“In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials” -- I Peter 1:6
In the previous discourse, I spoke of the darkness of mind that falls upon those who once walked in the light. Related to this is the heaviness of soul, which is even more common among believers. Indeed, almost all the children of God experience this.
First, in looking at the Apostle Peter’s words, it is important to note that these words were given to believers who kept faith through various trials. They experienced the heaviness of griefs and heartaches but this heaviness did not destroy their faith. (I Pet 1:5, 7). Neither did this heaviness destroy their peace, the peace beyond our human understanding, or living hope in the inheritance of God, which is “incorruptible, undefiled, and that does not fade away.” ( I Pet 1:3). Though they were heavy, they were also holy. They were still “kept” from sin.
Secondly, we note that the original word translated by some as heaviness can also mean “sorrow” or “grief.” Peter speaks of these who were “grieved.” Our translators chose this less common word to denote the degree of the sorrow or grief. This grief is strong, sinking deep within the soul. It is also more than a transient sorrow, a fleeting sadness. It holds on to the heart and is not easily shaken. This heaviness can overshadow the soul and affect our mood and behavior. It can weaken the body. And still all of this may happen while faith remains and works by love.
Thirdly, we note that the disciples to whom Peter was originally speaking knew suffering and sorrow, precisely because of their faith. Faith does not shield us from sorrow or suffering. In fact, as our hearts are opened to love, sorrow can increase. As we begin to reflect virtues that stand opposed to the ways of greed and envy, power and pride, we might find ourselves called to suffer for faith, on the side of eternity. Note that the disciples, in this example, continued to rejoice, “even though, for a little while, they suffered griefs of all kinds of trials.”
What causes this sorrow, this grief, this heaviness? The cause is manifold temptations or “trials,” as the scripture describes it. They may be varied and diverse in a thousand ways. This very diversity and variety makes it more difficult to guard against them. Among these we may rank all diseases and disorders, pains and afflictions, tragedies and separations, poverty and death – to us or to those we are given to love -- all can bring great heaviness over our souls; all can cause sorrow of heart. The love of Christ in our heart can lead to this heaviness, and cause our hearts to break, even for those who live by rules of unkindness, ingratitude, and apostasy.
Some suppose that this heaviness is caused by God’s withdrawing from the soul. Certainly, God may do this to degrees if we have grieved the Spirit, either by inward or outward sin, and have given way to pride or anger or spiritual sloth. But I do not believe that God would ever withdraw merely for pleasure, or to prove his will. Such a notion is repugnant to the nature of God. God always acts in love.
For what purposes does God permit such heaviness to befall his children? The Apostle’s answer is direct: “that the trial of their faith, which is more precious than gold, though it be tried by fire, may be found in praise and honor and glory at the revealing of Jesus Christ (1:7). We learn that faith is purified by trials, as gold in a fire. Trials can serve to increase that living hope within us. Trials can increase the joy that God wants for us. Trials can expand our love for God and all creation, opening our spiritual eyes to the suffering that we share with others. We become more deeply sensitive to the loving-kindness of God who first loved us that we might love one another.
Another purpose is the advance of holiness: holiness of heart and holiness of conversation, the latter flowing from the former as good fruit from a good tree. In the midst of our trials and struggles, the Spirit is at work, purifying “the heart from pride, self-will, passion, from the love of the world, from foolish and hurtful desires, from vile and vain affections. Such sanctified afflictions, humble the soul; they calm our turbulent spirit, tame the fierceness of our nature, soften our obstinacy and self-will, crucify us to the world, and bring us to expect all our strength from, and to seek all our happiness in, God.” From an eternal perspective, and by living in the grace of God, we are able to rejoice in whatever circumstances we find ourselves and say, “The Lord gave; the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”
Finally, this heaviness, this sorrow, is not this end. Trusting this, we are not to avoid conditions that lead to heaviness of heart. We can embrace them. We can trust that this state can indeed increase our faith, confirm our hope, and perfect us in love, until we are received into God’s everlasting kingdom. Amen.