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Can We Grow Closer to God Without Hardships?

February 10, 2014 by  
Filed under Fr. Bartunek, Spiritual Direction, Spiritual Growth

Dear Father John, in one of the sayings by St. John of the Cross (awesome guy!) it says (and I believe) that hardships bring us closer to God. But isn’t it still possible to grow closer to Him when there are no hardships going on?”

Your instinct is right. It isn’t the hardships themselves that make us grow. Rather, it’s the conscious and intentional exercise of faith, hope, and love in the midst of those hardships that leads to spiritual progress. And it is certainly possible to exercise those virtues even amid the normal ups and downs of life. Therefore, we can continue to grow closer to God even when we are not experiencing especially heavy or dramatic crosses.

The problem comes when comfort and success lull us into a spiritual sleep. Because of our fallen nature, we can easily become lax and lazy in our spiritual life, being satisfied with the progress we have made so far, or even descending into barely discernible lukewarmness. In such a condition, the capital sins sneak up on us in spiritual disguises, and we begin to judge others and consider ourselves mature and superior. The experience of suffering, of crosses, tends to help us avoid that.

Athletes-in-Training. Think of it like this. Good coaches will allow athletes-in-training to enjoy their progress and growth, but they will also know when to set new challenges and push a little harder. At times, growth requires being pushed out of our comfort zone. That can be more or less painful, but we know it’s true. In the spiritual life, God is like a good coach, allowing or sending crosses in order to give us a chance to exercise our faith, hope, and love more intensely than we otherwise might. That extra intensity fosters growth.

I would say, however, that considering our condition as fallen human beings, it does seem impossible to reach full spiritual maturity if we never experience suffering. Christ’s path through Calvary to the Resurrection is paradigmatic, tracing the pattern for every Christian life. Nevertheless, it would be reductive to affirm that spiritual growth only happens through suffering. In any case, St. John’s teaching is comforting for us earthly pilgrims, because in the reality of day-to-day life, no one escapes suffering for long, and it is good to know that the darkness of our Good Fridays is not beyond the reach of our Father’s transforming love.

Sincerely in Christ,

Fr. John Bartunek, LC


Art: Wooden crosses near the entrance to the Holy Sepulchre Church, own work, Adiel lo, October 2006, CC, Wikimedia Commons.

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About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college, he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller, "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". His most recent books are "Spring Meditations", "Seeking First the Kingdom: 30 Meditations on How to Love God with All Your Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength", and "Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions". Fr. John currently splits his time between Michigan (where he continues his writing apostolate and serves as a confessor and spiritual director at the Queen of the Family Retreat Center) and Rome, where he teaches theology at Regina Apostolorum. His online, do-it-yourself retreats are available at, and he answers questions about the spiritual life at

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  • Camila

    “Contemplation cannot be separated from the Incarnation and redemption, from a co-living of the paschal mystery with the crucified, risen One… Christian communion is entirely a love matter wrapped up with the Cross. Any spouse worthy of the name wants to share in the lot of her beloved, and Jesus’ lot was one of being insulted, whipped, mocked, nailed to the cross beams. This sort of worthy suffering with the Beloved has, says Teresa (St. Teresa of Avila), a transforming power, a power that effects a union between Creator and creature.” (Fr. Thomas Dubay in Fire Within pg 126)

    “Teresa summarized the matter succinctly in one sentence: ‘Love is the measure of our ability to bear crosses.’ ” (Fr. Thomas Dubay in Fire Within pg 127)

  • Camila

    “I didn’t think then that one had to suffer very much to reach sanctity, but God was not long in showing me this was so and in sending me the trials I have already mentioned.” (St. Therese of Lisieux in Story of a Soul pg 72)

  • RobinJeanne

    I am so glad to hear this. Life has been very good to me the past 6 months(not counting all the regular daily crosses) no big trials. I always figured that was God’s way of giving me rest to rebuild my strength for the next trial. In the mean time I find myself having the time to evaluate my life, seeing what things need to be changed or what vitue I need to work on to rid my life of some of my vices. Maybe these things is the Lord pressing on my heart, the spacifics such as biting my tongue, simplifying my life are the this I will need for when the next trial arrives.

    • CLudwick

      I so like what you say here, Robin. How wise of you to recognize that spiritual growth occurs when we turn our lives over to God – no matter what than entails. I think it was Mother Angelica (probably from a saint) who says that we don’t have to go looking for suffering. It will surely come to us in our fallen world!

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