Steadfastness and Encouragement
Christ has conquered death by His Cross. And yet, each one of our bodies will some day pass away. Christ has set us free from our slavery to sin. And yet, we all find ourselves falling prey time and time again to our own familiar failings. Christ has won the victory for us, a victory which is definitive and final. And yet, all of our lives are full of struggle, full of suffering. In this time between Christ's glorious Resurrection and His second coming, in which His Kingdom will be made manifest in a way that is immediate and undeniable, it is often difficult to discern the reality of the victory that Christ has won for us. How can we keep ourselves from falling into despair in this long era of tension, these in-between times in which we find ourselves waiting?
In today's Epistle reading, St. Paul urges us toward two virtues without which the Christian life is impossible. “By steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we… have hope,” (Rom. 15:4). Steadfastness and encouragement; without these two things, we find it impossible to endure the sufferings that come to us so easily in life. The hope that we have in Jesus Christ can only be held onto, can only grow within us, when we live in a manner characterized by these twin virtues of steadfastness and encouragement.
The word that St. Paul uses for steadfastness (υπομονή) can also be translated as endurance, or perseverance. We are practicing this virtue whenever we are able to endure, to hold fast despite the present circumstances in which we find ourselves. When we are able to remain unyielding in the face of sometimes aggressive misfortune, then we are cultivating steadfastness in ourselves. It is, therefore, a kind of courage. We courageously persevere in our hope despite the mockery, the persecution, and the sufferings that we all face.
But steadfastness is also a kind of patience. As Christians, we find ourselves waiting patiently for our Lord's return. Υπομονή, patience, crosses over the tension between what Christ has already accomplished for us and its consummation that we are awaiting in His Kingdom. “If we hope for what we do not see,” St. Paul tells us, “with perseverance (δι' υπομονής) we eagerly await it,” (Rom. 8:25). This kind of steadfastness, this kind of patience, does not result from our own strength, our own ability to endure, but instead from the hope that we have in Jesus Christ.
It is not always easy to have patience. It is not always easy to hold onto the hope that we have in Christ. This is why we so desperately need to also practice encouragement (παράκλησις). St. Paul tells us to “encourage one another (παρακαλεῖτε ἑαυτοὺς) every day,” (Heb. 3:13). There are days that we find our faith to be weak. On those days, those who are strong in their faith can encourage us to persevere, to press on even in the face of difficulty. Then, on the days when our faith has been strengthened, when we find that hope is abundant in us, we in turn can strengthen our brothers and sisters who need us.
As long as we are still awaiting our Lord, our lives as Christians will be characterized by suffering, and by a dissatisfaction with the present conditions of human existence. We are able to endure these times, being strengthened by the hope that comes from Jesus Christ. That hope can only be firmly grasped when we put into practice the virtues of steadfastness and encouragement.
“May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” (Rom. 15:5-6).