I was very glad to see this saying today. I am preparing to lead a four week study at my placement parish on understanding suffering and illness. It’s an active question for so many people, especially Christians for whom we have little extant pastoral language to talk about it in ways we once did, or no longer have the heart to hear things like the exhortation to the sick from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.
This saying cuts to the heart of how we should relate to suffering and illness: though it is not a punishment from God, God works through it and bears fruit in and through us via the suffering. Our anger with God when we suffer or are ill should be supplanted with exactly what the disciple beseeches the elder to pray to God for.
A disciple of a great old man was once besieged by sin. When the old man saw him struggling, he said to him, ‘Do you want me to entreat God to lift the warfare from you?’
The disciple said, ‘No. Although I am struggling, I nevertheless see my struggles bearing fruit for me. Instead, entreat God in your prayers to give me the patient endurance to bear up under my struggles.’
His spiritual father said to him, ‘Today I know that you are making progress and are surpassing me.’