A Catholic Reflection on the Meaning of SufferingAug 9th, 2009 | By Bryan Cross | Category: Blog Posts
If God is all powerful, and truly seeks our good, then why does He allow bad things to happen to people? Why does God allow all the suffering we experience in this life, if He loves us and is all-powerful and all-knowing? What does the Catholic Church say about the meaning of suffering?
Job and his Wife (c. 1504)
Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt
We believe in an all-loving, all-power God. Not only does all love come from God, but the Apostle John says that God is Love.1 And we know that genuine love seeks the good for the beloved.2 If you love someone, you want that person to have what is truly good for him, what truly and most perfectly makes him happy. But God loves us infinitely more than we love each other. Therefore we know that God wants us to have what is good for us, what truly makes us happy.
But that is just what makes the sufferings of this present life so odd, perplexing, even apparently contradictory. If God is all powerful, and truly seeks our good, then why does He allow all the suffering we experience in this life?
Recently a young man I know survived a plane crash. Upon hearing the news, some of us responded by thanking God that he survived. Another person responded to our thanksgiving by objecting that if God existed, He would have prevented the plane crash.3
This is the same objection we find in “the new atheism.” The atheist directs us to observe all the evil and suffering around us. Obviously there cannot be a good God, argues the atheist, because if God existed, He would not allow such meaningless, pointless evil and suffering to occur. The common hidden assumption is that if we cannot see for ourselves any justifying reason, then either there cannot be any such reason, or it is not reasonable to believe that there is such a reason. In other words, the objection presupposes that a Being infinitely greater than ourselves either does not exist or has not revealed His goodness and love to us, and in that respect the objection assumes precisely what it is trying to show.
It follows from atheism that suffering, tragedy, and loss are ultimately meaningless and pointless, and hence to be avoided at all costs unless some outweighing good can be anticipated.4 In the midst of suffering, there is the additional despair of believing that there is no higher meaning or purpose for this suffering, nothing redemptive about it. And that is precisely why in the atheistic philosophy, if we find ourselves or others suffering without the foreseeable possibility of coming to a quality of life that outweighs this suffering, it is better to end that life, all other things being equal.5 This is why atheism tends to lead toward euthanasia, the selective killing of the aged, the terminally ill, infants born with Down Syndrome, and others judged to be incapable of attaining a quality of life that outweighs their suffering so far as we can tell. But that is not the Christian understanding of suffering.
I. The Origin of Evil and Suffering
As with most theological questions, we need to go back to the beginning.6 The Apostle Paul says that death came into the world through sin.7 So, according to the Church, what was man’s original condition?
“God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good.” (Genesis 1:31)
Everything that God made, was very good. God made all things such that they were in harmony, as the Catechism explains:
The first man was not only created good, but was also established in friendship with his Creator and in harmony with himself and with the creation around him, in a state that would be surpassed only by the glory of the new creation in Christ. … [O]ur first parents, Adam and Eve, were constituted in an original “state of holiness and justice.” This grace of original holiness was “to share in. . .divine life.” By the radiance of this grace all dimensions of man’s life were confirmed. As long as he remained in the divine intimacy, man would not have to suffer or die.8 The inner harmony of the human person, the harmony between man and woman, and finally the harmony between the first couple and all creation, comprised the state called “original justice.”9
Notice the fourfold harmony: the harmony of friendship between man and God, the harmony within man himself (his various appetites and reason, even between his soul and body),10 the harmony between man and woman (or social between human persons), and the harmony between man and the rest of creation. By the original justice God gave to our first parents, they were able to remain in these ordered harmonies. The lower powers of their soul were held subject to their reason, without any disorder whatsoever. Even their bodies were entirely subject to their soul, without any bodily defect.11 All created beings, excepting the angels, were subject to man in the state of innocence. In this state, man did not have to suffer or die. God did not design man to be in a condition of suffering or death.
So what happened? Man sinned, and by doing so forfeited the four-fold harmony by which he was protected from suffering and death. “This entire harmony of original justice, foreseen for man in God’s plan,” says the Catechism, was “lost by the sin of our first parents.”12 What we now see around us is not the original perfection and harmony of God’s creation, but a fallen world. It is still a good world — that is how we are able to recognize the resulting disharmony, against the background of the goodness and natural order of creation — but there is now disharmony in our world, a disharmony that God did not put here.
