Redemptive Suffering

I started my New Year with a nasty stomach bug.  I don’t mean the kind you get from drinking too much champagne.  Unfortunately, I mean the feverish, nauseous, icky…well, you know what kind I mean.  In between trips to the bathroom, I was thinking about suffering and God.  I’ll admit that most of my “sickroom theology” was little more than the prayerful plea, “Lord, please make this stop!” But when the worst had passed, literally, I was able to think a little more clearly about the problem of suffering.
Everyone suffers. Since the fall of our first parents in the Garden, being human means enduring pain.  Life brings suffering and loss of all kinds, disappointments and unhappiness.  Original sin brought death into the world.  All our human sufferings are kind of “little deaths” that we endure for living in a fallen world.  But for Christians, this fallen world has been redeemed by Jesus Christ and His sacrifice has also redeemed suffering.  Catholic theology teaches us that pain and suffering are never willed by God.  As a father sometimes allows a child to suffer the consequences of their actions, God allows us to suffer so that we can grow in spirit.  Whether it’s for our correction, or to encourage us to lean more fully on Him, we can always trust that His grace and love will see us through the hard times.
Catholics also know that our suffering can do us good when we allow it.  We’re called to imitate Jesus, to “put on Christ” (Romans 13:14; Galatians 3:27).  Like Him, we must take up our own crosses and follow the Way of Sorrows that He walked before us.  Suffering unites us to the pain Jesus endured for our sake.  As we are all members of His Body, our particular sufferings can not only bear spiritual fruit for us, but for others as well.  We are all in this vale of tears together.  “If one member suffer any thing, all the members suffer with it…”(I Corinthians 12:26).  God wants us to depend on one another because we are all His adopted sons and daughters:  His family.  Our sufferings, great or small, aren’t punishments but opportunities.  An illness, a job loss, a difficult relationship—all these are ways we can connect with one another in prayer, support and sacrifice.  We can weave a tapestry of community when we do this.  This filial love is pleasing to God because it reveals the love of Jesus in our lives.  Parents feel a wonderful sense of devotion when they see their children helping one another out and sacrificing their own wants for that of a sibling.  God must feel the same way when He sees us loving, helping, and praying for one another.
Beyond being a worldly support for our brother and sisters, we can offer God our own pains and sacrifices as well.  This is the Catholic practice of “offering it up” with which u may be familiar.  We believe that in God’s economy of salvation, no pain or suffering is lost or goes unmerited if we offer it back to God.  Our whole lives are called to be an offering to our Lord. When we offer Him our pains and sufferings we conform our souls and our mortal bodies more closely to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  We offer Him our pain for our own spiritual good and for that of other people, too.  In some mysterious way, God allows these sacrifices to benefit others (Colossians 1:23-24).
And so the next time you’re ill or stuck in traffic or your computer crashes or your favorite shirt is ruined in the laundry—accept it peacefully and patiently. Ask God to use your pain or discomfort in whatever way and for whatever intention is His good purpose, either for your own life or in the life of someone else who needs His help.  This isn’t easy to do, but it’s a habit and practice of many Saints in history, so that’s good enough for me.  Redemptive suffering allows us to participate as God’s co-workers in His plan of salvation.  Like Simon the Cyrene, we help Jesus to carry His Cross on the way to Golgotha (Matthew 27:32).  One of the great joys of our Catholic faith is knowing that Christ is always with us in the midst of our pain and in the loneliness of our sufferings.  He has known it all and borne it all before and His desire is to be invited into every moment of our lives, to share it with us and to show us the way through.  The love of Jesus calls out from the Crucifix to each one of us, no matter our pain and asks us to lay our burdens at the foot of His Cross.


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