The witnesses of the Cross and Resurrection of Christ have handed on to the Church and to mankind a specific Gospel of suffering. The Redeemer himself wrote this Gospel, above all by his own suffering accepted in love, so that man ‘should not perish but have eternal life.’ This suffering, together with the living word of his teaching, became a rich source for all those who shared in Jesus’ sufferings among the first generation of his disciples and confessors and among those who have come after them down the centuries.
–Pope St. John Paul II (Salvifici Doloris, VI:25).
INTRODUCTION: THE SALVIFIC GIFT OF SUFFERING
Several years ago I was moved to reflect on the theology of suffering with a new perspective, inspired by a story told in a Twelve Step men’s group meeting I had attended.
A guy new to the group told us about his son who had just hit bottom: been arrested with drugs, needles and other stuff. The man wondered why this had to happen to his family. In response, another member quoted the saying below:
“In a sense, everything that happens to me is a gift from God. I may resent disappointments, rebel against a series of misfortunes which I regard as unmerited punishment. Yet in time I may come to understand that these can be considered gifts of enlightenment.”–One Day at a Time in Al-Anon, May 4
After this there was, shall we say, a heated exchange of views. I didn’t participate, but I did recall a talk given early on by a priest recovering from alcoholism. The priest had made the same point as the quote: the alcoholic and his family have been given a gift from God, a gift that will enable them to grow in faith and spirituality.
Since that time, I’ve put that discussion into a spiritual context. It’s one piece of the general problem of theodicy, why God allows evil to exist. As for myself, the suffering I have undergone because of addiction/alcoholism has served one good purpose: it led me to my Catholic faith. What I will attempt to show in this post is how our Catholic faith shows that suffering serves purposes we may not perceive. Moreover, we can transform that suffering into—not joy exactly—but peace.
SUFFERING DOES NOT DISPROVE THE EXISTENCE OF GOD
A common argument atheists use in attempting to disprove the existence of an all-good, all-powerful God, is that such a God would not allow the existence of suffering. There are variations on this argument (one in Sean O’Carrol’s recent apologetic for atheistic naturalism, “The Big Picture,” relies on Bayesian probability analysis). I’m not going to discuss such propositions in this post. The counter-arguments to atheists have been given by better theologians and philosophers than I—see, for example, Professor Peter Kreeft’s audiobook “Faith and Reason“, and his CERC chapter,”)
As Catholics we accept the dogmas and doctrines of the Magisterium. We thus have a rational basis to understand (at least partially) why “bad things happen to good people”. Our faith requires us to believe in Free Will and Original Sin, that Man is flawed, and that we inflict evil on ourselves. We also believe, as in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, that if bad things happen to us in this life, there is another life in heaven that will overshadow present misfortune.
THE SAINTS TELL US TO SEEK SUFFERING WITH CHRIST
There is a special Catholic perspective on suffering: that by our own suffering we share Christ’s salvific suffering. Therefore, we should not try to avoid suffering but to welcome it. Quotes from the saints attest to this:
St. Augustine of Hippo:
Trials and tribulations offer us a chance to make reparation for our past faults and sins. On such occasions the Lord comes to us like a physician to heal the wounds left by our sins. Tribulation is the divine medicine.
St. Francis of Assisi
… our Lord Jesus, whose footsteps we ought to follow, called his betrayer “friend,” and offered himself willingly to his executioners. Therefore all those who unjustly inflict upon us tribulations, anguish, shame and injuries, sorrows and torments, martyrdom and death, are our friends whom we ought to love much, because we shall gain eternal life by those things which they make us suffer. And let us hate our body with its vices and sins, because by living in pleasures it wishes to rob us of the love of our Lord Jesus Christ and eternal life, and to lose itself with everything else in hell.
St. Ignatius of Loyola:
If God gives you an abundant harvest of trials, it is a sign of great holiness which He desires you to attain. Do you want to become a great saint? Ask God to send you many sufferings. The flame of Divine Love never rises higher than when fed with the wood of the Cross, which the infinite charity of the Savior used to finish His sacrifice. All the pleasures of the world are nothing compared with the sweetness found in the gall and vinegar offered to Jesus Christ.
