“The Rich Man and Lazarus.” by Hendrick ter Brugghen, c. 1620. Taken from wikimedia.org
Age quod agis, “Do what you are doing.” — St. Benedict of Nursia
Fr. Tom Hopko — may he rest in peace — responded to a question by a woman who asked whether or not God plays favorites. His answer was very long, but I thought I would share this section of it as it offers some really insightful wisdom on “blooming where you are planted.” It’s a transcription of a talk, so it has a wonderfully informal tone. The italics are used to reflect his use of an emphatic voice.
St. John Chrysostom says if anyone in this life feels that God has intervened and miraculously healed them and made their life happy—let’s say gave them a good job or something, or healed them of a physical disease—then they have to answer to God for how they use that. And he says, when that happens, it always happens for more crosses, for greater suffering, for more service, for greater repentance, but it doesn’t have anything to do with who goes to heaven at the end, as such. And it doesn’t have to do with who may have some kind of experiences of God on earth before they die, as such. I don’t think that we can say that. I don’t think that that’s warranted to be said according to the Holy Scripture. And we do believe that God cannot save one individual person without saving the whole thing because we’re interconnected. That’s why when we say in church, things like “he came to save Adam,” it means he saves the whole of humanity and that’s why the saints say, “if anyone is saved, everyone is saved with them and in them,” somehow, interconnected, but then they have to deal with that fact. That’s why the prayers of holy people and the actions of holy people, they either contribute to the salvation of others, or, to use a scriptural expression, they pour more burning coals on their head because that person does not accept it.
So what we have to say is that there’s a fundamental will of God, but there’s a providential will of God. And the providential will of God is exactly what this question is about. We can ask, why is my providential will of God this way and someone else’s providential will of God the other way? And why does God deal with this person this way and that person that way? And I think, again, the rationalization answer—God forgive me, I don’t think it’s a rationalization—but I think the truth of the matter is because you are you and I am me and he is he and she is she. And, you know, I’ve had people say to me, “Oh, Fr. Tom, why couldn’t I have been your child? Why was I someone else’s child and my own father was so horrid? And I didn’t have a nice father like you are, and you’re a nice father for your children.” Well, I would say two things. Number one is: because you’re not my child. If you were my child, you wouldn’t be you. You are who you are because you are that guy’s child and that woman’s child, and you are produced by them, and they were produced by their parents and produced by their parents. I would also say, ask my kids how nice it was to be my child. I’m sure you’ll get an answer that will blow your mind what it meant to be my child.
I mean, but still as Fr. Alexander Schmemann used to say, life for every human being on this earth is: how do we deal with what we’ve been dealt, and what we’ve been dealt makes us who we are; it makes us how we are. I am who I am, what I am, how I am, why I am, with whom I am, from whom I am because I was born from John and Anna Hopko on the north side of Endicott in 1939. That’s who I am. And then God will ask me at the last judgment, “What did you do with what you’ve been given?” But God also may ask that, will ask that same question in some sense—he’ll ask that same question to some—let’s try to think of somebody—son of a communist in the Soviet Union or some child of a mafia worker in the Bronx or something.
But God is not going to ask the same thing from each one. How could he? He wouldn’t. And my guess is that God is not even going to ask anything of certain people on this earth because their life was so damaged that he’s just going to love them, embrace them, and take them to paradise; and so the very fact that you just simply survived and endured, even though you yourself did lots of evils yourself perhaps—because as the saying goes “hurt people hurt people”; if you’ve been hurt, you’re going to hurt others; if you’ve been loved, you’re going to probably have a better chance to love others. But in the sight of God, the one who has had what you might consider a lucky or fortunate birthright—let’s say born into people who are basically sane, virtuous and believing, and who are trying to keep God’s commandments. Yeah, if that happens, that’s great! But then God still asks that person what they did with that. But that person is not better or worse or more gifted or treated more wonderfully by God. That’s not the teaching, not the teaching at all.
It doesn’t at all mean that if a person is born in an alcoholic family where there was just rage and abuse and sadness, it doesn’t mean that that person is worse in the eyes of God. And that person would not be asked by God to go out into the desert like St. Seraphim and kneel on a rock for 15 years. That’s not their calling. That’s not their vocation. They have to do something else with what they’ve been given. And maybe the best that that person can do is endure it, and endure it with some kind of faith, hope, and love. And even maybe endure it without too much faith, hope, and love, but still endure it. And maybe they’ll do lots of sins, but they’ll still be pretty good in God’s eyes compared to some other person who is greatly gifted. So I think that we have to deal with this issue of God’s basic will and God’s providential will. And the providential will, I agree totally, is a great mystery.
But one thing’s for sure that we must really, I think, just accept: you can’t say, “Why couldn’t I have been that other person? Why couldn’t I have had some other parents? Why couldn’t I have lived in some other time? Why couldn’t I have lived in some other place? Why couldn’t I have lived with other conditions?” Well, the simplistic answer would be: because if you did, you wouldn’t be you! You would be somebody else. That was not your vocation. That was not your cross. That was not what you have to bear in your earthly life, and we should remember how fleeting earthly life is. That’s one of the teachings of Scripture, too.
The Apostle Paul says that the glory of the age to come can’t even be compared to the afflictions that we suffer on this earth. Now, I know you could say, tell that to someone who is suffering, tell that to someone who wants to be St. Seraphim but is in fact a struggling mom with a difficult situation. Well, I would be careful not to say it so easily and glibly, but I think what would have to be said to that mom in a difficult situation is: you really must believe that God didn’t call you to be St. Seraphim—or St. Seraphima, if you’re a lady. He didn’t. He called you to be who you are and to enter into what you have to do.