Through man’s sin, all four harmonies were lost. Man’s friendship with God was lost, because his will was turned away from loving God, and toward loving other things more than he loved His Creator. Man’s internal integrity was lost: the lower appetites were no longer perfectly ordered to man’s reason (hence concupiscence), and man’s body was no longer perfectly subject to man’s soul (hence physical suffering and death).13 And man no longer enjoyed perfect, harmonious dominion over the rest of creation.
The teaching of the Catholic Church is quite different from that of the atheists with regard to the origin of suffering. For the materialist atheists, nature is ultimately impersonal, indifferent and apathetic; suffering just is. We do not like suffering, but ultimately, suffering is neither evil or good, because ultimately there is no good or evil; there is just matter and energy and the fundamental laws of physics. Some suffering is the result of the actions of other people, but much suffering is simply gratuitous, pointless, and outside the bounds of human control.
For Christians, by contrast, the Creator of all things is a perfectly good, perfectly just,14 and perfectly loving Father. Suffering and death, and all the evils we experience in this life, have their origin in human sin against God our Father. From a Christian point of view, the finger that the atheist points at God, blaming Him for all the suffering we experience, or using our suffering as an argument against God’s existence, is man blaming God, for what man freely did in disobedience to God.15
II. The Purposes of Suffering
While the atheist thinks his suffering is ultimately meaningless and pointless, the Christian believes that no suffering is ultimately meaningless or pointless. Why? Because we believe that a loving God is providentially orchestrating all things, in a way that upholds our freedom. For that reason we believe that when God allows us to suffer, He is doing so to protect us from a greater evil, or to lift us to a far greater and outweighing good. God always has a good purpose in allowing suffering, even when that purpose is inscrutable to us. As is written in the first century work called the Didache, “The workings that befall you receive as good, knowing that apart from God nothing comes to pass.” We always have a choice in our suffering, whether to trust God as our loving Father, and receive the good gift that He is giving us, or to rail against God in distrust and anger, as though we know better than He does what is ultimately good for us.
What purpose or purposes does God have in allowing suffering? To answer that question, we need to review, why, according to the Church, man is here.
We are made for eternal Life with God
God made man to be with Him in perfect happiness forever. This is what we call Heaven, or the Beatific Vision. The Beatific Vision is the perfection of our participation in the divine nature.16 It is eternal life. Eternal life does not mean mere perpetual existence; that in itself would be entirely unsatisfying. Eternal life means to participate in the very Life of the Eternal Triune God. It is the immediate [unmediated] knowledge of God, the intuitive face-to-face vision of the divine essence.17 To see God, who is all-perfect, and from whom all good things come, entails that the deepest longing of our heart (i.e. our rational appetite) is perfectly satisfied. We cannot desire anything more than God, because there is not and cannot be any good that is not found in God.
So what is the purpose of this present life? The purpose of our present life is the very same purpose for which Adam and Eve were placed in the Garden. This present life is for us a period of testing, to determine where we shall be for eternity, either with God or separated from God. So what does that have to do with suffering?
All the suffering that God allows us to experience in this life, is ultimately medicinal, i.e. for our good in some respect, even when we do not see that we need any treatment. God, our Father, is like a loving parent who agrees to subject his child to a regimen of chemotherapy to cure a cancer, though the child does not see the need for the chemotherapy, because the child does not see the cancer or its danger.18 The comment by the person who said of the plane crash, “God would have kept them from crashing” is like the child who says to his parent, “If you loved me you wouldn’t be putting me through this chemotherapy.” The parent is thinking, “If only you could see the danger of this cancer, you would understand that I am subjecting you to this painful treatment only because I love you, and want you to live.” And this too, is the heart of our heavenly Father, when He allows us to endure the sufferings of this life.
What is the great cancer, the one infinitely worse than physical cancer? According to the Church, the great cancer is sin, and it leads to hell, i.e. eternal separation from God. There is no greater evil than that one, nothing worse to suffer than eternal separation from God. It is far worse to be comfortable in this life, and suffer eternal separation from God in the life to come, than to suffer in this life, and yet enjoy the Beatific Vision with God eternally.19
So, here let us consider some of the reasons God allows us to suffer.
