The Role of Suffering

No person in all of human history has ever lived without suffering. No matter someone’s place in life, they carry with them the scars of the past or struggle to bear some present pain.  Those deemed to be “good” or “holy” people oftentimes seem to struggle the most.  While it can be tempting to blame God for what appears to be meaningless suffering, it may be worthwhile to recall what Christ said of those who follow him:

“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.
For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, 
but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:34-35).

Notice that Christ does not promise riches or good fortune to those who follow him, but demands his followers to give up their very lives.  Christ is clear that those who are truly “good” or “holy”, will not only suffer, but must die to self in a radical way.  Thus, only through suffering can one come to be a true follower of Christ and gain eternal life. Suffering then becomes something to seek or embrace, which St. Therese of Lisieux calls "the very best gift" for the friends of Jesus.  To the greatest Saints, suffering is no longer seen as something to be avoided at all costs.  Here lies a great paradox and mystery in the life of a follower of Christ.  The bonds of suffering are the ticket to the joys of perfection and a life of love; however, this can only be understood in light of Christ’s passion and death.

In his apostolic letter, Salvifici Doloris, St. Pope John Paul II explains why Christ asks his followers to suffer and how this relates to the cross:    

“Christ goes towards his Passion and death with full awareness of the mission that he has to fulfil precisely in this way. Precisely by means of this suffering he must bring it about "that man should not perish, but have eternal life". Precisely by means of his Cross he must strike at the roots of evil, planted in the history of man and in human souls. Precisely by means of his Cross he must accomplish the work of salvation. This work, in the plan of eternal Love, has a redemptive character”.

What St. Pope John Paul II is trying to convey is the importance of suffering not only in Christ’s life, but in the total work of salvation history.  It was only through dying, that Christ could bring us to new life.  However, not only does Christ’s suffering become salvific, but all human suffering is elevated.  For this reason, Christ asks his followers to suffer and give up their lives as he did on the cross – because their suffering has become salvific just as his was on the cross.  As St. John Paul II notes:

 “One can say that with the Passion of Christ all human suffering has found itself in a new situation... In the Cross of Christ not only is the Redemption accomplished through suffering, but also human suffering itself has been redeemed".  

This “new situation” is man’s ability to enter into the redemptive suffering of Christ through their own suffering, bringing new meaning to the struggles of man.  When life becomes unbearable, the weight of one's cross can be brought to the foot of Christ, who bore the ultimate sacrifice.  Through this bringing forth of one's suffering, man can be further united with Christ and one another, restoring a sense of hope in the promises of eternal life. 

Therefore, on the journey of Faith, one should not seek to forget their wounds or pain, but should unite them to the wounds of Christ. Suffering may come and go, but it is never without meaning and can always be added to the salvific work of Christ on the cross.  All men, especially those who profess to the Christian Faith, can find solace in their sufferings by calling to mind that life giving love which Christ presented to the world by his life.  Finally, never forgetting the promise that whoever loses their life for the Gospel will save it – not in this life, but in the glorious Resurrection at the end of all ages, when man will be released from his shackles and brought into the infinite love of the Trinity.  

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