In Part I, we discussed a common misunderstanding of suffering among many Catholics. We looked at a specific type of suffering involving persecution. Now let’s turn to two other types of “meritorious” sufferings that don’t necessarily involve persecution – or the actions of others.
St. Paul’s rather difficult statement in Col 1:24 frames a context for the second category of “meritorious: suffering:
“Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church.”
Our Protestant brethren protest that Christ’s suffering on the Cross was complete and therefore, fully satisfied the offense against God caused by sin. As such, there was nothing left undone by Christ by which to accomplish our salvation and restore us to God’s grace. Catholics agree. In fact, Catholics and Protestants are fully united in this identical faith profession!
So then, what exactly was “lacking in Christ’s afflictions” according to Paul? Scripture is Truth. It is the inerrant word of God. Paul said that something was lacking! How then do we resolve this troublesome statement from Paul?
The answer is focused by a further consideration: for what purpose did Paul offer his personal suffering? Paul would never offer his own personal sufferings as his justification before God. Nothing we can offer commends us to Heaven – except the Cross of Christ!
Paul offered his sufferings for the Body of Christ – the Church. You and me. That was the only purpose Paul proposed! By that limitation, we discover exactly what Paul considered to be “lacking in Christ’s afflictions”.
Understanding God’s Perfect Justice
To do so we must enter into a deeper understanding of the perfection of God’s justice. Sin has more than just one consequence. In fact, it has many. The first and foremost consequence is the offense given to God because of our sins. This offense is measured in God’s Person. It is, therefore, infinite. Only the infinite merit of Christ’s Cross can compensate God’s infinite offense and thereby satisfy God’s justice. But the offense before God defines only one consequence – a “vertical” component and consequence of sin.
The other consequence of sin is “horizontal” – measured by what we inflict upon each other here on earth by reason of our sins. They’re two different and distinguishable consequences of sin – and God holds us accountable for both. Because perfect justice can do no less.
By contrast to the infinite offense given to God, the “horizontal” consequences of our sins are finite. They are measured by the exact degree and extent of the suffering our sins inflict upon each other. And by that same measure, we are held fully accountable.
What we have inflicted on others, we can – and therefore must – restore or at least compensate by our own efforts. God’s perfect justice demands this of us because His justice is perfect.
A simple example confirms this truth. Johnny approaches Eddie on the playground and purposefully trips him, causing Eddie to fall and badly skin and bruise his knee. He leaves Eddie crying after stealing Eddie’s lunch. As he runs away, Johnny hurls a “crybaby” taunt at Eddie just for good measure. Without lunch, Eddie goes hungry for the rest of the day and then limps painfully and slowly to his home – over a mile away.
That night, Johnny suffers a guilty conscience. He prays with sincere remorse, asking Jesus to forgive him for doing “a bad thing”. His sin is forgiven by God through the infinite merits of the Cross of Christ.
But did the Cross of Christ provide Eddie with a substitute lunch or compensate the hunger Eddie suffered by reason of Johnny’s sin? Did God’s forgiveness of Johnny heal the injury to Eddie’s knee or eliminate Eddie’s humiliation before his playmates? Did the sufferings of Christ simply “erase” and recompense all those “horizontal” consequences of Johnny’s actions for Eddie as well? Of course not.
Will perfect justice overlook that deficit? Ask Eddie if the forgiveness received by Johnny made Eddie’s walk home easier or eased Eddie’s hunger. Eddie’s suffering remains unreconciled by the sufferings of Christ. That’s why Jesus told us we have to reconcile these deficits ourselves! We must do this before we are able to come into God’s Presence bearing our gift of Christ’s forgiveness!
“So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother and then come and offer your gift.” Mt 5: 23-24.
The Second Suffering: Picking Up After Yourself
This is what Paul was referring to. The requirement that each of us restore or compensate the “horizontal” consequences of our own sins is the only thing “lacking in the sufferings of Christ”.
And God requires that – because it’s simply NOT His job to reconcile what we are able to do ourselves. Just as we want our own children to become responsible and actively participate to the degree they are able in our family activities, so too does God.