(1) To awaken us to reality
Sometimes God allows suffering in order to awaken us to the fact of our sin, our impending death and judgment, our emptiness apart from God, or to help us repent and turn to God.
Consider the prodigal son. His suffering got to the point where he realized that things were not the way they were supposed to be — that he was miserable. His awareness of his misery apart from his father helped provoke him to return to his father. In the Catechism we see this:
Illness and suffering have always been among the gravest problems confronted in human life. In illness, man experiences his powerlessness, his limitations, and his finitude. Every illness can make us glimpse death. Illness can lead to anguish, self-absorption, sometimes even despair and revolt against God. It can also make a person more mature, helping him discern in his life what is not essential so that he can turn toward that which is. Very often illness provokes a search for God and a return to him.20
Notice that suffering is not a magic bullet or a panacea. We can respond to it in two ultimate ways, either by turning toward God in trust, or by turning away from God in distrust and anger. St. Thomas Aquinas, drawing from St. Gregory the Great, says, “the evils which bear us down here drive us to go to God.”21 But we can harden our hearts and turn away from God even more, in our suffering.22
God sometimes allows suffering into our lives to provoke us to search for Him, and to realize that this present life is not our final end, but a temporary test in which our eternal destiny is determined.23
(2) To test us
The Catechism teaches: “Faith in God the Father Almighty can be put to the test by the experience of evil and suffering.24 We see this in the example of Job.
Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came among them. The LORD said to Satan, “From where do you come?” Then Satan answered the LORD and said, “From roaming about on the earth and walking around on it.” The LORD said to Satan, “Have you considered My servant Job? For there is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, fearing God and turning away from evil.” Then Satan answered the LORD, “Does Job fear God for nothing? Have You not made a hedge about him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But put forth Your hand now and touch all that he has; he will surely curse You to Your face.” Then the LORD said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your power, only do not put forth your hand on him.” So Satan departed from the presence of the LORD.25
The test of Job is an example of a test among the larger test that is this present life. These tests are opportunities for us to choose whom we will serve. They demonstrate whether we truly love God, or whether we only have a ‘friendship of utility’ with God. If we continue to trust and serve God, even in the midst of suffering, we show that our friendship with God is not one of utility. But if in response to the removal of the comforts of this life we turn against God and curse Him, we show that our ‘love’ for God is only for what He gives us, and not a “love of friendship.”26
(3) To discipline us, to teach us humility and trust, and to work righteousness into us
“But when we are judged, we are disciplined by the Lord so that we will not be condemned along with the world.” (1 Cor 11:32)
“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12:5-11)
Commenting on this Aquinas says, “All the saints who have pleased God have gone through many tribulations by which they were made the sons of God.”27 As sons of God, through our union with Christ the Son, we expect to be disciplined by God our Father. We recognize that our loving Father has some good reason for disciplining us, even when we cannot see what it is. Because we know that God has some good reason for allowing us to suffer, we respond to this suffering by seeking to learn what He is trying to teach us.
In Salvifici Doloris, Pope John Paul II wrote:
“Suffering must serve for conversion, that is, for the rebuilding of goodness in the subject, who can recognize the divine mercy in this call to repentance.28
But we should not assume that all instances of suffering are punishment for specific sins. That was the error of Job’s ‘comforters.’29 It was also the error of Jesus’s disciples when they saw a blind man:
As He passed by, He saw a man blind from birth. And His disciples asked Him, Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he would be born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents; but it was so that the works of God might be displayed in him.30
Or consider Jesus’ reply in Luke 13:
“Now on the same occasion there were some present who reported to Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. And Jesus said to them, “Do you suppose that these Galileans were greater sinners than all other Galileans because they suffered this fate? “I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. “Or do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them were worse culprits than all the men who live in Jerusalem? “I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” And He began telling this parable: “A man had a fig tree which had been planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and did not find any. “And he said to the vineyard-keeper, ‘Behold, for three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree without finding any. Cut it down! Why does it even use up the ground?’ “And he answered and said to him, ‘Let it alone, sir, for this year too, until I dig around it and put in fertilizer; and if it bears fruit next year, fine; but if not, cut it down.’31
What do we learn here? Jesus is teaching the people that in response to the deaths of the victims of Pilate and the falling tower in Siloam, the proper response is not to consider such persons to be more guilty than those who survived, but rather to consider that it was only by God’s mercy that we were not among them, so that we may repent, and pursue righteousness, before our approaching death. Jesus is less concerned about the deaths, and far more concerned about preparing for death. That is because Jesus recognizes that the second death (i.e. eternal separation from God) is infinitely worse than physical death.
