While some people balk at the Catholic Church’s theology of suffering, it was precisely her teaching —and its sweet relief to my soul—that pulled me back into the Church from evangelical Protestantism nearly 30 years ago. The Catholic notions of expecting suffering in life, turning toward the Cross and embracing it, and “offering it up” for redemptive purposes not only helped make sense of my own suffering, but changed my perspective on suffering entirely.
You see, somehow the message I received in evangelicalism felt like a hammer that nailed me repeatedly to the crosses of my life by implying the suffering was somehow my fault. Having spoken to a number of former Protestants about this issue, I know that my experience was not unique. Being told that reading our “Believers’ Identity In Christ,” memorizing Bible verses, or having more faith in Christ’s promises would cure our suffering only exacerbated it. I was extremely grateful to finally lay hold of the Catholic teaching on suffering, and I believe it must be unapologetically offered to a hurting world today.
Since it’s Good Friday, it’s a good day to consider a few of the Church’s salient points on suffering:
- We will suffer!
Suffering is an unavoidable part of life, given the fact that we live in a fallen world where sin and death have been overcome by Christ’s death and resurrection, but have not yet been eradicated. Jesus said: In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world. (John 16:33)
We live in a culture that peddles the lie that we are entitled to pain-free, pleasure-filled lives, and that suffering can and should be avoided at any cost. We are constantly encouraged to seek heaven on earth by quelling our hunger and quenching our thirst with the enjoyments of this world. But with life being what it is, we will all learn one way or another that “there is a heaven, and this ain’t it.” Living as though this is true benefits us in a number of important ways, including helping us avoid the inevitable addictions that occur when we compulsively try avoid suffering by making the pursuit of pleasure an end unto itself.
- Suffering and death have eternal meaning.
Because of Christ’s death and resurrection, suffering and death have been given an entirely new and eternal meaning. Instead of dreaded curses to be shunned, suffering and death were transformed by the God-man into a portal of love and life, making suffering an opportunity to grow in love and death the hallowed entrance to eternal life. In other words, suffering embraced with love makes us grow up and learn to live and die for others, an all-important lesson we must learn if we are to follow Christ. Death, when welcomed with faith and hope, loses the sting of defeat and becomes instead the ultimate human victory. These critical truths need restating in a culture that endlessly seeks to avoid pain, aging and death.
- “Offering it up” makes suffering redemptive.
While some Catholics roll their eyes as they remember being told to “offer it up,” there is profound truth to this quip. When we make an intentional decision to unite our suffering to the suffering of Christ and offer it as a prayer for others and ourselves, the prayer takes on supernatural potency and makes our afflictions a cause of rejoicing. Why? Because suffering, united to the infinite merits of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, enables us to fill up in our flesh “what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, the church” (Colossians 1:24). What could possibly be “lacking” in the suffering of Christ? Nothing. Except its application to your soul and to mine—an application that occurs in time with our free cooperation. When we embrace suffering with love and offer it up, we expand our capacity for love by inviting God’s love to expand in us. This gives suffering powerful, redeeming value.
The Secret Privilege of “Offering it Up”
It’s Good Friday. A perfect day to remember that when the Cross presents itself in our lives, we can choose to turn and embrace it—even if it hurts—and let it bleed its transforming power right into our lives. I’d say that’s good news, indeed.