But can any of us know – let alone measure – all the various ways that we have ever hurt others during our entire life? Impossible. Those consequences may remain entirely unknown until God reveals them to us. But that fact does not excuse us from the exactions of God’s perfect justice!
And here is where the beauty of our Catholic theology of suffering comes into play. In the Body of Christ – His Church, we are all as one. Therefore, what hurts the head, hurts the Body. Conversely, what restores the head heals the body as well. [c.f. 1 Cor 12:21].
Saint Paul suffered hunger, fatigue, heat, cold and other deprivations in his apostolic ministry. Not all of his sufferings resulted from persecution. Cold happens. Yet he offered his sufferings “in his flesh” for the “Body of Christ, the Church”. Why? Because by offering those finite mortal sufferings for benefit of the Church, he was “donating” a compensatory and balancing justice to reconcile the outstanding deficits of “horizontal” sin within that same Body.
Simply stated, what was left unreconciled by Johnny as the “hand” was compensated by St. Paul as the “foot” – by the mechanism of the Body of which they are both members. A “horizontal” deficit of hunger suffered by Eddie due to lack of charity in one Christian, was compensated by a sacrificial offering to God’s justice of Paul’s own hunger. Johnny should have given his lunch to Eddie the next day and gone hungry himself to balance justice against the hurt inflicted. He didn’t. Paul did it for him. Eye for an eye. Tooth for a tooth. Hunger for hunger. God’s perfect justice doesn’t change, folks.
The Body of Christ is The Great Equalizer
The Church is the great equalizer and administrator of both deficits and benefits within the Body of Christ for all of us.
As such, our disappointments, physical deformities, sicknesses and the sufferings we incur at the hands of others become our own little “crosses” of sacrifice by which we can offer to compensate “in our flesh” the measure of sufferings we have knowingly or unknowingly inflicted upon others by our many sins. We can also do this to “cover” each other’s deficits in the Body of Christ, the Church. What restores the head, restores the body as well.
Catholics “offer up” the sadness and disappointment we experience when our children leave the Church, the frustrations of becoming incapacitated by age, bedridden with injuries or being humiliated by our own really dumb actions. So too, our positive actions of charity, compassion, forgiveness, and self-sacrifice can be contributed! All of these can be suffered or gifted and offered by us as a reparation, restoration, and compensation through the Body of Christ.
This is exactly what Paul offered in his flesh for the sake of the Body. The offering of his sufferings was pledged to remedy the “horizontal” consequence of sins left unreconciled in the sufferings of Christ – who had already fully satisfied the “vertical” consequence of our sins before God the Father!
It’s a beautiful Catholic concept by which our faith makes our personal suffering meaningful and gives it value. It provides an opportunity to offer a wonderful gift of ourselves that injects compassion, charity, significance and hope into an otherwise bleak and futile backdrop of what would otherwise be an endless spectrum of meaningless pain, frustration, and disappointments.
There is one last type of suffering also considered “meritorious”. But this third category of suffering does not entail nearly the degree of merit or benefit identified in suffering persecutions or offering our “sufferings in the flesh” for the sake of the Body of Christ, the Church.
Obedience: The Third Suffering
This third form of suffering is consequent to the fight against our own human nature – our unbridled passions, base instincts and selfish predispositions. To oppose these predilections in ourselves invokes an element of personal suffering by reason of denying what we would otherwise prefer. Gluttony. Lust. Envy. Anger. They’re bad magnets. We are inclined toward these by reason of the concupiscence that still lingers in our flesh even as we follow Christ.
As a result, we must “deny ourselves, pick up our cross and follow Christ” [Mt. 16:4].
It takes an effort to deny the tug of what is forbidden to us – what we want by nature is always more than what we need by grace. Our base instincts from below war constantly with the Spirit from above. Obedience is not easy. Sometimes it’s very hard. Avoiding personal sin necessarily involves a choice; our personal obedience to Christ.