(4) To give us an opportunity to love God, to give God glory, to merit glory, and to participate in His work of redemption
With respect to suffering and evil, Christianity turns the atheistic position on its head. While the atheist sees suffering as evidence that God does not exist, the Christian sees suffering as a great gift from God. It is a gift of mercy by which we are being led to repentance and eternal life.32 It is also a gift by which we know that God is working some great good in us. In addition, it is another sort of divine gift, an opportunity to give something great to God, just as Christ did in accepting His sufferings. Finally, for a Catholic, suffering is an opportunity to participate in Christ’s sufferings, sharing in the fellowship of His sufferings.
Here is an example of the way Christianity turns suffering on its head. St. Gregory the Great, commenting on the book of Job, writes that God’s providential ways, though difficult to understand, are
still more mysterious when things go well with good people here, and ill with bad people . . . . When things go well with good people here, and ill with bad people, a great uncertainty arises whether good people receive good so that they might be stimulated to grow into something [even] better or whether by a just and secret judgment they see the rewards of their deeds here so that they may be void of the rewards of the life to come. . . . Therefore since the human mind is hemmed in by the thick fog of its uncertainty among the divine judgments, when holy people se the prosperity of this world coming to them, they are troubled with a frightening suspicion. For they are afraid that they might receive the fruits of their labors here; they are afraid that divine justice detects a secret wound in them and, heaping external rewards on them, drives them away from internal ones. . . . Consequently, holy people are more fearful of prosperity in this world than of adversity.”33
For the Christian, says St. Gregory, one should be more concerned when things go well here, than when one faces suffering and loss and trials. Sufferings and trials in this life are evidence that God our Father loves us, and is working in us to prepare us for Heaven, and the rewards to be received in the life to come. But the one who comes into prosperity and ease in this life, should be concerned that he is receiving his reward in this life, instead of in the life to come.
Here is more turning of suffering on its head: In Colossians, St. Paul writes,
“Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake. (Col 1:24)
“through many tribulations we must enter the Kingdom of God”(Acts 14:22)
“The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.” (Acts 5:41)
“Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us. (Romans 5:3-5)34
The early Christian martyrs all had the same attitude. Why did the early Christians rejoicing in their suffering? Notice the contrast with those who think that suffering is pointless. Atheists cannot rejoice in their sufferings, because they have no reason to do so. But the early Christians saw things quite differently from those around them. They saw this present world already, as it were, from the perspective of the life to come. Suffering for Christ, in this present life, is a great honor, when seen from the divine perspective. And this is the Catholic perspective, that when we suffer, our suffering is an opportunity both to grow in our faith and love for God, but also to honor and glorify God, by loving Him in the midst of our sufferings, and so storing up an incomparable reward in the life to come.
Contrast the Catholic perspective on suffering with that of what is called the “Health and Wealth” gospel. According to that position, since Christ on the cross paid the full price for the salvation of our soul and body, therefore, all Christians should be wealthy and healthy in this life. There is no point to suffering, because Christ has already suffered for us. All suffering must therefore be of the devil, due to a lack of faith. This is a logical extension of the error of monergism. The monergistic idea is that since Christ suffered for us, therefore we do not need to suffer. And since Christ’s suffering was redemptive, therefore our suffering is not redemptive. This position fails to recognize that in our suffering we are given the great gift, through our union with Christ, of participating in Christ’s own sufferings. Our suffering is not meaningless, but meaningful precisely because it is joined to Christ’s own sufferings, as a sharing in His suffering.
In Romans 8, St. Paul writes:
Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.35
This is the gospel; it is a gospel of suffering. “If any man would come after me… let him take up his cross daily.”36 Elsewhere Jesus says, “Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.”37 Only when we take up our cross can we begin to understand the meaning of redemptive suffering. We cannot see its meaning in the stance of resistance or distrust. And this is why the atheist cannot see it. Only from the stance of humble trust does the possibility of its meaning come into our field of vision.
