There is a show called American Ninja Warrior that was imported from Japan. It features athletic contestants tackling formidable obstacle courses that test their strength and agility. Many of these contestants train for months to win a grand prize. I see this show as an analogy of what I have to do in this life to win the prize of salvation for my soul.
I don’t pretend to know God’s judgments, why He created the world as He did, or why he allows the demons to tempt us so vigorously, but Saint Theophan the Recluse states that this is the most intelligent way to preserve our free will and test our souls for where we want to spend eternity. If things were any different, if there weren’t legions of demons giving us the choice to go against God’s will, our free will would be violated and we would be slaves of God, which is not fitting of His love for us. An atheist is very quick to point out the suffering, tribulations, and temptations we experience in this life, but there is no better way to do it, because if there was, God would have done it. There are innumerable challenges God allows us to face in this life. I’d like to highlight five.
The Jumping Spider
In the Jumping Spider, the soul has to traverse over hell using two panes of vertical glass.
It’s Sunday, and I just received Communion in God’s Church. Afterward, I walk to the banquet hall to have lunch with my brethren. Before me are dozens of platters of food and sweets. I’m so hungry, and I want to eat them all, but I know that if I do, the grace I have will dissipate as my body becomes saddled with chewed matter that is placed on top of the Body and Blood already in my stomach. No, I will not eat all that I want. I will put only a modest amount of food on my plate and eat slowly, so that I will recognize the feeling of satiety and not go for seconds. Through the grace of God, I control my eating and pass the Jumping Spider.
If you have promised Christ to go by the straight and narrow way, restrain your stomach, because by pleasing it and enlarging it, you break your contract. Attend and you will hear Him who says: ‘Spacious and broad is the way of the belly that leads to the perdition of the fornicator, and many there are who go in by it; because narrow is the gate and straight is the way of fasting that leads to the life of purity, and few there be that find it.’ —Saint John Climacus in The Ladder of Divine Ascent
The Salmon Ladder
The soul has to hang from a bar over hell and use powerful bursts of energy to raise the bar to a higher level.
I’m attempting to write a new article. Unlike articles of my past, where I was a teacher of iniquity, I call upon God to speak through me, to create spiritually edifying works that won’t damage the state of the reader’s soul, but my mind is blank. I don’t have any ideas; I don’t want to proceed. I want to delete everything I have written so far. Can’t I just read Orthodox books all day and feel holy that way? It’s so hard to labor, to properly harness the gifts that God has given me. The cursor in my word processing program is blinking at me, mocking me, goading me to quit and give up. I should relax, listen to hymns, and pursue pleasant spiritual feelings instead of challenging labor. I place my hands on the keyboard, and I think and I wait, and words come to my mind and I start to type them, and I hope that the Lord my God will be pleased with how I am using my talents. Through the grace of God, I persist in my labors and pass the Salmon Ladder.
Let us compel ourselves to remain vigilant and watchful, and let us ward off negligence and indolence because they hinder God’s love toward man. Oftentimes the demon comes to make us feel tired and worn out. “Don’t do prostrations,” he whispers to us. “Don’t get up to pray now. You are tired! Sleep a little longer because you have to go to work…” and so many other things. Let us not listen to him! Let us force ourselves because we do not know what may happen in the moments that follow. “As I find you, I will judge you” (cf. Ez. 33:12-16). If He finds us forcing ourselves to struggle, He will rank us with the faithful strugglers. If, however, He finds us in negligence and indolence, He will group us with the failures and the indolent. —Elder Ephraim in The Art of Salvation
The Cargo Climb
The soul must climb a cargo net before the buzzer or he will go to hell.
A friend calls me. He is suffering a difficult trial. He needs my aid, but I’m busy. I’m in the middle of many important work tasks and my pizza dough needs to be reformed into balls. I don’t want to disturb my arranged schedule. I only want to help people on my terms and my timeline, not in the moment they need it, and right when I am ready to tell him that I’ll be there later in the evening after my pizza dough is done fermenting, my conscience activates. It asks, “Whose will are you serving by putting your pizza dough before a child of God?” I publicly claim to serve God’s will, but by elevating my worldly pursuits over the needs of my neighbor, I am serving my own needs first. If someone calls 911 for medical help, the paramedics don’t say, “Let us first finish our lunch, and let Matt finish texting his girlfriend, and let Tom finish listening to an interesting podcast, and then we will come.” No, they stop what they’re doing, and they rush to help. God is 911, and He dispatches His servants according to His pleasure to those in need, and if we want to please Him, we must immediately go. Through the grace of God, I forget about how I’m inconvenienced, rush to the aid of my friend, and pass the Cargo Climb.
