Dear Father John, in one of the sayings by St. John of the Cross (awesome guy!) it says (and I believe) that hardships bring us closer to God. But isn’t it still possible to grow closer to Him when there are no hardships going on?”
Your instinct is right. It isn’t the hardships themselves that make us grow. Rather, it’s the conscious and intentional exercise of faith, hope, and love in the midst of those hardships that leads to spiritual progress. And it is certainly possible to exercise those virtues even amid the normal ups and downs of life. Therefore, we can continue to grow closer to God even when we are not experiencing especially heavy or dramatic crosses.
The problem comes when comfort and success lull us into a spiritual sleep. Because of our fallen nature, we can easily become lax and lazy in our spiritual life, being satisfied with the progress we have made so far, or even descending into barely discernible lukewarmness. In such a condition, the capital sins sneak up on us in spiritual disguises, and we begin to judge others and consider ourselves mature and superior. The experience of suffering, of crosses, tends to help us avoid that.
Athletes-in-Training. Think of it like this. Good coaches will allow athletes-in-training to enjoy their progress and growth, but they will also know when to set new challenges and push a little harder. At times, growth requires being pushed out of our comfort zone. That can be more or less painful, but we know it’s true. In the spiritual life, God is like a good coach, allowing or sending crosses in order to give us a chance to exercise our faith, hope, and love more intensely than we otherwise might. That extra intensity fosters growth.
I would say, however, that considering our condition as fallen human beings, it does seem impossible to reach full spiritual maturity if we never experience suffering. Christ’s path through Calvary to the Resurrection is paradigmatic, tracing the pattern for every Christian life. Nevertheless, it would be reductive to affirm that spiritual growth only happens through suffering. In any case, St. John’s teaching is comforting for us earthly pilgrims, because in the reality of day-to-day life, no one escapes suffering for long, and it is good to know that the darkness of our Good Fridays is not beyond the reach of our Father’s transforming love.
Sincerely in Christ,
Fr. John Bartunek, LC
Art: Wooden crosses near the entrance to the Holy Sepulchre Church, own work, Adiel lo, October 2006, CC, Wikimedia Commons.