Read an interesting interview with Fr. Igor Fomin here where he discusses the question of suffering as a way to be happy. He says, among other things:
Q: Could not God choose any other scheme of development of a life for humankind, which would not include suffering? God knows everything ahead of time, He knew that Adam and Eve would fall, couldn’t he have corrected his plan for us imperfect people?
A: Everything is related to freedom, free-will. When we are talking, you cannot tell at all what I will say the next moment. You think my thought is developing in one way, but suddenly I say something else, and this is interesting to you. Have you ever played chess with yourself? It is terribly boring, it is impossible to think of anything less interesting.
When you rejoice, you want to share your joy with someone else. You want to run to the kitchen and say, “Mom, imagine, I have knitted such a sock, rejoice with me!” You want to share the joy so that another person could also feel the same emotion.
The Lord, while making humans, wanted people to rejoice with God. But this happiness can only be free. You do not come to the kitchen with a machine-gun to tell your mother holding her at gunpoint, “Mom, I’ve knitted a sock. Rejoice”. We can truly rejoice only by free-will.
The existence of hell testifies to God’s love for each person and His respect for his/her free-will, even for those who do not love Him, because hell is a place without God, without a torturer for the person who can’t bear God. We know the Lord is everywhere, but He made hell a place where there is no presence of His. Light fills all, photons fly everywhere, penetrating the Universe, but hell is such a place the light does not reach. And joy can only be free, gratitude can only be free too, and a sincere smile can only be free, if it’s not a glossy magazine, of course.
Q: Why do righteous or monastic persons seek suffering from chains, hair-shirts, celibacy, penance, etc.?
A: Hardship is a kind of fast a person imposes on himself for self-perfection. Fasting reveals all the weak points of one’s nature. First of all, you just stop lying to yourself and telling yourself you’re all right, because it becomes clear you’re not. Each of us can see himself letting out all kinds of nasty thing, getting annoyed, swearing as a fast comes.
A teacher in the theological school told us such a story. His unbelieving neighbor asked him once, “Can I congratulate you on the beginning of Great Lent?” – “Yes, but how do you know?” – “I’ve got two believing old women living together next to me. They live in perfect harmony as if they were sisters, but they always begin to quarrel when they are keeping the fast.”
Fasting turns a man inside out, making him able to see his irritability, malice etc. But a righteous man won’t let it affect anyone else, he’ll rather begin to fight his vices.
Remember, in the Gospel the young man asked Christ about what he should do to inherit eternal life? And Jesus answered that he had to obey the commandments of the Old Testament. The young man had kept all these from his youth up, but he wasn’t satisfied with himself and sought greater perfection. And then the Lord directed him to suffering saying he had to sell all that he had and distribute unto the poor and then follow Him. And the young man was very sorrowful.
Fasting is a state of being dissatisfied with one’s righteousness. It’s obvious that keeping the commandments is enough for living a righteous life. But some people seek greater perfection, they want to get closer to God. Closer in human interpretation, of course, for only the Lord can judge who’s closer to Him. So a man first commits himself to a rigorous fast, then to hardship, chains. He mortifies his flesh by exposing himself to mosquitoes standing in a bog, for example. But it depends on personality, those things are not suitable for all Christians. It may benefit one man and ruin another. Unfortunately, our notion of righteousness was formed on the examples of monastic life only. It would be better to speak more about Peter and Fevroniya or about prince Dmitry Donskoi and princess Eudokia.