Why do difficulties seem to increase in life when one strives to deepen one's faithfulness to Christ and his Way?
“And [Jesus] said to them all, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.” -Luke 9:23 (Ἔλεγε δὲ πρὸς πάντας· Εἴ τις θέλει ὀπίσω μου ἔρχεσθαι, ἀπαρνησάσθω ἑαυτὸν καὶ ἀράτω τὸν σταυρὸν αὐτοῦ καθ’ ἡμέραν, καὶ ἀκολουθείτω μοι ; and cf. Matt. 16:24, Mark 8:34)
St. Sophrony used to say, what seems like a curse is a blessing; and Fr. Zacharias explains that the Cross in one’s life is a sign of God’s visitation.
In the First Epistle of Peter, we read that “the time is come that judgment must begin at the house of God”
“For the time is come that judgment must begin at the house of God: and if it first begin at us, what shall the end be of them that obey not the gospel of God?” -1 Peter 4:17 (ὅτι ὁ καιρὸς τοῦ ἄρξασθαι τὸ κρίμα ἀπὸ τοῦ οἴκου τοῦ Θεοῦ· εἰ δὲ πρῶτον ἀφ’ ἡμῶν, τί τὸ τέλος τῶν ἀπειθούντων τῷ τοῦ Θεοῦ εὐαγγελίῳ;)
And in the Book of Acts we read, that “we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God.” -Acts 14:22
“Confirming the souls of the disciples, and exhorting them to continue in the faith, and that we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God.” -Acts 14:22 (ἐπιστηρίζοντες τὰς ψυχὰς τῶν μαθητῶν, παρακαλοῦντες ἐμμένειν τῇ πίστει, καὶ ὅτι διὰ πολλῶν θλίψεων δεῖ ἡμᾶς εἰσελθεῖν εἰς τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ Θεοῦ.)
So, the mystery of suffering, the way of the Cross, is an inevitable part of the Christian life; and the holy Fathers teach us that this way is to be embraced and followed with patience and great diligence.
St. Basil the Great teaches us, in his Encomium for the Martyr Gordius, that we should “make voluntary that which is involuntary, and… not spare life, whose privation is inevitable.” Meaning that we are going to die one day, therefore we should be prepared to accept whatever death comes to us, in order to die in a way that is pleasing to God.
When St. John Chrysostom was about to die, after being dragged from place to place by the soldiers assigned to torment him in deep old age, his parting words were, “Glory to God for all things!”
And St. Gregory Palamas, writing about a thousand years later, gives us an insight into the meaning of the Biblical references to this mystery, and to both Basil’s and Chrysostom’s words, when in his homily on redemption (Homily XVI, 33), he explains:
“Except for sin nothing in this life, even death itself, is really evil, even if it causes suffering. The company of the saints brought bodily sufferings upon themselves. The martyrs made the violent death which others inflicted on them into something magnificent, a source of life, glory and the eternal heavenly kingdom, because they exploited it in a good way that pleased God. That is why, when Christ had abolished death by His resurrection, He still let it remain for His followers, along with this life’s other misfortunes, so that Christians should be exercised by these means for the sake of truth in both their lives and beliefs, and be made ready through the new covenant for the coming new age which will never grow old.”
Thus, in this present life we need to be “exercised” through “death” and “misfortunes”, in order to be prepared for the life to come. And this is accomplished by accepting whatever might befall us “as from the hand of God” (see Archimandrite Zacharias, The Enlargement of the Heart).
The Christian faith, as Fr. Romanides used to say, is not a religion. Its purpose is not to satisfy our emotional and psychological needs.
The purpose of the Christian faith is to make us Christlike and raise us to the plane of divine life - to the level of union and communion of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, to that of God the Holy Trinity.
But in order for this to take place we must undergo a transformation, a renewal that can come about only by grace of God, and which presupposes our striving to live the commandments of Christ.
In the Biblical and Patristic tradition of the Orthodox Church, this transformation and renewal is most commonly referred to as repentance. Understood as voluntarily following the way of Christ, repentance signifies our endless progression, our growing, into His very likeness.
Thus, each time we resist the temptation to react to the threat of death or suffering by preferring to follow the example of Christ, that is to say, by following His commandments, we enter into the mystery of repentance, and we are indeed taking up our cross, through which we also experience the resurrection.
For a fuller answer to this question, please see my book, The Orthodox Understanding of Salvation: “Theosis” in Scripture and Tradition (Dalton PA: 2016).