For a Catholic, suffering is even an opportunity for merit. What do we mean by ‘merit’? Aquinas writes,
“Merit implies a certain equality of justice: hence the Apostle says (Romans 4:4): “Now to him that worketh, the reward is reckoned according to debt.” But when anyone by reason of his unjust will ascribes to himself something beyond his due, it is only just that he be deprived of something else which is his due; thus, “when a man steals a sheep he shall pay back four” (Exodus 22:1). And he is said to deserve it, inasmuch as his unjust will is chastised thereby. So likewise when any man through his just will has stripped himself of what he ought to have, he deserves that something further be granted to him as the reward of his just will. And hence it is written (Luke 14:11): “He that humbleth himself shall be exalted.”38
In this way, by embracing the cross of suffering given to us in this life, those in a state of grace may merit an eternal reward. In 2 Thessalonians St. Paul says,
“We ourselves boast of you… for your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions which you are enduring. This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be made worthy of the Kingdom of God, for which you are suffering”39
Notice that by being steadfast in faith, in the midst of their persecutions and afflictions, the Thessalonian believers were being made worthy of the Kingdom of God. Pope John Paul II says of this passage, “Thus to share in the sufferings of Christ is, at the same time, to suffer for the Kingdom of God. In the eyes of the just God, before his judgment, those who share in the suffering of Christ become worthy of this Kingdom. Through their sufferings, in a certain sense they repay the infinite price of the Passion and death of Christ, which became the price of our Redemption.40
Christ did not remove concupiscence from us at baptism. Why?
Yet certain temporal consequences of sin remain in the baptized, such as suffering, illness, death, and such frailties inherent in life as weaknesses of character, and so on, as well as an inclination to sin that Tradition calls concupiscence, or metaphorically, “the tinder for sin” (fomes peccati); since concupiscence “is left for us to wrestle with, it cannot harm those who do not consent but manfully resist it by the grace of Jesus Christ.” Indeed, “an athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules.”41
Baptism, by imparting the life of Christ’s grace, erases original sin and turns a man back towards God, but the consequences for nature, weakened and inclined to evil, persist in man and summon him to spiritual battle.42 According to the Church, one reason Christ does not remove concupiscence from us at baptism is precisely to allow us a greater opportunity for merit. By manfully resisting our disordered lower appetites, out of love for God, we merit a greater reward than would those without concupiscence.
III. How do we participate in Christ’s Sufferings?
Because we are joined to Him, as members of His Body. Pope Pius XII wrote:
Because Christ the Head holds such an eminent position, one must not think that he does not require the help of the Body. What Paul said of the human organism is to be applied likewise to the Mystical Body: “The head cannot say to the feet: I have no need of you.” It is manifestly clear that the faithful need the help of the Divine Redeemer, for He has said: “Without me you can do nothing,” and according to the teaching of the Apostle every advance of this Mystical Body towards its perfection derives from Christ the Head. Yet this, also, must be held, marvelous though it may seem: Christ has need of His members. First, because the person of Jesus Christ is represented by the Supreme Pontiff, who in turn must call on others to share much of his solicitude lest he be overwhelmed by the burden of his pastoral office, and must be helped daily by the prayers of the Church. Moreover as our Savior does not rule the Church directly in a visible manner, He wills to be helped by the members of His Body in carrying out the work of redemption. That is not because He is indigent and weak, but rather because He has so willed it for the greater glory of His spotless Spouse. Dying on the Cross He left to His Church the immense treasury of the Redemption, towards which she contributed nothing. But when those graces come to be distributed, not only does He share this work of sanctification with His Church, but He wills that in some way it be due to her action. This is a deep mystery, and an inexhaustible subject of meditation, that the salvation of many depends on the prayers and voluntary penances which the members of the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ offer for this intention and on the cooperation of pastors of souls and of the faithful, especially of fathers and mothers of families, a cooperation which they must offer to our Divine Savior as though they were His associates.43
Because we are joined to Christ, our suffering is joined with His, and participates in the Redemption He accomplished. The New Testament authors teach this same thing.
