One of the great challenges for us as Christians is to not give into the dominant mentality of our culture that everything should be easy and that worldly success is all that matters. This is especially difficult for those of us who grew up in relative comfort in the West. Even within the Church, there has been a prevailing attitude that God wants us to be happy and therefore we should enjoy all of the successes and comforts of this life because that is what He wants for us.
The problem with this attitude is that it is counter to the Gospel and it keeps us from growing and maturing in holiness. It also can very quickly set up an immature Christian for despair when inevitable difficulties arise. These trials are meant to help us foster hope in Christ alone, not collapse in discouragement. If our hope is in worldly successes, then we have placed a false idol before God and He will do everything necessary to destroy that idol.
The Lord gives in abundance for the glory of His Kingdom, but He also prunes us, so that we may grow in union with Him. There will be periods within our families, ministries, careers, and other aspects of our lives that go well. The Lord pours in consolations and gifts in abundance, but then they stop and everything starts to fall apart. In those periods, we make very little progress spiritually. Our ministries hit roadblocks from other people or situations. We are persecuted by others within and outside of the Church. Health issues arise. Everything becomes very hard.
Why does the Lord permit this to happen in our lives? There are a lot of reasons, but one of them is because the Lord wants us to mature and grow in the supernatural virtue of hope. When things are going well and are easy we have a tendency very quickly to fall into self-reliance. We start to falsely believe that the good works we accomplish are our own, rather than His. This self-reliance also leads us away from deep union with Our Triune God in prayer. In fact, our prayer life can become superficial if we are not careful.
Difficulties are a way the Lord helps us to grow in hope and trust in Him. He allows our undertakings to fail in order to draw us more closely to a radical dependence on Him. We stop thinking that our accomplishments are of our own making, and instead, turn to Him with our whole hearts. This leads us to hope against hope in dark times that the Lord who loves us will bring us through any period of darkness or pruning. It leads us to the very foundation of Christian hope. Fr. Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalene in his classic work Divine Intimacy explains:
The foundation of apostolic hope is the victory of Christ and His continual help. Yes, He is with us all days, even on the dark days, when the horizon is black without a ray of light, when the enemy triumphs, when our friends forsake us, and when, humanly speaking, one does not see any possibility of success. If we had to rely upon our own resources, our ability, our works, we should have every reason to give up in despair; this, however, is not the case. We hope and we are certain in our hope, because God is omnipotent, because He wills all men to be saved, because Christ has redeemed us with His Precious Blood, and because He has died for us and for us has risen again; and finally, because His promises—the promises of a God—are infallible: “Heaven and earth shall pass, but My words shall not pass” (Matthew 28:20).
Our hope is not ultimately based on our worldly successes, even within the Church. To place our hope in the people and things of this life is to turn away from the Lord and to place our hope in the frail things of this life. Often the Lord needs to prune away our reliance upon others and the esteem and love we hope to garner from them in order to turn us back to Himself. We are made for full union with Him and the closer we get to union with Him, the more we must be purified of our self-reliance and worldly desires in order to hope only in Him.
The Lord also wants to show us that our worldly successes, even in ministry, will ultimately pass away. There will be periods of utter failure, rejection, and abandonment. If everything is constantly going well for us, then we should be seriously asking ourselves who we ultimately belong to. The Lord’s public ministry ended in what appeared to be utter failure on the Cross. It is through the Cross that He comes to the glory of His resurrection, but He doesn’t accomplish that triumph without the Cross. It is through the crosses of this life that we learn to hope in Christ fully. Fr. Gabriel states:
Humanely speaking, one could well say that the apostolate of Jesus terminated in absolute failure, with His death as a malefactor. All this should be deeply impressed on the mind of the apostle, so that he may not be scandalized if something similar should happen in his own life: “If they have persecuted Me, they will also persecute you” (ibid. 15:20).
By means of persecutions, humiliations and failures, the apostle will learn not to trust in his own strength; he will consider himself a useless servant even after he has labored much; he will be convinced of his own insufficiency and of the insufficiency of all human means; hence, he will place all his hope in God. He will learn to work solely for the love of God, without seeking the consolation of success, renouncing even the legitimate satisfaction of seeing the results of his labors.
Progressing in holiness and a maturing of the supernatural virtue of hope means relinquishing our own wants and desires to what God wills for us. This means surrendering to Him when things are going well and when they are falling apart. Our hope and reliance on God would become shallow—and possibly wither—if everything went well in our lives all of the time. We cannot take anything with us in this life into heaven, so the Lord prunes away in order to lead us to give our entire lives to Him and to hope in Him alone.
If you are encountering roadblocks or you always seem to battle failures and difficulties while serving the Lord, then He is leading you to hope in Him even more. He is walking with you through dark nights and stormy seas in order to strengthen your trust in Him. He wants each one of us to be holy and to belong to Him alone. Cast off the lies of the culture and some within the Church that God only wants comfort and ease for us. He wants us to hope in Him, not the things that are passing away in this life. If everything comes crashing down, our hope still remains in Christ alone.