Love for one’s neighbor and every other virtue proceeds from love for God. Every virtue that does not have love as its foundation is founded on hatred. Love is the first of the virtues. This is because love, in contrast to all the other virtues, gives freedom to man, and also because man, if he so desires, can endlessly perfect himself therein. It is the first because it is the “greatest depth” that man can attain. Finally, it is the first because it shall never have an end, but is eternal. For this reason the Apostle Paul said: “Now abideth faith, hope, and love, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (I Cor. 13:13). —Saint Nicodemus the Hagiorite in What God Has Done For Our Salvation
The soul must propel a bicycle motor with his upper body across the length of hell or perish for eternity.
It’s the day to do a live stream. I aim a camera at my head and put a microphone in front of my mouth, and I talk to the crowd. People want to hear what I have to say. They want to listen to my stories, my opinions, and my judgments. What a special boy I am to garner this much attention. I enjoy the sound of my voice. I must be a somebody, and with these proud thoughts, I begin to slip before the camera and sin with my tongue. I judge others, condemn others, mock others. Perhaps the crowd doesn’t notice, but my conscience notices, and certainly God notices. I’m using the stream to feel good, to give glory to myself. I look upon the icon of Jesus Christ, and He tells me that I’m not spiritually mature enough to talk live in front of a camera, that many saints would not dare to speak off-the-cuff for five hours like I do, and that there is no shame in correcting course. Humbly and with God’s consent, I bite my tongue when it wants to speak from the flesh and from the demons and redouble my ministerial efforts offline. I find more brotherly ways to spread the Gospel and pass the Arm Bike.
Everything truly coinciding with God’s will we must retain, but everything within ourselves that has even a tinge of falsehood or sin we must despise and reject as contrary to God’s will. —Saint John of Tobolsk in The Sunflower
Before the hot flames of hell, the soul must leap frog against eight platforms of decreasing size or else Satan will torment it endlessly.
My mother said something I didn’t like. I become furious. My mind flashes with retorts that would crush her words, demolish them, and then we’d enter a fiery argument like we have a hundred times before, but I know she would not be edified by my venom one bit to come to Church with me, to pray with me. A thought is able to enter through my anger: act with the faith you have. In my mind I pray to God: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on my mother and me!” She is on a roll now, words that jab me are flowing from her mouth. “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on us!” The same spirit tempting her must also be in my mind, and I want to talk like she talks, yell as she yells. I withdraw from the room, but she follows me, eager to battle. “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me!” I can’t take it anymore, I must respond. I say to her, more calmly than ever before in a situation like this, “Mother, thank you for your opinion, but I don’t want to hear it right now.” I exit the house, and walk for a long time, calming myself down while praying to God, and when I come back, the house is in peace, and we speak to each other again like nothing happened. Through the grace of God, I barely withheld my anger, and pass the Striding Steps.
As a person becomes more spiritual, so much fewer rights does he has in this life. It is obligatory to be patient, to accept injustice, to accept evil words from others. A crooked stick (perverted person) who is distant from God has many rights: to strike and shout and act unrighteously. Our rights God keeps for the other life. Out of ignorance however we often seek our rights here. Let us not damage things at all. If they say anything to us, immediately we give them the right [i.e. we fight back]. And later we think we trust in God. That is a big joke. Human justice doesn’t mean anything to a spiritual person. But it is a great concern for the perverted person. —Saint Paisios
I wish there were only five obstacle courses to enter the Kingdom of Paradise. I could attempt to master each course mechanically with the aid of my memory, but the great deceiver has not five temptations for us but five times one-thousand, and we will be hit from the right and from the left, from above and below, from the front and back, with no prior knowledge or experience of the new temptation we must overcome to not fall into hell, but thank God for our God, who gives us the grace to pass these tests, one at a time, and if we happen to slip and dip our foot into the hot flames, He lifts us out of the fire and escorts us to the Church and to the place of Confession to divulge our filthy thoughts and deeds. Our Savior, working through an Orthodox priest, then forgets our sins and we are given vigor and new life to try the obstacle course again. Only a few of us are enlisted soldiers in this existence, trained by a nation state to shoot people with guns or steer navy boats in the water, but all of us were made to be Christian soldiers, with Lord Jesus Christ as our commander, and the war doesn’t stop until we’re dead. The path to Paradise is the only obstacle course worth passing, and pass it we must, to reside with our Creator for all eternity.
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