An Interview with Fr. Thomas Hopko…

Maria Vishnyak- The Interior of the Church of St Paraskeve the Great-martyr (1986)

by Peter and Helen Evans

Helen: So often we hear the popular notion that God doesn’t want us to suffer, God wants us to be happy all the time.

Fr. Tom: That’s not the New Testament teaching. There is not a word in the New Testament about being happy. Jesus said, if you be my disciple, you’ll deny yourself, pick up your cross and follow me. That’s the way to get the joy that surpasses human understanding, the joy that no one can take away from you. The choice for Christians is not between joy, fun and happiness on one side and suffering on the other. There will be suffering. Either the suffering will be redemptive, Godly and filled with the joy that comes from God, or it will just be misery. That would be a neurotic suffering that, you might say, is simply the suffering of Hell.

Jesus never promised anybody a good, happy life in this world.

Take the Apostle Paul. When he had to boast that he really was an Apostle, what did he boast in? He didn’t boast that he had a wonderful human lineage. He didn’t boast even in his mystical experiences. He claimed to have had a vision of the risen Christ but, when he boasted, he boasted in what he had suffered. He boasted in how much he was beaten and rejected for the sake of truth, for the sake of God, for the sake of how God really is. I think we have to read the New Testament again.

Helen: True, but for people who haven’t read the New Testament but hear someone tell them that “God is compassionate” couldn’t that be understood as “we shouldn’t suffer in this life”?

Fr. Tom: If someone said to me “God is compassionate,” I’d remind them that the word “compassionate” means co-passionate or co- suffering. The God who is compassionate is the God who suffers with us. He’s not the God who takes our suffering away in the fallen world. Never forget that the ultimate revelation of God on the planet earth is in the bloody corpse of a dead Jew hanging on a cross in front of the city of Jerusalem, put to death by Gentiles between two thieves, in the most horrible, vile, wretched method by which a person could die, which, according to Mosaic Law, was even cursed. That’s the Christian faith.

Helen: So, the main confusion is that people look at their problems from a secular attitude, saying to themselves, “My life should be happy here on earth” rather than looking toward the life after this one. Is that so?

Fr. Tom: Yes. I would also say that not only do people look at life secularly, which I guess would mean with no relationship whatsoever to God, but I think it’s also true to say, especially nowadays, that many people look at the world, falsely religiously. Not necessarily just secularly. People think that God exists to make our earthly life ‘happy,’ to take away all suffering and pain, to do whatever we want Him to do, that all we have to do is “name it and claim it” and God will give it to us, no matter what it is — health, a good job, a good sex life or, for example, how the human genome project is described. I read it recently on the front page of the New York Times. The director of the project said, “Our purpose is very clear, to live a longer happier, more pain free, healthier human life before we inevitably die.” Well, many people think that’s a good program. Many religious people think that’s what God is trying to do, too — to make us live a longer, happier, healthier, better and easier life…

Helen: … and then retire to Florida!

Fr. Tom: … because we’re going to die and go to heaven anyway. Well that’s not the New Testament, that’s certainly not the Bible. It’s certainly not the teaching of Christian scriptures. The Christian Saints all suffered immensely. The quintessential Christian Saint is a martyr. A martyr is a person who dies, gets killed while actually forgiving the person who killed them. Just as God forgave the persons who sinned against him. In fact, Jesus even forgave the people who sinned against him and crucified him. He said, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” The forgiveness of God and the compassion of God is guaranteed… absolutely!

Helen: Don’t we have to repent first?

Fr. Tom: I don’t think we have to repent first. God gives us his mercy and forgiveness whether we want it or not, whether we repent or not. But if we repent and we want it, then that mercy is just glory and happiness and a blessed life. But if we resist it… it’s Hell! In fact, the fire of Hell is not God punishing people. The fire of Hell is the presence of God’s love, His mercy and His compassion on people who don’t want it, don’t accept it, don’t think they need it and don’t even care about it.

hat tip: Sunday Bulletin of Holy Theophany Orthodox Church

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