A while back on my personal blog, I presented a secular view of suffering. I posited that, for the secular left, suffering is seen as worse than sin or death. Suffering has no meaning, and the goal becomes maximizing pleasure and avoiding pain.
There is a very different view of suffering on the Catholic side o’ town.
The late, great John Cardinal O’Connor of New York once told a suffering woman, “Christ could have saved the world by His miracles, but He chose to save the world by His suffering.”
This great truth is the basis of our understanding of redemptive suffering.
Let me back up a bit…
When Adam and Eve sinned and fell from grace, suffering and death entered the world. Because of this Original Sin, we are separated from God and stuck in a disordered, fallen world. Nothing comes easy for us, and suffering is our lot. Anyone who says this world is not a vale of tears is smoking something funny, or is actually a pod person. (While most Americans are bred to believe that life should be mostly joyful with moments of difficulty, life is actually mostly difficult, with moments of incredible joy.)
So Adam and Eve blew it, and for generations (long before Jesus came), God’s people tried to “make it right” with God by offering animal sacrifices to the Lord. But none of those sacrifices were good enough. Then one day Jesus came to meet us in this vale of tears. Jesus (the God-Man) bridged the chasm between God and man, and by His great suffering and death on the Cross, He offered Himself as a perfect sacrifice to the Father. Jesus’ sacrifice of love was so pleasing to the Father that it merited grace in abundance, enough to redeem all the world! The gates of Heaven were now open again, to all men of good will.
Jesus’ suffering was redemptive.
What does that have to do with our suffering? Well, when we were baptized, we were baptized into the Body of Christ. We are the Body of Christ. When we “offer up” our sufferings in union with Christ’s suffering on the Cross, we, as His Body, are participating in His atoning work! When God the Father looks upon our offering, He sees His Son’s offering, and He is pleased… and graces come flowing down in abundance!
Do you get how amazing this is??
When we unite our suffering with Christ’s suffering, we participate in the redemption of the world!
It is as dramatic as it sounds!
When offered to God, no suffering is meaningless. No suffering is wasted. No suffering is worse than death. Suffering offered in union with Christ’s Cross has explosive power, including the power to sanctify not only our own souls, but to call down grace upon others as well. The saints knew this. The saints had an abundance of grace in their own souls already, but yet the suffering they endured was profound. What was it for? What was it worth? It was offered for souls. The saints offered their sufferings for the sins of the world, for the souls of others, and it was redemptive, because it was offered in union with Christ’s suffering. This is how the Body of Christ works!
Now, this doesn’t mean we go looking for suffering (suffering will find us without us having to look for it), and it doesn’t mean that we stand by while others suffer (we are called to ease the sufferings of others). But when suffering comes, it is not meaningless; it is of great value to ourselves and to the world.
Many Protestants object to the concept of redemptive suffering, saying, “But Jesus didn’t need our help in redeeming the world. His sacrifice was sufficient. We can add nothing to it!”
They are certainly right that Jesus did not need our help. In fact, God doesn’t need us at all; He is God! But if you think God wouldn’t receive and use our offering, read this reflection by Jewish convert Rosiland Moss, as she struggled with the idea of redemptive suffering when she was leaving evangelicalism for Catholicism:
I thought immediately of a mother baking a cake, and her little child in the kitchen with her. The mother has everything there sufficient for the cake; but here comes the daughter and says, ‘Mommy, I want to help.’ So the mother receives the daughter because that love receives. She lets the daughter put the eggs in. Is the mother sufficient? Yes. Does she need the daughter? No. Does she allow the daughter to add? Yes. The daughter’s addition is not needed, but it’s received and it’s a true addition. And I thought, ‘That’s love.’
Let’s look to Scripture and see what St. Paul says on the subject:
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church… — Colossians 1:24
What?! Something was “lacking” in Christ’s afflictions?! Something that St. Paul “completed” in his very flesh, rejoicing in his sufferings?! What was lacking? What is lacking? Our part is lacking. Our part, where we offer our own sufferings for the sake of the Body of Christ, the Church.
Redemptive suffering. Praise God, it’s a beautiful thing.