Blog # 452 Suffering
The content of blog # 452 came to my mind when I was reflecting upon the words of Luke 9: 19-24. "The Son of Man must endure many sufferings", and then: "Whoever wishes to be my follower must deny his very self, take up his cross each day, and follow in my steps."
Our current moment in history does not seem to place much positive value or meaning in suffering. Just consider the volume of ads in the newspapers and on TV for pain relievers. Yet pain and suffering, physical and psychological, do not go away. They seem to be a given in our human experience. I thought it would be good to review in a blog a few thoughts on our Christian identity of suffering. A good place to start might be a reminder it is not true that the more sinful a person's life would be the more suffering they will be given to endure. In Matthew's Gospel, after Jesus gave the
command to love our enemies as a distinctive Christian ideal, Matthew says:This will prove you are sons of your Heavenly Father, for his sun rises on the bad and the good; he rains on the just and the unjust." Just recently we saw this lived out in the death of St. John Paul 11. He suffered a great deal in the final years of his life and was canonized a Saint very shortly afterward.
Suffering is real. Much suffering, however, could and should be avoided or eliminated. And this according to God's will and plan for us. For example the suffering of a headache on the morning after a night on the town, or the suffering of health problems stemming from high blood pressure that is the result of bad eating habits, lack of exercise, tolerance of excessive anger, etc. Yet in spite of all we might do to avoid or eliminate it, suffering is real. We all have suffered, do suffer, and/or will suffer.
So we have questions about suffering. Does it have meaning or value? How does suffering fit into our notion of an all-powerful all-loving God?
We believe that nothing that exists exists by accident, or in other words outside of or apart from the creating power of God. Nothing that exists exists without God willing it to exist. There are no exceptions here. So we can look to God for any meaning or value suffering might have. And since God is identified as love, we can and should seek something that has to do with love in whatever solution we come up with in regard to the question of suffering. That insight places the question in the proper framework.
How, then, can love be found developed and expressed in suffering? A key insight here is to see suffering as a gift from God. As gift it brings us the truth about ourselves, the absolute truth that we are not God. We are not in total control; we are not all-powerful. We have needs that can only be satisfied from outside of ourselves. Humility is the virtue that calls us to realize and accept this truth about ourselves. Suffering offers humility, which, for those who believe in God, is a gift of God's love. Suffering has that potential, meaning, and value.
Suffering also has the ability to build character, offering us an invitation and opportunity for patience courage and trust that could not be found outside of the experience of suffering.
And most significantly, suffering in our Catholic theology should be experienced as the suffering of Jesus in us. Others have an experience of their God being with them, nearby, as it were,
identified as accepting their sufferings as reparation for their sins, blessing them and giving them support consolation and meaning in their sufferings through their family and friends gathered around their bed. In addition, we in our Catholic theology, joined by faith and Baptism with Jesus as branches on a Vine, are called to experience our God in a personal relationship within us!
Two quotations from St. Paul throw light on this insight. In Philippians 3: 10 He says: " I wish to know Christ and the power flowing from the resurrection, likewise to know how to share in His sufferings by being formed into the pattern of His death. Thus do I hope that I may arrive at resurrection from the dead." Paul is not expressing a wish to be crucified in his expressed wish to be "formed into the pattern" of Jesus' death, but rather to experience the obedient total love with which Jesus gave Himself to the Father's will throughout His life, in suffering and in joy, all the way up to the cross. That experience was Paul's desire and should be our own.
In Colossians 1: 24 Paul shares another beautiful insight into the identity and value suffering can have for a Christian person. "Even now I find my joy in the suffering I endure for you. In my own flesh I fill up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of His Body. the Church. The eternal Word of God, incarnate in the flesh of Jesus, gave every thought word and action of Jesus divine value. The personal love which bought healing to a leper was no less divine than the love with which He shed His life's blood. However, incarnate in the flesh of Jesus, the Word of God was, in a way that we cannot fully comprehend, as limited as each of us in our humanity. The eternal infinite love of the Word was limited in Jesus by time space energy and our normal human relationships. He had only twenty-four hours in a day with which to love. If He were healing a leper in Jerusalem He could not at the same time be fishing with Peter on the Sea of Galilee.
All Jesus did was done in the Father's love for others. Yet, as Jesus was truly human, the Father's love was of necessity limited by His humanity. As Paul points out, He and all of us united in Jesus can experience our crosses in union with Jesus for the sake of the Church. Thus we continue down through the ages, in our flesh, the love with which Jesus suffered for the sake of the Church.
In Jesus all suffering can be transformed into love. That is its meaning and value. Since most people at the hour of their death experience serious limitation of their ability to think and choose their response to death, it is important that we do so beforehand when with clear minds and full freedom we decide what we want our death to be.