Understanding the meaning of suffering became an urgent personal concern for me not too long ago when I began to develop excruciating pain in my neck and arm. I discovered after repeated visits to the doctor that the cause of my pain was a split disk in my neck, and I would need a cervical spine fusion. Previous to my injury, I was well acquainted with Catholic Church teaching on redemptive suffering, but I found that in the midst of my pain, my clear theological understanding was reduced to sloppy, emotional and inconsistent application. To say the least, I wrestled day and night with this issue of suffering and pain, disappointed with my level of courage and trust in God. After months of prayer, questions, and many books, my quest for answers led me right into the very heart of the Trinity. It was only then, when my heart was in union with God, that my suffering took on significance.
Through this experience I came to see how an academic study of suffering can only go so far. Suffering cannot be completely taught in the objective; suffering is a vocation, a calling that can only be truly understood in the school of suffering. Only by living through it can we more fully understand its redemptive power.
Most of us have unanswered questions about suffering. We wonder how God, if He loves us, could allow us to suffer. Yet throughout salvation history we see that the ways of God are often not the ways of man. Like the pearl fisherman seeking a treasure embedded in the dark heart of the oyster, we too must seek the shining pearls of grace hidden in the darkness of suffering.
When we survey human history, it becomes evident that suffering is an inextricable part of the human condition. It's not a matter of whether we will suffer during our lives, but when. And more specifically, how will we suffer: poorly or well?
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When we fail to find meaning in our suffering, we can easily fall into despair. But once we find meaning in our suffering, it is astounding what we can endure, both mentally and physically. The key is not the suffering itself, but the meaning found within it. At the beginning of my ordeal my faith was inconsistent, focusing more on myself than the opportunity Christ had given me to join myself to Him. As the months rolled on, I spent more time before the Blessed Sacrament, more time in prayer and study. I longed for answers that would make my suffering meaningful. I desperately wanted a revelation of the meaning of suffering that would result in one of those "aha" moments. I was not disappointed.
The hurdle I had to overcome was a long-time question of mine; didn't Jesus suffer so that we wouldn't have to? No doubt Jesus suffered and died that we might become a part of the family of God, spiritually healed and sharing in His nature. But He didn't eliminate suffering here on earth. In fact, the gospels record very few people healed by Jesus.
In his Apostolic Letter "On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering," Pope John Paul II speaks of two types of suffering; temporal and definitive. We experience temporal suffering, both moral and physical, as a consequence of sin. But there is a suffering that goes much deeper than depression or cancer, a definitive suffering. Concerning this definitive suffering Pope John Paul II says, "Man perishes when he loses 'eternal life.' The opposite of salvation is not, therefore, only temporal suffering, and kind of suffering, but the definitive suffering: the loss of eternal life, being rejected by God - damnation. The only-begotten Son was given to humanity primarily to protect man against this definitive evil and against definitive suffering" (Salvifici Doloris 14). In temporal suffering "there is concealed a particular power that draws a person interiorly close to Christ, a special grace" (Salvifici Doloris 26) that acquaints us with pure love.
The work of Christ doesn't guarantee an escape from suffering. No-instead, He has changed the meaning of suffering. We are now joined through baptism with Christ in His death and resurrection, and we have become intimately united to Him, so much so that we are His Body. Because of our union with Christ, even our suffering is changed; it becomes redemptive. Because Christ loves us so much, He invites us to participate in His redeeming work by allowing us to offer up our sufferings in union with His.
Pope John Paul II said, "in the cross of Christ not only is the redemption accomplished through suffering, but also human suffering itself has been redeemed" (Salvifici Doloris, 19). In other words, our suffering is changed and is worth something if it is in union with Christ. Every time we suffer, we have an opportunity to either run from Christ, or embrace the suffering as an opportunity to love and walk as He walked.
If the weakness of the Cross-the point at which Jesus was emptied and lifted up-was confirmed by the Resurrection, then our weakness is capable of being infused with the same power manifested in the cross of Christ. St. Paul experienced much weakness and suffering, but when he prayed about it, Christ answered: "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." As a result, the apostle could proclaim, "I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me" (see 2 Corinthians 12:7-9).
St. Paul understood that our life is a cooperation with the work of Christ when he wrote: "Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church" (Colossians 1:24). Think about that: Paul said that something is lacking in Christ's afflictions. What could possibly be lacking in Christ's afflictions? Our part!
Our part may be miniscule compared to His. Nevertheless, as Pope John Paul II has said, our sufferings are "a very special particle of the infinite treasure of the world's Redemption" (Salvifici Doloris, 27). This is how our suffering can take on meaning: when joined to Christ, suffering is changed and actually becomes fruitful. We participate with Christ in redeeming the world.
Today, Jesus tells us that if we are to follow Him we must deny ourselves and take up our cross daily (see Luke 9:23). Our lives become an imitation of and participation in the love of the Trinity when we offer up our complete lives in union with Christ. As St. Paul put it:
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For while we live we are always being given up to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh. ‚Ä¶ knowing that He who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into His presence" (2 Corinthians 4:8-11,14).
The resurrection is our guarantee that we can trust our heavenly Father. We can participate in the life-giving love of the Trinity by laying our lives down for the sake of His kingdom. Now that we are "in Christ," the fruit of our suffering is raised to a supernatural level; it becomes eternal in nature.
I have discovered that it is in the midst of suffering that I experience most deeply the love of God. I enter the very heart of the Trinity, and it is there that I come to know God. By the end of my ordeal, I understood that Christ was allowing me to participate in His cross because that is His means of allowing me to share in the very inner life of God.
This is why sometimes "bad things happen to good people." Remember Mary, the mother of Jesus, who said yes to God prior to the Incarnation. This yes, her fiat, would result in great pain; as Simeon told her: "A sword will pierce through your own soul also" (Luke 2:35). But what was the fruit of Mary's suffering? Life for the entire world.
The fact that Jesus suffered and died does not mean that we won't suffer. In fact, we are told that we can expect some measure of suffering if we follow Him (see Matthew 16:24). By being united to Christ, He empowers us with His life and enables us to love as He loves by offering our lives in union with Him. During the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass we have the best opportunity to join ourselves with Jesus and "offer up" our pain.
If you are suffering now, do not despair. This is your opportunity to draw close to Christ and entrust yourself to God (see 1 Peter 2:23; 4:19). It is by taking up your cross and following Christ that you come to know that indeed "all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose" (Romans 8:28). I have indeed learned that through suffering, I'm given a wonderful opportunity to walk as Jesus walked, in self-donating love. This understanding of suffering has changed every aspect of my life and it has taken much of the fear of suffering from me. It has made me a better husband, father, and friend. I can now honestly say, thank you Jesus for allowing me to pick up my cross and follow you.