The question of human suffering casts a long shadow on the human experience. If you talk to people long enough, they’ll get around to telling you that the issue of suffering has profoundly affected their spiritual journey. Either they’ll tell you it has brought them deep into the heart of God, or it has been the end of their relationship with Him. We all experience suffering. We all wrestle with it. None of us fully understands it, including me.
In my experience, suffering is oft misunderstood in Catholic circles. “He’s my cross.” I once heard a rather cranky older woman complain about her even crankier husband of many years. I’ve also heard illness, hurt, hardship, and any number of other maladies described in this fashion. Listening closely, time and again, I’ve heard the lie slip into the conversation. While not this blunt most of the time, it comes down to “this is the cross God gave me to bear.”
Comments like these betray a belief about the origin of suffering. While it may allow them to make religious sense of their pain, it is in the end a devastating lie against the very identity of God. St. John Paul II, in his encyclical Salvifici Doloris, clearly reaffirmed the Church’s constant teaching that suffering is always an evil. Let that sink in for a minute. Suffering is ALWAYS an evil. It does not have its origin in God. God, in His mercy, works all things to good, including evil (Romans 8:28).
A New Paradigm
Recently, I became acquainted with Fr. Sean Kilcawley, a priest from the diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska. As our conversation wandered across a number of topics, he brushed across the subject of pain and suffering. He said, “Think of pain as a physical experience. If you are working out in the gym, you endure physical pain. Suffering is a completely different experience. Suffering may include physical pain, but it is an internal experience. I suffer when I experience the gap- the gap between what is and what should be.”
I interrupted Fr. Sean at that point, dug out my notepad and asked him to repeat what he’d just said. We lingered over the subject for a few minutes as he explained in a little more detail. Suffering, he went on to say, is the experience of evil, of living in a fallen world that we instinctively know should be something other than what it is. Hence the pain occurs in the areas of our lives where we do not experience God.
As I pondered this new construct, I first thought of Jesus and all of the theology around His suffering. Jesus, I believe, endured profound suffering, not only within the context of His passion, but every day. As the God-man, His entire human experience existed in the most acute awareness of the gap, living, in a metaphorical sense, with one foot in Heaven, and one on earth. In every person He encountered, He knew their heart in its brokenness, and knew His Father’s original intention for that person. Imagine Jesus, speaking to the 5,000, and experiencing the gap, the suffering, of each and every person there, individually and collectively. In His passion, I wonder if He was touching the gap, the chasm between what is and what should be, of every person who had, or would live across the span of salvation history.
When I Am Suffering
I don’t know about you, but there are days that dealing with my own suffering is almost more than I can bear, let alone take on someone else’s. I experience the effects of evil, and I know that it is not how it is supposed to be. I experience fear, loneliness, rejection, abandonment, powerlessness, shame. Sometimes I am willing to sit in the middle of it, experience it, bring it to Jesus. More often, I am inclined to run from it or medicate it. Who wants to suffer? Not me. In my flesh, the ache is just too much!
But now, I have a very tangible understanding of another piece of theology- redemptive suffering. Jesus, the Lord of all creation, became a man so that He could experience suffering, the gap between what is and what should be, in exactly the same way that you and I do. Not only did He experience it as an individual human, but His divinity exposed Him to the suffering of the entirety of humanity. Jesus forged into that deep abyss known as suffering, of evil, of the separation within ourselves, between us and God, for the very purpose of meeting us there.
So now, when I experience suffering in my life, I am still inclined to run or medicate. But I also now understand something that I didn’t understand before. Jesus lives in the gap. In my pain, I do not experience Him there. But He is there already. And that gives me (on my better days) the courage forge into the darkness, to stand in the gap in my own heart between what is and what should be. After all, He is there already! He is waiting to meet me there, and to take me deeper with Him.