One of the most beautiful and hopeful teachings of the Catholic Church is her teaching on redemptive suffering. So often, the question of suffering is a stumbling block for those who profess belief in God. And it is even more frequently the very thing cited by those who do not believe in Him as the reason for their disbelief. They ask, “how could a loving God allow suffering?” But the truth is, because of Christ, far from disproving a loving God, suffering has actually become one of the most incredible proofs of the depth of His love for us.
Even among ourselves, Christians can often question God’s role in suffering. But we do not as often stop to contemplate that suffering is not God’s work. He never wanted us to suffer. Suffering is the direct result of a “no” to His work and His plan. Every suffering we undergo can be traced back to someone saying “no” to God’s love in their life, be it ourselves, someone around us, or the ripple effect of Original Sin, since the beginning. “As a result of Original sin, human nature is weakened in its powers; subject to ignorance, suffering, and the domination of death; and inclined to sin.” (CCC 418)
The only way God could guarantee us no suffering would be to take away our ability to say no to Him – and that is something He would never do, because then we would not be free. Where there is no freedom, there can be no love.
Instead of just taking away suffering, and with it our ability to choose to love, our Lord did something far more profound. He took on our suffering, the very thing that was the result of our “no” and separation from Him and turned it into a means of growing in union with Him. “The victory that Christ won over sin has given us greater blessings than those which sin had taken from us.” (CCC 420) Whereas before, suffering could be no more than the painful result of some choice void of love, united to Him and the sufferings He bore, suffering can now be transformed into the very ground in which love itself can flourish.
Jesus does not promise us that if we follow Him, we will not suffer. On the contrary, He assures us we will. “No slave is greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” (Jn 15:20) In fact, bearing our cross with Him instead of trying to escape and avoid suffering is foundational to what it means to be a Christian at all. “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” (Lk 15:27) Yet, in His Goodness, Our Lord promises that if we carry our cross after Him, we will also come to the Resurrection with Him. He promises, “Behold, I make all things new,” (Rev 21:5). And that includes the pain of our suffering.
There has been no shortage of wisdom from the saints on the value and importance of suffering in the Christian life and how Christ transforms it for glory. St. Clare of Assisi said, “If you suffer with Him, you will reign with Him. If you cry with Him, you will have joy with Him. If you die with Him on the cross of tribulation, you will possess the eternal dwelling places in the splendor of the saints. And your name in the book of life will be glorious among men.” And St. Gemma Galgani taught us, “If you really want to love Jesus, first learn to suffer, because suffering teaches you to love.”
In my heart lately, I’ve become absolutely certain that the authenticity of my love for Jesus is wholly related to my willingness and acceptance of the sufferings and crosses of my own life. “I understand well that, just as illness is measured with a thermometer and a high fever tells us the seriousness of the illness, so also in the spiritual life, suffering is the thermometer which measures the love of God in a soul.” (Diary of St. Faustina, 774) Isn’t it true among our human relationships that the more one who loves us is willing to be inconvenienced out of love for us, the more we feel assured of their love and our importance to them? I see that the same holds true in our relationship with God.
I have had no lack of understanding of the importance of the role of suffering in the Christian life as a means by which one grows in holiness. Yet, in prayer, Our Lord had me examine the role of suffering in my own life, and revealed to me that there was, nonetheless, still something disordered in my heart in the way I viewed the cross and the part it plays on the journey to union with Him.
Though the wisdom of the saints has taught me the importance of suffering, I hadn’t realized that their lives and the amount of sufferings they endured was a discouragement to me. I hadn’t noticed, but I was comparing my life to theirs, looking at the awful tragedies and debilitating sicknesses they often endured, and coming to the conclusion that I didn’t have any crosses. Nearly all the Apostles were martyred. St. Therese died at twenty-four from Tuberculosis. Mother Teresa suffered with spiritual darkness and aridity for many years.
I was getting frustrated, convinced the only way to sainthood was through some big catastrophe or tragedy and those were markedly absent from my life. The Church’s teaching on redemptive suffering is so beautiful, but I was blind to how I could apply it to myself. In my heart, it was as if I was looking at the Lord saying, “How am I supposed to be a saint, if I have no crosses to carry?”
But gently, and I think with amusement, the Lord revealed to me that I was asking Him to throw me into the deep end of the pool, when I don’t even yet know how to swim. He showed me I was looking so much at the big crosses of the saints, and waiting to carry those, that I was blind to and neglecting the actual crosses of my daily life that He was truly asking me to carry. I was missing the very means He was providing every single day to sanctify me, looking off somewhere else, at something that wasn’t for me.
In my daily prayer time, He began to speak straight to my heart through Divine Intimacy saying, “The word cross, however, should not make us think only of special sufferings, which while not excluded, are not generally our portion. First of all, we must think of those common, daily, disagreeable things which are a part of everyone’s life and which we must accept as so many means to progress and spiritual fruitfulness…sufferings which occur daily under the same form, with the same intensity and insistence, among the endless and unchanging circumstances…Herein lies the genuine cross that Jesus offers us daily – an unpretentious cross which does not require great heroism, but which does demand that we repeat our Fiat everyday…with generosity and love.”(Divine Intimacy 129)
With this understanding, we can have peace.
Where before I saw no crosses, I suddenly saw hundreds! I realized I was Naaman the leper. He went to Elisha to be healed, but when all Elisha prescribed for him to do was to wash seven times in the Jordan, he turned up his nose. He was expecting some huge, grandiose gesture to be made clean. (2 Kings 5) Like Naaman, I was overlooking the simple, everyday things the Lord was asking me to do as “not enough.” I was looking for some big, grandiose suffering instead.
But He does not always ask us to endure persecution or slander like John of the Cross, or a progressive illness like Pope John Paul II. He wants us to endure the small daily things with calmness, accepting all from His hand. In my own life, the ways I can do this are endless: keeping my temper when having to sit through a green light because traffic is so bad; holding my tongue against the retort to a snarky comment that is fighting to come out; getting the laundry and dishes done instead of putting it off until I “feel like it,”; running that errand that needs done when I would rather just rest for the day – so many crosses that I hadn’t been able to see! They are small things but “all suffering is transformed, changed into a cross as soon as we accept it from the hands of the Savior and cling to His will…If this is true for great sufferings, it is equally true for the small ones; all are part of the divine plan, all, even the tiniest, have been predisposed by God from all eternity for our sanctification.”(Divine Intimacy, 129)
We can easily over-complicate something that is, in fact, so simple. Recognize every moment as permitted by God and accept it with calmness, and we can be assured we are on the right road. No longer does following the saints seem so daunting and unattainable. This is what St. Therese meant when she said, “Our Lord does not look so much at the greatness of our actions, or even their difficulty, as at the love with which we do them.”
Understanding this, we can recognize that the call of the Christian is not to allow ourselves to be slaves of suffering, letting it dictate our lives by running from and avoiding it at all costs. We are called instead to master it, in Christ, by giving Him our “yes,” By recognizing and accepting with peace that every single moment of our lives, the joys as well as the sufferings, have been specifically willed or permitted by Him for our salvation. There is not a single second that is beyond His notice. We can give him our “yes” and allow Him to transform our sufferings, and in so doing, we also give Him the power to transform our very lives.
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