Since the Fall, mankind has had to endure suffering. And since then, we’ve tried to explain what suffering is, what it means for us, and its purpose. Entire treatises in philosophy have been devoted to it and the different religions offer various explanations of it. But to come to fully understand suffering is impossible because it’s beyond our limits of understanding as humans.
Suffering is a mystery even though we can experience it at any point in our lives. It can be emotional suffering, such as the grief we feel when a loved one dies, or it can be physical suffering. But, ultimately, suffering is the result of Original Sin – our physical separation from God and the deprivation of eternal life in this Vale of Tears.
Even though we can never fully understand suffering, we find meaning in it through Christ’s own suffering and death. For it is through the Cross that we are given the hope and the chance that we can be made whole again, achieving eternal life. But this does not mean we have no responsibility in our own redemption. While Christ gives us the hope of salvation, it is through our living here on earth and the direction of our Will that we take a role in our redemption.
Suffering as A Tool Used In Redemption
By misunderstanding, or ignoring, the meaning of suffering we often miss the point. Suffering is not necessary for us to build virtue, nor is it necessary for our salvation. Yet it can be used as a tool for our redemption. Suffering is a tool in achieving sainthood – it is the way of the saints. It can prepare us for Heaven by giving us the opportunity to build virtue. As the old adage goes, “God doesn’t give you patience, but rather the opportunity to be patient.”
Indeed, what is patience when it’s easy to be patient or when there is no need to patient? Likewise, what is strength when strength is not needed, or courage when there’s no need to be brave?
St. Louis de Montfort
Just as a person becomes stronger by lifting weights, a person can become virtuous through suffering, providing they unite their suffering with Christ’s passion. When we suffer here on earth, we should view it as our own sanctification. In his Letter to the Friends of the Cross, St. Louis de Montfort explains that it is through suffering that God prepares us for His kingdom, comparing our suffering to the chiseling of a hammer for a cornerstone and God to the Architect:
You are aware of the fact that you are living temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6,19) and that, like living stones (1 Pa 2,5), you are to be placed by the God of love in the heavenly Jerusalem He is building. You must expect then to be shaped, cut and chiseled under the hammer of the Cross, otherwise you would remain unpolished stone, of no value at all, to be disregarded and cast aside. Do not cause the hammer to recoil when it strikes you. Yield to the chisel that is carving you and the hand that is shaping you. It may be that this skillful and loving Architect wants to make you a cornerstone in His eternal edifice . . . So let Him see to it. He loves you . . .; He knows what He is doing . . . Love is behind every one of His telling strokes. (#28)
This chiseling and forming of wills is what makes saints, if we but let it as St. Louis de Montfort explains. The saints are very real examples of how suffering and uniting that suffering to Christ allows us to reach eternal life. St. Paul is one who gave up his life of public esteem and comforts for a life of suffering. He turned away from his sinfulness to embrace Christ completely. Yet, he did not consider this a loss. Rather, he considered his life prior to conversion a loss:
[But] whatever gains I had, these I have come to consider a loss* because of Christ. More than that, I even consider everything as a loss because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have accepted the loss of all things and I consider them so much rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having any righteousness of my own based on the law but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God, depending on faith to know him and the power of his resurrection and [the] sharing of his sufferings by being conformed to his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead (Philippians 3:7-11).
Suffering Is Not Enough For Our Redemption
While redemptive suffering plays a role in our salvation, it does not presuppose salvation, meaning suffering is not the only role we play in our redemption and salvation. This is why working to relieve suffering – whether it’s through medicine for physical ailments or policy change for injustice – does not diminish the value of suffering.
Instead we must follow in the steps of Christ, St. Louis de Montfort teaches. This means turning away from a life of sin in addition to bearing the cross as Christ bore His with virtue (Letter to the Friends of the Cross, #41).
St. Louis de Montfort gives us guidance on how to carry our crosses and suffer for our redemption (#42-4):
- “Do not deliberately procure a cross for yourself.”
- “Do not do evil to bring about good.”
- “Strive to imitate Jesus Christ, not out of self-love or vainglory, but to please God and to win over His fellow men.”
- Avoid scandalizing the weak through your actions if your actions are neither good nor bad. However, if your actions serve as a witness for others and aid in their conversion, then continue if they are proved just and prudent.
- Look to the saints who led extraordinary lives of suffering, but do not compare yourselves to such saints; only admiring “the extraordinary workings of the Holy Spirit in these souls.” In other words, be humble in your actions while suffering; yet, do not feel like your suffering is not enough to be redemptive.
- Fervently pray for wisdom.
- If your suffering is of your own doing, humble yourself and accept it as expiation of pride, but do not dwell on the mistake. If it was due to sinfulness, accept the humiliation you suffer as punishment.
- Remember that any gift of God can be spoiled from our own sinfulness and any virtue can easily turn into a vice. So remain humble in your suffering, but do not revel in your humility while suffering.
- Be wary of who you imitate and be careful that you do not think that your suffering is a test of your fidelity to God or proof of God’s love for you as this can lead to spiritual pride.
- Remember that God does not consider so much what we suffer but how we suffer; so, even if the suffering seems small and contrite, use it as a means of strengthening your virtue. “To suffer much, yet badly, is to suffer like reprobates. To suffer much, even bravely, but for a wicked cause, is to suffer as a martyr of the devil. To suffer much or little for the sake of God is to suffer like saints.”
- Loving your cross (or embracing your cross) has little to do with feeling, i.e. loving with will of the flesh. Instead, love with the use of your reason, knowing that there is happiness in suffering for God whether you feel pleasure or not. Further, work to love from the soul, “which the philosophers call the love of the intellect. When we possess this love, even though we experience no sensible joy or rational pleasure, we love and relish, in the light of pure faith, the cross we must bear…”
- Be ready to accept any cross that comes to you.
- To suffer properly, remember four things: (1) God sees all – from outward action to the inner heart; (2) God permits all, bearing “you up with one Hand, of infinite power and wisdom, while with the other He chastises you”; (3) remember and contemplate often the Wounds and Passion of Christ; (4) remember what awaits you if you can bear your cross as you should – eternal life.
- Do not complain about sufferings and do not show signs of grief and impatience.
- “Whenever you are given a cross, be sure to embrace it with humility and gratitude.”
- If you wish to be worthy of the crosses that are not your choice, take on some crosses that are voluntary, such as giving away prized possessions, i.e. mortification, fasting, and sacrificing.
Uniting Us To Christ
It is through uniting our actions while suffering to Christ that we are redeemed. This is what it means to embrace the cross: To offer oneself fully and completely to God as Christ did during His Passion (Luke 22:42). It is in this that suffering can prepare us for Heaven, for it can lead to a building of virtue, penance, and the strengthening of our goodness:
Suffering must serve for conversion, that is, for the rebuilding of goodness in the subject . . . The purpose of penance is to overcome evil, which under different forms lies dormant in man. Its purpose is also to strengthen goodness both in man himself and in his relationships with others and especially with God (Salvifici Doloris, #12).