We’ve all experienced suffering in some way. It is a plight of humanity. Yet, to define suffering is not so easy because it comes in many shapes and forms.
The topic is an exhaustive one for sure. It has been written about extensively by saints and popes, theologians and philosophers, healthcare professionals and pastors. Look anywhere and everywhere and you’ll be able to find literature on how to deal with suffering and even an answer to the problem of suffering (if you can possibly bear to muscle through the theological and philosophical arguments). Yet, one thing remains unsaid, or if it has been said then it’s often drowned out by advice: How are we to approach suffering – the suffering of ourselves and that of our neighbors? Is suffering good or bad? More to the point, how are we to act while suffering?
The questions stem from the advice that’s given all-too-often in response to suffering: “Embrace your cross.” In essence, suffering is directly linked to our salvation, a salvation that was won for us by the suffering Christ on the Cross. So, too, Christ called us to take up our cross daily and follow him:
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? Or what can one give in exchange for his life? (Matthew 16:24-26)
But what does this mean and what does it look like in action?
The answer to these questions are not brief, which is why this will be a three-part series. This Part I looks at what suffering is, and it’s purpose and meaning. Part II will tackle the topic of embracing the cross versus complacency and spiritual sloth. Finally, Part III will expound upon how suffering builds us up and prepares us for Heaven; it is how we build and practice virtue.
The Meaning Of Suffering
For sure, when reading the words of Christ on calling us to take up our cross, the first thought that comes to mind is enduring persecution. This persecution can take on many forms – as seemingly trivial as being teased about being a Christian to as grievous as becoming a martyr.
But, taking up one’s cross, i.e. embracing suffering, is not just about accepting persecution. To understand exactly what is meant here, we must go back to the beginning of understanding what is meant by suffering.
To suffer means to undergo pain and hardship. This brief definition is adequate for explaining the experience or situation of one who suffers. Yet, it lacks an explanation of the essence of suffering and what it means to suffer.
What Pope St. John Paul the Great Says
Pope St. John Paul the Great writes about the meaning of suffering in his apostolic letter, Salvifici Doloris (SD) or Redemptive Suffering, On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering. He teaches that suffering cannot be separated from understanding evil as when we suffer we experience a kind of evil. Indeed, we suffer because of evil. And, regardless of the evil, it can trace its way back to Original Sin. So, because suffering is so linked to evil, we must seek to understand the essence of evil. Says St. John Paul II:
Man suffers on account of evil, which is a certain lack, limitation or distortion of good. We could say that man suffers because of a good in which he does not share, from which in a certain sense he is cut off, or of which he has deprived himself. He particularly suffers when he ought”—in the normal order of things—to have a share in this good and does not have it. (SD, #7)
He goes on to teach that suffering can come in many forms, but it can be understood under three categories: physical suffering (pain of the body), moral suffering (pain of the soul), and finally definitive suffering, or eternal damnation (SD, #5, #14). It is the pain of the soul, our moral suffering, from which we ultimately find salvation from in the Cross of Christ. And, sometimes, that moral suffering also manifests itself in physical suffering.
Suffering & Our Salvation
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
And in this we find the very meaning of suffering: our redemption. The only way for us to be saved from the ultimate suffering – that of separation from God – was through the suffering of His Son, Jesus Christ. To be saved from the stain of the first sin – disobedience to the Will of God – we must be saved by the complete emptying of One who is perfectly obedient to the Father. As St. John Paul says,
In his suffering, sins are cancelled out precisely because he alone as the only-begotten Son could take them upon himself, accept them with that love for the Father which overcomes the evil of every sin; in a certain sense he annihilates this evil in the spiritual space of the relationship between God and humanity, and fills this space with good. (SD, #17)
Even in understanding the essence and meaning of suffering, we can’t learn to approach it without also understanding its purpose.
Why Do We Suffer?
As with many Truths, ultimately we must come to the conclusion that any explanation of why something must be is a mystery because of the limits of our human understanding. Yet, St. John Paul the Great attempts to explain the “why” of suffering:
[In] order to perceive the true answer to the “why” of suffering, we must look to the revelation of divine love, the ultimate source of the meaning of everything that exists. Love is also the richest source of the meaning of suffering, which always remains a mystery: we are conscious of the insufficiency and inadequacy of our explanations. (SD, #13)
Essentially, the “why we must suffer” circles back to our role in our redemption and taking part in the suffering of Christ. The infinite and divine love of both the Father and the Son is a salvific love, says St. John Paul. Further, because “man exists on earth with the hope of eternal life and holiness” (SD, #15), our suffering is given a new meaning by this salvific love.
So, why do we suffer? We suffer because of Original Sin. Yet, our suffering is not just in response to Original Sin, but rather takes on the new meaning of redemption through Christ’s suffering. And, God “allows” suffering not because He is vindictive or relishes wreaking pain on His creation, but rather because suffering is so linked to our free will and, in turn, linked to divine love.
While we might ask God out of protest why we must suffer, the answer He gives is not ever what we expect, but rather one that wishes to call us to partake in the suffering of Christ. As St. John Paul says,
[In] general it can be said that almost always the individual enters suffering with a typically human protest and with the question “why“. He asks the meaning of his suffering and seeks an answer to this question on the human level…Nevertheless, it often takes time, even a long time, for this answer to begin to be interiorly perceived. For Christ does not answer directly and he does not answer in the abstract this human questioning about the meaning of suffering. Man hears Christ’s saving answer as he himself gradually becomes a sharer in the sufferings of Christ. (SD, #26)
The Purpose of Suffering
In his Letter to the Friends of the Cross, St. Louis de Montfort tells us that the purpose of suffering is to prepare us for the glory of Heaven. He likens the suffering of the cross to the chisel and hammer that shapes and cuts stones into “beautiful works of art”:
[Y]ou must expect to be shaped, cut and chiseled under the hammer of the cross; otherwise, you would remain rough stones, good for nothing but to be cast aside…respect the chisel that is carving you and the hand that is shaping you. It may be that this skillful and loving craftsman wants you to have an important place in his eternal edifice…(#28)
Suffering is how we continue down the path of conversion, grow in faith, and, as St. John Paul the Great said, rebuild and strengthen the goodness that we lost through Original Sin (SD, 12). Suffering, therefore, is how we achieve salvation because it enables us to participate in the Passion of Christ. As St. Paul states in his Letter to the Philippians, the only way to obtain salvation is to take part in Christ’s Passion (Phil 3:8-11). Suffering is a way to be sanctified (2 Cor 12:7-10, 1:9-11).
Suffering constantly points us to God. It is the very real reminder that we are weak and imperfect humans needing salvation. Suffering can and often does lead us to God.
In The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis says:
We can even ignore pleasure. But pain insists on being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains. It is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.
Embrace Your Cross
Suffering reminds us we cannot go it alone nor do we need to go it alone. When God gave us His only Son, He gave us a way to achieve salvific suffering. He gave us the Church, which is Him still remaining with us in our suffering on earth. Through the Sacraments, He gives us the grace and strength to continue on in our suffering and use it to rebuild the good we lost due to Original Sin – to achieve eternal life.
To be clear, suffering in and of itself doesn’t procure salvation but rather the embracing of one’s cross leads to our redemption. This is because Christ already suffered for our salvation, and so made our suffering redemptive in nature. Yet, we can take part in that salvation by embracing our own cross as He embraces His. This is our role in redemption.