We suffer as we resist. We battle ourselves for sake of a greater fidelity and obedience to Christ. Is that suffering “meritorious”? Yes. By that obedience, we avoid sin. Avoiding sin is meritorious because it pleases God.
But the battle is rarely easy. That’s why Catholics go to the confessional. It’s a field hospital for the mortally wounded. The best surgeon in heaven and earth slings his scalpel there.
Saints have embraced extreme measures in order to remain obedient to Christ. Popular lore has it then when St. Francis of Assisi was a young man, he was afflicted by desires of the flesh (impurity) – not an uncommon temptation in young men (or women). To counteract those temptations, he rolled naked in the snow – an extreme version of taking a cold shower. But when he still felt unbearably tempted – and there was no snow to be found, he threw himself naked into a thorn bush until affliction overwhelmed his prior temptation.
That’s an extreme mortification to be sure – but does much to explain why Catholic Saints are portrayed as unsmiling. Thorns wipe the grin off your face quickly.
Why is this third category of suffering considered least incomparable merit? Because obedience is merely an obligation; a duty to be faithful to our Master. Does a servant claim merit merely by fulfilling the duties minimally necessary and proper to their status? Jesus’s answer is specific:
“Will he [the Master] thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.” Lk. 17:7-10
Catholic art may not express the joy that comes from having Jesus in our heart. But we Catholics should live that reality! If everyday Catholics – wannabe saints like you and me – would focus less on “suffering for God” and more on spreading His joy, imagine what the results might be!
Jesus’ commission – His last words to his disciples – proposed a singular mandate and priority of focus which He commanded all of us to engage:
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” Mt 28: 19-20
What does evangelization have to do with our Catholic Suffering Syndrome (CSS)? Everything!
Christ commanded us to bring others to the Faith. It wasn’t a suggestion. So how are we doing, Catholics? Got converts?
Question: have you dear reader personally witnessed, mentored, instructed or disciplined anybody outside your own family into the Catholic Church recently – or ever? Maybe “Catholic suffering” shouldn’t be the message on your Catholic billboard! If Catholicism was a roadside diner, we’d all be going broke.
In fact, we actually are. Bishop Robert Barron notes that for every one convert to the Catholic Faith, six leave.
“The Church faces many challenges today, but I am convinced that the most pressing concern, at least in America, is the attrition of our own people. 13% of Americans identify as former Catholics and for every one convert to the Catholic faith, more than six people leave. …One-third of the Millennial generation now claims no religious affiliation, and only 16% identify as Catholic.” Bishop Robert Barron, Nov 12, 2016, Word on Fire [https://www.wordonfire.org/resources/blog/bishop-barron-on-the-churchs-most-pressing-concern/4980/]
Even God can’t walk a dog (or Church) with no legs. Maybe it’s time for a new billboard and marketing strategy. Because that’s exactly what “evangelization” is: marketing. The product is Christ. The benefit is salvation. The sales pitch is joy. Not suffering. When our record is 1-6 in the field, we’re not going to win the pennant folks. Something’s got to change. Soon.
Do others see the joy and hear in your voice the enthusiasm of your Catholic profession? Is the witness of Christ evident in your smile and a lack of anxiety that absolutely mystifies the stress-addicted culture around you? Do others observe a wonderful buoyancy and enthusiasm in you that endures and persists despite long hours, hardships, setbacks, and personal fatigue?
Might there be a more active and persuasive method of evangelization than “offering up” your sufferings for their conversion? If you refuse to play, don’t presume to pray.
Do you know your faith well enough to defend it competently, accurately and winningly whenever and wherever the opportunity arises? What is now preparing you for such an encounter? What do you read? Why do you read it? Who do you listen to? Where are you planting spiritual seeds? Are they producing anything? Who are you harvesting?
If every Catholic focused more on joy than on suffering as their signal beacon and goalpost of Catholic holiness, perhaps even our Catholic Saints might hazard a smile!
And that my friends, would be a miracle, indeed! Keep an eye on the stained-glass windows!