Like many middle-aged folks, I have a chronic illness. The medications I take to treat it have some really delightful side effects. Between the disease, the doctors and the medicines, some days are a struggle for me. Lots of you reading this know just how I feel. We all suffer. Some of us have physical illnesses, other folks battle emotional wounds, or addiction or any of a hundred other issues. In this world we live in, broken by the sin of our first parents, we struggle and work, we suffer and stumble through this “valley of tears” (Psalm 84).
One of the great joys of the Christian life is that, in Christ, our suffering has meaning. It’s not just worthless pain. On the Cross, Jesus turned the world’s truth upside down and transformed suffering into the ultimate power. In His Passion, we see The Lord humiliated, tortured, abandoned and killed. And yet His death is our great hope, opening the gates of heaven. His love overcomes the grave, once and for all. Jesus made suffering into the source of life and therefore He imbues suffering with value and purpose and meaning. And yet in the middle of our sufferings or illnesses or struggles, the search for purpose and meaning sometimes seems fruitless. How can we watch a loved one suffer and die and say that there is meaning and purpose in their pain? How can the agony of terminal cancer ever be redemptive?
The only way we can do this is by entering into Christ’s Passion. From the earliest years of the Church, the saints have proclaimed this truth. The suffering Creator giving His life for His children is the only way to make sense of our own pain, and the only way that our pain can redeem. “Rejoice that you are partakers in the sufferings of Christ”(St. Clement of Alexandria, 150-215AD). “…as God suffered for our sakes, so should we suffer…”(St. John Chrysostom, 347-407AD). Without redemptive suffering, by which we are united to Jesus’ suffering, all our pains and struggles make no sense. This kind of suffering is self-centered and pointless. Uniting our pain with Christ and His Cross is the only way out of self-pitying agony. The Cross is always our only hope.
We know that God could have saved us from sin in any way that He willed. He could have just waved a hand and it would have been done. Yet the way that He chose was the Crucifixion of His only Son on a Cross. In this way, our Lord revealed something very important: suffering and death have meaning. They are connected to our salvation. And if they have meaning for God, they have meaning for you and me, too. Pain and illness are not just random and horrible effects of original sin. Not since the Cross of Christ. That ultimate act of selfless suffering and death not only conquered the grave for our eternal souls, but it transformed suffering and pain for our physical bodies. Through Jesus, through His suffering, we can understand and value our own pain. The most important lesson that our pain can impart to us is the lesson of humility. Suffering is never an end in itself or a goal in itself. Suffering points the way to the Cross and to the total self-giving love that kept Christ nailed there. When we suffer in union with Him, in humility, when we offer our weaknesses to Him, in thanksgiving, we say, “Lord, I’m not doing this very well. I’m impatient and self-centered. But please use this pain in whatever way You will to increase my faith and trust in You.” Our broken hearts and broken bodies are a way to holiness, if we offer them up to our Savior. When I accept that I can’t fix my own pain, I can let The Lord heal my self-importance.
Understanding suffering from the foot of the Cross is the only way I can get through the bad days of my illness and treatments. Hurting makes me call on my Savior. It takes me out of my own self-centeredness and allows me to give it all, again, to Him It reminds me that, although He didn’t have to suffer and die, He did. For me and for you. My small sufferings are the tiniest echo of that great act of love and sacrifice. And for this, for Him, I give thanks to God.
“He gave our pain and struggles a holy significance, a redemptive power, which makes it a privilege to suffer with Christ.”
—-Dr. Scott Hahn