We live in a world of unprecedented comfort: electricity, indoor plumbing, heating and air-conditioning, medicine, healthcare, abundant food, myriad consumer products, and entertainment available with the click of a button. Despite this we do not seem more grateful or at ease than our forebears. If anything, we are more anxious. For example, though people have never lived so long nor been so healthy, we have never been more worried about our health.
One would think that such abundance and comfort would lead us to be exceedingly grateful and to overlook small setbacks, remembering how much more difficult life was for our ancestors—but the opposite seems more often to be the case. We seem to be easily frustrated and to have little tolerance for enduring even the most minor suffering. Our comfortable couches have made us soft and our countless options have made us overly particular and easily annoyed. There is an old saying that “Expectations are premeditated resentments.” We certainly have a lot of expectations these days, many of them unrealistic in the long run. The insistence on everything being perfect seems to rob us of the happiness we should enjoy. Everyone wants the ideal, and if there is any ordeal, they want a new deal.
We seem to have lost the idea that life is a time of testing for us. We live in paradise lost, and there are going to be difficulties. St. Augustine reminds us that trials have their purpose:
Our pilgrimage on earth cannot be exempt from trial. We progress by means of trial. No one knows himself except through trial, or receives a crown except after victory, or strives except against an enemy or temptations. [From a commentary on the psalms by Saint Augustine, bishop (Ps. 60, 2-3: CCL 39, 766)].
Yes, trials and tests help us to gain self-knowledge and self-mastery. Trials also have purifying and humbling effects. So good is God to us that He allows His graces to become our merits. For, having engaged the battle of life and undergone its trials, the crown of victory will be granted to us. St. Augustine surely has in mind St. Paul’s confident hope:
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on the crown of righteousness is laid up for me, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but to all who crave His appearing(2 Tim 4:7-8).
Where would you and I be today without the trials of the past? We do not seek out suffering, but the suffering that inevitably comes in both small and large doses helps to form our character, make us stronger, and give us wisdom.
We who live in the developed world today have, for the most part, “First World problems,” and we do well to remember the inevitability of trials in this life. We don’t have to like them, but when they come, we should accept and endure them graciously. Resentment and anger at such trials do not bespeak spiritual maturity. Enjoy the good things and comforts of this life but beware the tendency to become soft and overly fussy. Remember, too, that this world is passing away.
The song “We’ll Understand It Better By and By” has these appropriate lyrics:
Trials dark on every hand
And we cannot understand,
All the ways that God will lead us
To that blessed Promised Land.
But He guides us with His eye,
And we follow till we die,
And we’ll understand it better by and by.