HOW SHOULD THE CHRISTIAN RESPOND TO PERSONAL SUFFERING?
My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.
2 Corinthians 12:9a
Have you have been waging a battle against forces that threaten you and your family? You need to be assured that Jesus, the Savior who loves you and who died that you might live with Him throughout all eternity, will give you the strength of faith to endure your ordeal of suffering. You must claim the promise our Lord made to us through His Apostle Paul that He will not give you more than you can bear: None of the trials which have come upon you is more than a human being can stand. You can trust that God will not let you be put to the test beyond your strength, but with any trial will also provide a way out by enabling you to put up with it (1 Corinthians 10:13). As you experience your trials I urge you to unite your suffering, both emotionally and physically, with the suffering of our Lord Jesus Christ and to take courage from the words of our late Pope who wrote that God is always on the side of suffering (Crossing the Threshold of Hope, Pope John Paul II, page 66). God the Son's love and mercy are demonstrated by the fact that He freely chose to suffer as the means of His plan of redemption for the salvation of mankind, as from the cross He spoke the words of Psalm 22:1, My God, My God, why have you forsaken me, the words of all those who suffer in this life. Those very words are proof that He chose to unite our suffering to His! What greater demonstration could there be to the depth and sincerity of His love for us? He loved us in His suffering to His last breath as the Apostle John testifies in John 13:1, having loved those who were his in the world, loved them to the end.
Why would a just and loving God allow suffering? When God created man to "know, love, and serve" Him, God desired a purity of love which cannot be exercised without the human freedom to choose to love or not to love (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church # 1604). With this freedom of choice comes the decision to love expressed in obedience of faith or not to love, which is expressed in disobedience. With the decision not to love God and in our actions to not show His love to others comes the possibility of sin, and with the possibility of sin comes the resulting suffering which can lead to sickness, mental anguish, pain, and even death for oneself or in the harm done to others. God did not create evil. Evil is the result of the willful turning away from God and His infinite love, but God did allow for the possibility of sin and the resulting evil so that the greatest of human good, genuine love, could be manifested in mankind. The negative result of that freedom of choice is the possibility of sin and suffering.
In the Old Testament Book of Job, God exposes us to the incomprehensibility of suffering in that even the good and the innocent must endure suffering in this life as a result of sin in the world. The full depth of the injustice and gravity of the suffering of the innocent is fully revealed in the humanity of Jesus of Nazareth when God unites Himself to the suffering of man. There is no more complete answer as to why a just God allows the innocent to suffer than the answer that is offered up to humanity in the saving work of Jesus Christ. In addressing the question of human suffering, Pope John Paul II wrote: Christ does not explain in the abstract the reasons for suffering, but before all else he says: 'Follow me! Come! Take part through your suffering in this work of saving the world, a salvation achieved through my suffering! Through my cross!' (Salvifici Doloris, 26). In Jesus the Messiah, the dimension of the suffering of the innocent is revealed to be a redemptive suffering, a suffering transformed and redeemed through the cross of Christ. Reflecting on this mystery John Paul II wrote: Christ has opened His suffering to man... Man, discovering through faith the redemptive suffering of Christ, also discovers in it his own sufferings; he rediscovers them through faith, enriched with a new content and meaning (Salvifici Doloris, 20).
To be called to suffering in this life is to be called into the mystery of Christ's Passion, and it is to be called to cooperate in the redemption of mankind. The Catechism of the Catholic Church assures us in article 307 that we can all become collaborators with God's plan of salvation: ...to human beings God even gives the power of freely sharing in his providence by entrusting them with the responsibility of "subduing" the earth and having dominion over it. God thus enables men to be intelligent and free causes in order to complete the work of creation, to perfect its harmony for their own good and that of their neighbors. Though often unconscious collaborators with God's will, they can also enter deliberately into the divine plan by their actions, their prayers, and their sufferings. They then fully become "God's fellow workers" and co-workers for his kingdom ( Genesis 1:26-28; 1 Corinthians 3:9; 1Thessalonians 3:2; Colossians 1:24, 4:11). We can become collaborators with God's plan of salvation when we unite our sufferings with the sufferings of Christ and offer up our prayers for the salvation of our neighbors, our communities, and the world. Our suffering offered up to Christ places us at the pivot point of the history of man. We stand at the side of the suffering Jesus who gave Himself up, Body and Blood, pain, and tears for the salvation of the world.