“If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.”44
“For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.”45
“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For while we live we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh …. knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus.”46
“That I may know him (Christ) and the power of his Resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”47
“Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I do my share on behalf of His body, which is the church, in filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.48
Does that mean that Christ’s work was insufficient? No, Christ’s work was sufficient for its purpose. But God has graciously allowed us to participate in Christ’s work of redeeming the world, the greatest of all God’s works. Pope John Paul II writes:
For, whoever suffers in union with Christ— just as the Apostle Paul bears his “tribulations” in union with Christ— not only receives from Christ that strength already referred to but also “completes” by his suffering “what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions”.49
Those who share in the sufferings of Christ preserve in their own sufferings a very special particle of the infinite treasure of the world’s Redemption, and can share this treasure with others.50
Mary is the exemplar of suffering in union with Christ, as she was told by Simeon, “and a sword will pierce even your own soul.”51 When St. Paul writes, “For we are God’s co-workers”52 that is not just for Paul or for the Apostles, but for all of us who are joined to Christ through baptism. By our union with Christ, our suffering gets to count, as a participation in His suffering; our suffering becomes meaningful in the realm of eternity.
Pope John Paul II writes:
In the Cross of Christ not only is the Redemption accomplished through suffering, but also human suffering itself has been redeemed,. … Every man has his own share in the Redemption. Each one is also called to share in that suffering through which the Redemption was accomplished. He is called to share in that suffering through which all human suffering has also been redeemed. In bringing about the Redemption through suffering, Christ has also raised human suffering to the level of the Redemption. Thus each man, in his suffering, can also become a sharer in the redemptive suffering of Christ.53
Offering it up
Spend enough time with Catholics, and you will hear the phrase, “Offer it up.” The phrase is typically heard as a reply to a list of personal woes. So what does this phrase mean? We are priests of God by our baptism.54 We are not ministerial priests, who offer up the sacrifice of Christ upon the altar at holy Mass. But, as non-ministerial priests, we do offer something to God: our bodies, our actions, our labor, and even our sufferings.
“I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”55
We offer up our lives and our sufferings formally, in the Mass, by consciously offering ourselves up with our sufferings, along with Christ to God the Father during the Offertory. Informally, we “offer it up” simply by asking God, in the midst of our suffering, to join our suffering to Christ’s, and to use our suffering.
How should we respond to suffering?
By worshiping God:
Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head, and he fell to the ground and worshiped. He said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, And naked I shall return there. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away. Blessed be the name of the LORD.” Through all this Job did not sin nor did he blame God.56
By examining our hearts: “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves.”57
By offering our sufferings up to God: “Is anyone among you suffering? Then he must pray”58
By giving thanks: “in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”59
By rejoicing that we have been counted worthy to suffer for Christ: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake.”60
By looking to Christ’s example, who suffered for us to demonstrate to us both the magnitude of our sin and the greater magnitude of His infinite love for us. He received the cup of suffering from His Father, in humble obedience, and in doing so perfectly demonstrated His love for the Father:
And He also says, “Shall I not drink the cup which the Father has given me?”61
“My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt”, … “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, thy will be done”62
By looking to Christ’s return and the life to come:
“Fix your hope completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”63
Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.64
And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.65
The relation between our present life and the life to come is the condition for the meaningfulness of our sufferings in this present life. The gospel shows us that suffering is an opportunity given to us to participate in our future blessedness by offering our present sufferings, in union with Christ’s sufferings, to God in self-giving sacrifice. Our suffering then takes on a whole different dimension, transformed from the occasion of a fist-shaking interrogation of God or cause for doubting His goodness or existence into the greatest opportunity to show Him trust and self-donation, without the least futility, knowing that it will be repaid a hundred fold. (Matt 19:26) This is why the Christian martyrs rejoiced when they were chosen for martyrdom, and why after being flogged the Apostles went away “rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for His name.” (Acts 5:41) Apart from the gospel, much of our suffering would seem gratuitous and even sinister. But in the light of the gospel we see that our suffering is a gift, a gift of the same sort as this present life, but even greater. It is the gift of an opportunity to give ourselves entirely to God in the greatest possible expression of love, i.e. sacrifice: “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.”
