What to do about suffering? It’s a problem, isn’t it?
We see it everywhere, we work hard to stamp it out — and it keeps coming back like a weed.
What does it mean? It does seem to be part of the human condition. And because it seems to be part of the human condition, suffering inevitably gets picked up as a subject for theologians.
One thing we observe is that suffering seems to be very cruelly applied. If only it was doled out in nice manageable doses that could be pre-scheduled ahead of time. But that isn’t the way it works. I’ve talked with so many people whose stories contain merciless back-to-back full body blows that are as debilitating as they are undeserved. So what’s a guy to do? What do we make of this?
I guess there are people who think that suffering is a form of divine punishment, or that it indicates some fault. On this view God rewards faithfulness with health and wealth. The conclusion of course is that if you’re not rich, healthy, and perfectly tanned, your faith is defective. I once met a guy who thought like this. I’ll never forget him. Poor guy — he had a perfectly logical interpretation of scripture that made no sense whatsoever. Anyway, I think this view is a total load a crap. It’s as shallow as it is unscriptural. It’s also joyless. And wherever you find joylessness you find danger.
One of the things I love about my faith is that it totally repudiates this view. And what it replaces it with is something much more truthful and psychologically fulfilling. Suffering is something that God allows. It stinks. No, suffering is not a punishment. We are not created to suffer. God does not desire that we suffer. It is, however, part of the divine economy of salvation. For this reason, suffering is not meaningless.
I’m going to ask you to remember three rules:
- Love requires sacrifice.
- Sacrifice requires suffering.
- Suffering hurts.
OK….you actually need to remember one more.
- Suffering can also be redemptive.
Ok, that changes things now doesn’t it? It inserts joy back into an equation. And isn’t this really how the world works? Yes, suffering has meaning – big meaning.
Why else would St. Paul speak of being crucified with Christ and of the daily need to carry one’s cross? Why does he speak of his own sufferings as completing what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ?
Without a coherent theology of suffering there is simply no answer to these questions. This is the heavy stuff that gets to the heart of the matter:
“The Redeemer suffered in place of man and for man. 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.
Get it? It’s big stuff.
How does this work? One thing I know is that suffering teaches us. It teaches us to be patient with ourselves and with others. It teaches us about our weakness and how God uses this weakness as a way in — into your life and, by extension, into the world. To put it another way, suffering takes the human heart and makes it into a manger where the savior may be born.
I heard someone say that when you are asked to carry the cross, it’s as if God wants to show you off. I like that.
So, this Thanksgiving we are thankful for all of the many blessings and graces He has bestowed upon us. Among these is certainly love, friendship, health, and employment.
Let us also pause to thank God for the gift of suffering — a gift which is a fruit of sacrificial love. A gift which unites us with a God who Himself willingly chose to suffer for those He loves.
That would be you.