Our suffering also places us in a unique proximity to His mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary, our example of the model Christian, who also as prophesized, offered up her own suffering with her son and Savior (Luke 2:33-35). The Catechism of the Catholic Church addresses this unique opportunity to participate in Christ's sacrifice by uniting our suffering to His: The cross is the unique sacrifice of Christ, the one mediator between God and men (1 Timothy 2:5).' But because in his incarnate divine person he has in some way united himself to every man, the possibility of being made partners, in a way known to God, in the paschal mystery' is offered to all men. He calls his disciples to take up [their] cross and follow [him]' (Matthew 16:24), for Christ also suffered for [us], leaving [us] an example so that [we] should follow in his steps.' (1 Peter 2:21). In fact Jesus desires to associate with his redeeming sacrifice those who were to be its first beneficiaries. This is achieved supremely in the case of his mother, who was associated more intimately than any other person in the mystery of his redemptive suffering [see Luke 2:35] (CCC# 618).
Pope John Paul II defined human suffering as a great test not only of physical strength but also spiritual strength (Crossing the Threshold of Hope, page 25). Saint Paul understood this testing and the necessity to unite personal suffering to the suffering of Christ for the sake of the redemption of man when he wrote to the Christians at Colossus: It makes me happy to be suffering for you now, and in my own body to make up all the hardships that still have to be undergone by Christ for the sake of His body, the Church, of which I was made a servant with the responsibility towards you that God gave to me (Colossians 1:24). Paul is not saying that Jesus' suffering was insufficient. Christ's suffering was wholly and completely sufficient. But instead, Paul is acknowledging that as the battle against sin continues and the resulting suffering from sin continues, whenever a Christian offers up his personal suffering united with Jesus' suffering that a mystical union occurs that works toward the continual call to salvation in the world. The Son of God willingly suffered to establish the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, the Catholic Church, and anyone who continues in Christ's work and takes up the cross of our Lord must share in the suffering of that cross. In our suffering for the Kingdom we must unite our suffering to Christ's suffering. In that struggle some of us will be called to deep physical suffering while others to emotional suffering and persecution for the sake of the Kingdom, for Apart from the cross there is no other ladder by which we may get to heaven (Saint Rose of Lima).
Therefore, suffering is not in vain. There is the promise of an eternal reward for faithful endurance in submitting to the will of God as well as the opportunity to cooperate in God's plan of salvation. In 2 Corinthians 1:5-7 Paul writes: For just as the sufferings of Christ overflow into our lives; so too does the encouragement we receive through Christ. So if we have hardships to undergo, this will contribute to your encouragement and your salvation; if we receive encouragement, this is to gain for you the encouragement which evokes you to bear with perseverance the same sufferings as we do. So our hope for you is secure in the knowledge that you share the encouragement we receive, no less than the sufferings we bear. This is the Pascal mystery. In our suffering we behold the risen and glorified Christ as we take our part in the New Creation. We are hounded and wounded by the sufferings that are still our link to the old creation which is still held by the last threads of sin, suffering and death. Our suffering united with Christ and our prayers can work toward the salvation of those in whom we come in contact when we share His message of salvation in love in the midst of our suffering. Our sufferings united to Christ can also free us from the penance due as consequence of our confessed sins as well as strengthen our faith and the depth of our imaging Christ in our daily lives. All suffering united to Christ's sufferings counts to the good for us and for our fellow man. St. Paul, who experienced intense personal suffering that eventually led to his martyrdom, wrote with confidence from his prison cell about God's plan for his life: ...all in accordance with my most confident hope and trust that I shall never have to admit defeat, but with complete fearlessness I shall go on, so that now, as always, Christ will be glorified in my body, whether by my life or my death. Life to me, of course, is Christ, but then death would be a positive gain (Philippians 1:20). But what we must never do in our suffering is to despair. Despair is a sin, for in despair we no longer acknowledge confidence in God's love and in God's plan for our lives. Despair sins against the theological virtue of hope.
Through our rebirth into the family of God through the Sacrament of Baptism and through the most Holy Eucharist, in which the believer receives Jesus Christ, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, a Christian is so mystically united into the divine life of Christ that the whole of the believer's life, including his sufferings and death, are mystically united to Christ living in him and being glorified in him (see Romans 14:8; 1 Corinthians 6:20). Our earthly suffering allows us a special intimacy with our Savior in those hours when His love for us was most visible. When God calls us, we must embrace our suffering as though we are embracing Him and have the courage to repeat the words of St. Paul in his suffering: I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:9b-10). May our loving and merciful God bless you and keep you in the arms of the Savior who loved you to the end.
References and resources:
Catechism of the Catholic Church (see CCC 307, 1604, 1508, 1521)
Making Sense our of Suffering, P. Kreeft
Salvifici Doloris [On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering], Pope John Paul II
The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis
The Nature of Good and Evil, D. von Hildebrand
Crossing the Threshold of Hope, Pope John Paul II
Michal Hunt, Copyright © 2005 Agape Bible Study. Permissions All Rights Reserved.
Other documents in the
Documents and Resources section that may interest you on this subject are:
Did Jesus Have to Suffer to Save Mankind?
Was it God's Plan That Jesus Should Suffer and Die for the Salvation of Man?