Jesus Christ, when He redeemed us with plentiful redemption, took not away the pains and sorrows which in such large proportion are woven together in the web of our mortal life. He transformed them into motives of virtue and occasions of merit; and no man can hope for eternal reward unless he follow in the blood-stained footprints of his Saviour. “If we suffer with Him, we shall also reign with Him.” Christ’s labors and sufferings, accepted of His own free will, have marvellously sweetened all suffering and all labor. And not only by His example, but by His grace and by the hope held forth of everlasting recompense, has He made pain and grief more easy to endure; “for that which is at present momentary and light of our tribulation, worketh for us above measure exceedingly an eternal weight of glory.” (Rerum Novarum, 21)
- 1 John 4:8. [↩]
- As Aristotle says (Rhet. ii, 4), “to love is to wish good to someone.” Quoted in Aquinas, Summa Theologica II-I Q.26 a.4. [↩]
- That response reminded me of Martha’s statement to Jesus: “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died.” (John 11:21) It is possible that Martha was simply making a statement of faith in Christ’s power. But it is also possible that Martha was indirectly chiding Jesus for not arriving sooner. In her mind, Lazarus died because of Christ’s absence, since if Christ had been present, Christ would have done what Martha thought should be done. The third option: Christ, being God, stayed away on purpose, because He had a higher purpose, did not enter her mind. [↩]
- “Without the vision of faith one has a sense of the uselessness of suffering.” Pope John Paul II, Salvifici Doloris. [↩]
- This is not stoicism, which sought to endure suffering. In this philosophy, suffering is the greatest evil. But in Christianity, sin is the greatest evil. [↩]
- Jesus does this when asked about divorce. Cf. Matthew 19:4ff, and Mark 10:6. [↩]
- “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned …” (Romans 5:12) [↩]
- “for in the day you eat from it, you shall surely die.” (Gen 2:17) [↩]
- CCC 373-376 [↩]
- The “mastery” over the world that God offered man from the beginning was realized above all within man himself: mastery of self. The first man was unimpaired and ordered in his whole being because he was free from the triple concupiscence that subjugates him to the pleasures of the senses, covetousness for earthly goods, and self-assertion, contrary to the dictates of reason. (CCC 377) [↩]
- The four preternatural gifts had by our first parents were: infused knowledge, immortality, impassibility, and integrity (human appetites being completely submitted to the human intellect. How did the loss of immortality result from sin? Aquinas explains in Summa Theologica II-I Q.85 a.6 that just as iron is breakable and disposed to rust, so likewise the body is corruptible due to a condition of matter (for matter is naturally corruptible) though its corruptibility was not the reason it was chosen to be that which the soul informed. In forming man, God supplied the defect of nature [defectum naturae], and by the gift of original justice, which ordered the corruptible body to the incorruptible soul, gave to the body a certain incorruptibility [incorruptibilitatem quandam], one that is extrinsic to the body as such, and dependent upon its ordered relation to something else. By the gift of original justice the body was not made intrinsically incorruptible, but by this gift the body was made incorruptible-by-relation to the soul. So when Adam and Eve forfeited their original justice through sin, they thereby forfeited the mediated incorruptibility their bodies had enjoyed. Death thus entered into the world, through sin. [↩]
- CCC 379 [↩]
- St. Augustine wrote, “For it certainly was not just that obedience should be rendered by his servant, that is, his body, to him, who had not obeyed his own Lord.” (On Marriage and Concupiscence, I.7.) [↩]
- “For thou art just in all that thou hast done to us, and all thy works are true and thy ways right, and all thy judgments are truth. Thou hast executed true judgments in all that thou hast brought upon us… for in truth and justice thou hast brought all this upon us because of our sins.” (Daniel 3:4-5) [↩]
- Ultimately there are three options. (1) There is no God; there is no ultimately reason for suffering and death. (2) God is evil, in which case there again is ultimately no good reason for suffering and death. (3) God is good and loving, and thus has a good reason for allowing us to suffer and die. [↩]