St. Teresa of Avila:
One must not think that a person who is suffering is not praying. He is offering up his sufferings to God, and many a time he is praying much more truly than one who goes away by himself and meditates his head off, and, if he has squeezed out a few tears, thinks that is prayer.
St. John of the Cross:
Whenever anything disagreeable or displeasing happens to you, remember Christ crucified and be silent.
St. Rafqua Al-Rayes:
O Christ, I unite my sufferings to yours, my pains with your pains, as I look at your head crowned with thorns.
St. John Vianney:
Whether we will or not, we must suffer…There are two ways of suffering — to suffer with love, and to suffer without love. The saints suffered everything with joy, patience, and perseverance, because they loved. As for us, we suffer with anger, vexation, and weariness, because we do not love. If we loved God, we should love crosses, we should wish for them, we should take pleasure in them.
And here’s what my favorite papal saint, Pope St. John Paul II has to say about suffering as the way to salvation:
POPE ST. JOHN PAUL II’S “SALVIFICI DOLORIS“
Born of the mystery of Redemption in the Cross of Christ, the Church has to try to meet man in a special way on the path of his suffering. In this meeting man ‘becomes the way for the Church’, and this way is one of the most important ones.- Pope St. John Paul II, Salvifici Doloris.
In 1984 Pope St. John Paul II published his encyclical, Salvifici Doloris, three years after he had been shot by a would-be assassin. Although I have not found any historical accounts to validate my conjecture that he suffered great pain during his recovery, it seems likely, given that he had two sections of bowel removed. It is reasonable to assume that his Apostolic Letter was written in the context of his physical suffering, if not as a consequence of this suffering.
Pope St. John Paul II explores the dimensions of human suffering, from its relation in the Old Testament to God’s Justice and the consequences of evil, the good man who suffers (Job), to the New Testament, in which Christ tells us to carry our cross and follow Him. Pope St. John Paul II emphasizes that suffering is a mystery, but that by realizing Christ suffered, took on our sin and death, we can better understand God’s purpose in allowing suffering. By joining in suffering with Christ, we can unite our human distress with Christ’s salvific suffering. I do an injustice to the encyclical by this brief summary, and I urge the reader to read the letter in its entirety. Two quotes are in order:
In the Cross of Christ not only is the Redemption accomplished through suffering, but also human suffering itself has been redeemed,. Christ, – without any fault of his own – took on himself “the total evil of sin”. The experience of this evil determined the incomparable extent of Christ’s suffering, which became the price of the Redemption. Salvifici Dolores 18
Those who share in Christ’s sufferings have before their eyes the Paschal Mystery of the Cross and Resurrection, in which Christ descends, in a first phase, to the ultimate limits of human weakness and impotence: indeed, he dies nailed to the Cross. But if at the same time in this weakness there is accomplished his lifting up, confirmed by the power of the Resurrection, then this means that the weaknesses of all human sufferings are capable of being infused with the same power of God manifested in Christ’s Cross. In such a concept, to suffer means to become particularly susceptible, particularly open to the working of the salvific powers of God, offered to humanity in Christ. In him God has confirmed his desire to act especially through suffering, which is man’s weakness and emptying of self, and he wishes to make his power known precisely in this weakness and emptying of self. ibid. 23
THE FOURTH SORROWFUL MYSTERY, TAKE UP YOUR CROSS
Not only during Lent but throughout the year, harvesting suffering is a hard row to hoe; however, I can only follow Catholic teaching. When I pray the sorrowful Rosary and come to the fourth mystery, Jesus carries His cross, I pray that I can take on my sins, my failures, my suffering, offer them up and thereby lighten the load of His cross. We can not know what God wills for us but must assume that it is for our ultimate good. And if we suffer now, we have to look to the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, to envisage the final reward that faith promises us.
*This article is adapted from one originally published March 3, 2019