Agony in the Garden” (Fra Angelico, c. 1450)
Should Christians pray for strength to endure hardship rather than praying spared hardship in the first place? Thoughts on carrying crosses, redemptive suffering, and praying for deliverance from evil for the first week of Lent
Shall not we your sorrows share
And from worldly joys abstain?
Fasting with unceasing prayer
Strong with you to suffer pain.
— “Forty Days and Forty Nights,” verse 2 (George Hunt Smyttan)
Recently I’ve seen a meme pop up repeatedly on Catholic social media, taking different forms, the gist of which is something like this:
- “Do not pray to be spared hardship. Pray for endurance to bear hardship.”
- “Do not pray for an easy life. Pray to be a stronger man.”
- “Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers. Pray for powers equal to your tasks.”
These sentiments aren’t without merit — but there’s a problem.
Lent is a good time to talk about this, because it’s a season for self-denial: for taking up crosses, following Christ into the wilderness, facing hardship and mortification.
We do this, not for its own sake, but to combat our concupiscence, to strengthen our weakened will and discipline our unruly appetites, to break our excessive attachments to temporal things and become more receptive to God — to sacrifice the good out of love for the Best.
To fast in truth means more than self-denial, but it cannot mean less. We can be rigorously hard on ourselves without growing closer to God, but if we shrink from being hard on ourselves, we will not progress in the spiritual life as we ought to.
Suffering and redemption are inseparably connected in Catholic Christian thought and spirituality. Christ embraced suffering and death, and to follow him we too must embrace suffering and even death.
But it’s possible to go too far with this line of thought.
So often, the fullness of Catholic truth is best expressed not by “either/or,” but by “both/and.”
For example, Christ embraced suffering and death — but only after first praying that it might pass from him, that he might be spared it.
He didn’t get what he prayed for, but he still prayed for it.
Christ teaches us, in the Lord’s Prayer itself, to pray that the Father will lead us not “into temptation” — a word that also means “testing” or “trial” — but will “deliver us from evil” (or “from the Evil One”).
The petition here — as is made clear in the Eucharistic liturgy, in the embolism prayer that follows the Our Father — is not only that we should be “always free from sin,” but also that we should be “safe from all distress”; that the Lord should deliver us “from every evil” and “graciously grant us peace in our days”:
Deliver us, Lord, we pray, from every evil, graciously grant peace in our days, that, by the help of your mercy, we may be always free from sin and safe from all distress, as we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.
The Latin word translated “distress,” perturbatio, signifies disturbance or disorder — especially, in context, disruptive external circumstances interfering with Christian life and worship (e.g., persecution). The embolism thus echoes the sentiments of St. Paul writing to Timothy, urging prayers
for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way. (1 Timothy 2:2)
If in fact we live in tumultuous times, of course, we should pray for strength and endurance to bear the hardships that may come our way, just as Jesus embraced the suffering of his cross.
That doesn’t mean, though, that we shouldn’t pray for the opportunity to lead quiet and peaceable lives.
In the same spirit, we can and should pray to be safe from all kinds of disturbances or perturbations that might prevent us from leading quiet and peaceful lives, from family quarrels to earthquakes to riots in the street.
We rightly pray not only to avoid sin and near occasions of sin, but to avoid every kind of trial and evil, from illness and injury to car crashes and house fires, from work troubles and unemployment to terrorism and war, from depression and anxiety to persecution for our faith.
On social media, expressing my concerns about the one-sidedness of these memes, I quipped, “No — pray for easy lives! Pray to lead peaceful, quiet lives in holiness. Pray for daily bread and deliverance from evil.”
I was struck by the uncomfortable reaction to this notion from some pious souls, even after a fair bit of discussion. After all, life is difficult. This world is a vale of tears, and crosses are heavy and hard to carry. Our Lord found his Passion grievously hard to bear; our Lady likewise found her seven sorrows painful and dolorous.
Years ago I even heard priests, uncomfortable with the sweeping language of the Lord’s Prayer embolism, insert the word “needless” in the phrase “protect us from all needless anxiety.” But that’s not what the prayer says!
For all the suffering in this world, it’s okay pray to enjoy peace and quiet, to be safe from all disturbance. It’s okay to pray for good weather and health and safe travels, for a job you enjoy and a happy life.
We must accept the crosses that come our way; we should even be willing to embrace self-denial on penitential days and seasons especially. We should try to learn the secret St. Paul described to the Philippians:
Not that I complain of want; for I have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content. I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound; in any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want. I can do all things in him who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:11–13)
But this doesn’t mean being indifferent to plenty or hunger, abundance or want. Christianity is not masochistic, stoic, or fatalistic in the face of suffering.
One person objected to my rhetorical use of the term “easy life,” protesting that Jesus’ way is difficult, not easy:
Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few. (Matthew 7:13–14)
But this kind of proof-texting often goes astray, and the whole point of my quarrel with the memes is that the truth is so often not “either/or,” but “both/and.” So here: Jesus’ way is difficult in one sense, but also easy in another:
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:28–30)
So go ahead: Pray to be spared hardship. Pray for your burdens to be lightened. Pray for easy roads in life.
Don’t be surprised or discouraged if you don’t get what you pray for; don’t lose faith or hope, and pray for strength to bear whatever burdens you must — but don’t assume that praying for strength to endure hardship is your only option.