- 2 Peter 1:4 [↩]
- Cf. Benedictus Deus [“On the Beatific Vision of God”], Pope Benedict XII, 1336. [↩]
- I have drawn this illustration from Eleonore Stump. [↩]
- As Jesus said:
If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. If your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to go into hell. (Matthew 5:29-30)
- CCC 1500-1501 [↩]
- Aquinas’s Commentary on First Thessalonians. [↩]
- “They were seared by the intense heat and they cursed the name of God, who had control over these plagues, but they refused to repent and glorify him. The fifth angel poured out his bowl on the throne of the beast, and his kingdom was plunged into darkness. Men gnawed their tongues in agony and cursed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores, but they refused to repent of what they had done. (Rev 16:9-11) [↩]
- We see this already in God’s response to the first man’s sin:
Then the LORD God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might stretch out his hand, and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever. (Gen 3:22)
It was merciful of God to allow us to die, so that we might be resurrected, rather than live forever in a sinful condition. [↩]
- “God can sometimes seem to be absent and incapable of stopping evil. But in the most mysterious way God the Father has revealed his almighty power in the voluntary humiliation and Resurrection of his Son, by which he conquered evil. Christ crucified is thus “the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” It is in Christ’s Resurrection and exaltation that the Father has shown forth “the immeasurable greatness of his power in us who believe.” (CCC, 272) [↩]
- Job 1:6-12. [↩]
- For Aristotle’s distinction between ‘friendship of utility’ and ‘true friendship,’ see Nicomachean Ethics, Book VIII. For Aquinas’ distinction between “love of concupiscence” and “love of friendship,” see my “Love and Unity: Part 3.” [↩]
- Aquinas, Commentary on Hebrews. [↩]
- Salvifici Doloris, 12 [↩]
- Aquinas writes: “If in this life human beings are rewarded by God for good deeds and punished for bad, as Eliphaz was endeavoring to establish, it apparently follows that the ultimate goal for human beings is in this life. But Job intends to rebut this opinion, and he wants to show that the present life of human beings doesn’t contain that ultimately goal ….” Expositio super Job, 7.1-4. [↩]
- John 9:1-3. [↩]
- Luke 13:1-9 [↩]
- “Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance?” (Romans 2:4) [↩]
- St. Gregory the Great, Moralia in Job, book 5, introduction. [↩]
- Commenting on this passage in Romans 5, St. Thomas Aquinas writes, It is a sign of the ardent hope which we have on account of Christ that we glory not only because of [our] hope of the glory to come, but we glory even regarding the evils which we suffer for it. And so Paul says that we not only glory (that is, in our hope of glory), but we glory even in our tribulations, by which we attain to glory. [↩]
- Rom 8:17-18. [↩]
- Luke 9:23 [↩]
- Revelation 2:10. [↩]
- Summa Theologica III Q.49 a.6 [↩]
- 2 Thess 1:4-5. [↩]
- Salvifici Doloris, 21. [↩]
- CCC 1264, quoting 2 Tim 2:5. [↩]
- CCC 405. [↩]
- Pope Pius XII, Mystici Corporis Christi, 44. [↩]
- 1 Cor 12:26 [↩]
- 2 Cor 1:5 [↩]
- 2 Cor 4:8-11, 14 [↩]
- Phil 3:10-11 [↩]
- Col 1:24 [↩]
- Salvifici Doloris, 24. The sufferings of Christ created the good of the world’s redemption. This good in itself is inexhaustible and infinite. No man can add anything to it. But at the same time, in the mystery of the Church as his Body, Christ has in a sense opened his own redemptive suffering to all human suffering. In so far as man becomes a sharer in Christ’s sufferings—in any part of the world and at any time in history—to that extent he in his own way completes the suffering through which Christ accomplished the Redemption of the world. Does this mean that the Redemption achieved by Christ is not complete? No. It only means that the Redemption, accomplished through satisfactory love, remains always open to all love expressed in human suffering. [↩]
- Salvifici Doloris, 27 [↩]
- Luke 2:35 [↩]
- 1 Cor 3:9 [↩]
- Salvifici Doloris, 19. See also Pope John Paul II’s General Audience of November 9, 1988, titled “The Meaning of Suffering in the Light of Christ’s Passion.” [↩]
- 1 Peter 2:9-10 [↩]
- Romans 12:1 [↩]
- Job 1:20-22 [↩]
- 2 Cor 13:5 [↩]
- James 5:13 [↩]
- 1 Thess 5:18 [↩]
- Col 1:24 [↩]
- John 18:11 [↩]
- Matthew 26:39, 42 [↩]
- 1 Peter 1:13 [↩]
- Heb 12:1-2 [↩]
- Revelation 21:3-4 [↩]