We all know suffering when we see it and we’ve all experienced it in some form. For many people, unfortunately, suffering leads to pushing away God – they blame God for their suffering. Some even try to use suffering as proof that there is no God. After all, the argument goes, if there is a God and He loves us why does He allow us to suffer?
Suffering is part of life and the frustration over not understanding its place in our world can lead to anger and even despair. Yet, if we seek to understand suffering we can glimpse – if only briefly due to our human limitations– the beauty of suffering and its redemptive role in our salvation. We can even come to understand what it means to answer Christ’s call to take up our crosses and follow Him (Matthew 16:24-26)
“On Suffering” Part I explored the meaning and purpose of suffering using St. John Paul the Great’s apostolic letter, Salvifici Doloris (SD). But, as with many mysteries of the Faith, trying to fully understand suffering usually leaves one desiring more answers. Yet, we know that to suffer is not pointless as it can lead to our redemption.
Suffering is often associated with evil and it can be said that to suffer means to experience some form of evil. We must, therefore, try to understand something about evil. This is because we define suffering and evil based on the results or what is experienced – pain, hardship, injustice.
The Nature Of Suffering
We can deduce that suffering is the result of our Free Will and Original Sin. But, to fully understand the nature of suffering is impossible because, ultimately, it has no nature. This is why it’s a mystery. Nature and essence is what makes something a thing. Yet, suffering, like evil is not a thing but rather lacking in something – goodness and perfection. Our experience of suffering, then, is us experiencing our own lack of completeness. This lack of completeness is a reflection of the reality of our physical separation from God (i.e., a deprivation of eternal life while living in this Vale of Tears).
At one point, before The Fall, we were complete. But, because of God’s love for us, He gave us the gift of free will. This free will unfortunately led to our loss of perfection, our incompleteness. This is why free will and Original Sin play such an important role in understanding suffering.
It is suffering that reminds us of our incompleteness. Throughout life, each one of us lives with this feeling. It comes in many forms and many of us might call it “the void”. We often seek to fill this void with a career, love from another, or material items. In a way, we work to become whole, to fill that void, throughout our lives because we were made to be one with God.
The Gift of Self
After The Fall, we were no longer one with God, but separated. The first sin was in choosing oneself over God. Adam and Eve chose to fulfill themselves with only themselves instead of seeking fulfillment in each other and God. They chose to fulfill their desire by giving into temptation. But, one cannot find completion in one’s self. Completion is found only in communion with another and with God.
Because full communion is only possible through the gift of self, God sent His only Son to suffer the Cross. Who could possibly make a more perfect offering to atone for Original Sin than God Himself through His Son? Christ’s suffering and death was the most perfect gift of one’s self because Christ chose the Will of the Father over the will of oneself. “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me; still, not my will but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42).
It is these words and the final action of His death on the cross that prove Christ’s perfect obedience to His Father, says St. John Paul the Great in SD:
They prove the truth of that love which the only-begotten Son gives to the Father in his obedience. At the same time, they attest to the truth of his suffering. The words of that prayer of Christ in Gethsemane prove the truth of love through the truth of suffering. (SD, #18)
The Meaning Of Embracing The Cross
The Son of God did the complete opposite of the first sins of Adam and Eve so that we might be made whole again. So we find the ultimate meaning of love in the cross.
Yet, this is not the end of the story. Christ’s suffering gave us the chance to be made whole again – to achieve eternal life. But this does not mean we have no role in our own salvation. While He gave us a chance for eternal life, we still have to involve the will – our will. The will is what drives us forward. It is what gives us the impetus to act. In a sense, uniting our will to God’s allows us to continuously move ourselves toward our redemption (i.e., to will ourselves to this completeness). And this is what it means to embrace the cross. To embrace one’s cross means to offer oneself fully and completely to God.
While suffering in and of itself does not grant us redemption, the actions we take while suffering do move us closer to salvation, if they are united to Christ. These actions are the embracing and acceptance of suffering, the embracing an acceptance of one’s cross.
While on earth, Christ taught us that through the acceptance of suffering we can attain eternal life. In fact, in His Sermon on the Mount that gave us the Eight Beatitudes, He called blessed all who were suffering – the poor in spirit, the grieving, the meek, the fighters of justice, the merciful, the pure, the peacemakers, and the persecuted (Matthew 5:3-11).
“Rejoice and be glad,” Christ tells us. “For your reward will be great in Heaven” (Matthew 5:12).
An Answer To The Problem Of Relieving Suffering
St. John Paul teaches us in SD that we are called to share in the Redemption through suffering.
The Redeemer suffered in place of man and for man. Every man has his own share in the Redemption. Each one is also called to share in that suffering through which the Redemption was accomplished. He is called to share in that suffering through which all human suffering has also been redeemed. In bringing about the Redemption through suffering, Christ has also raised human suffering to the level of the Redemption. Thus each man, in his suffering, can also become a sharer in the redemptive suffering of Christ. (SD, #19)
Yet, this does not mean that we cannot nor should not relieve suffering. For instance, it doesn’t mean that we should not attempt to fix an injustice. By saying through suffering we find our redemption, one might assume that redemption cannot be found without suffering; therefore to relieve suffering takes away our chance of redemption. However, this is non-sequitur. Although suffering plays a redemptive role in our salvation, it does not presuppose salvation; meaning, we cannot just assume that because we suffer we will be saved.
In order for our suffering to lead to salvation, it must be redemptive.
Redemptive suffering, that which leads us to salvation, is connected to the discernment of God’s will. By doing God’s will obediently, even through suffering and following in the image of Christ, we are redeemed. In this way, we unite our suffering to Christ’s suffering. However, one cannot say that those who do not unite their suffering to Christ’s are not worthy of salvation, as we do not know nor cannot ever understand the depths of God’s infinite mercy.
Acceptance Does Not Mean Complacency
Uniting our will to God’s will is what moves us forward to our redemption. But this requires action and fortitude. In fortitude, there is no place for complacency. This is why embracing one’s cross does not mean we should be complacent in our suffering, or that we should do nothing to improve our situation if we can improve it.
People who are complacent in their suffering, who believe they are simply “accepting their crosses,” might never try to improve their situations because they believe it’s pointless to try to do so, or because they feel powerless. There may well be times when in working to relieve one’s suffering no relief is to be had. However, this does not mean one remains complacent in his or her situation without trying to better themselves or their situation. We all have a certain level of duty to better our lives for the glory of God, however that looks.
Not working to improve oneself or one’s situation would be the capital sin of sloth, or acedia, ultimately leading to despair. Acceptance is often confused with the indifference or passivity of acedia. Indeed, while we are called to accept our crosses, this acceptance is anything but passive. The acceptance that God calls us towards is marked by action; our embracing of the cross means moving our lives towards perfection, towards right living.
Accepting our cross means striving to improve oneself in both the body and soul, even amidst great suffering. In fact, this is the commandment of the Lord in Mark 12:30: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” For to love the Lord is to live rightly.
Although we will never achieve perfection in this world, our perfection will come in the next, provided we take an active role in our redemption. As St. Augustine said, “For you have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” (The Confessions, Book 1)