Suffering is an unavoidable part of the human condition. We see suffering all around us and experience it personally across the spectrum, from catastrophes to minor daily annoyances. Suffering can manifest bodily, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, affecting all aspects of our lives. Our modern world tells us to avoid suffering at all costs and to instead seek comfort by any means necessary, such as taking a pill to alleviate pain, seeking divorce when marriage becomes difficult, or giving up in a situation that does not provide immediate satisfaction. The world sees suffering as a senseless evil to be avoided if possible or at least something completely meaningless. However, as Catholics, we know that personal suffering has immense value and is, in fact, redemptive and salvific for ourselves and others. Let’s now explore how the great mystery of redemptive suffering works and how we might better allow our suffering to serve the good of ourselves and others.

The foundation for all the meaning of our suffering can be found in the suffering of Jesus Christ. Jesus suffered more than any human being who has ever lived or ever will live. Of course, he suffered physically in his body through the torture he experienced and then, eventually, by his excruciating death on the cross. That can be said of many other innocent people, though, who have suffered through torture and death. What distinguishes Christ’s suffering is that he is God and, therefore, can love more perfectly than any other human can love. Consequently, he suffered more extensively in his broken heart and mental anguish than he ever did in his body from the sins that we all commit that separate us from God. He suffered for you and me out of perfect divine love and catapulted the meaning of real love from a warm and fuzzy feeling to an act of sacrifice, a total gift of self, expressed by the laying down of one’s own life for another.

So, how does Christ’s suffering give meaning to our own? St. Paul discusses suffering quite a bit in his letters, but we can focus on two specific references for now. First, in Romans, Paul says, “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs — heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom 8:16-17). To say that we must suffer with him to be glorified with him leaves little doubt that Paul is saying that our suffering is intrinsically linked to our salvation. The next reference is in Colossians, where Paul says, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col 1:24). We have already established that Christ’s sacrificial act of love was perfect, so what could possibly be lacking? It is our participation in sacrificial suffering out of love for God and others. As Jesus taught, we must embrace our sufferings and unite them with his cross, offering them as a sacrificial act of love for the sake of our salvation. This gives our suffering meaning and purpose. Let’s now look at redemptive suffering in a more practical sense, so each of us can apply it to our unique situations.

God is a loving Father and does not directly cause us any suffering; however, as a loving Father, he allows certain things to happen to us in order to cause a change in our hearts and minds, which then causes us to grow in virtue and draw us closer to him. Further, the suffering that he allows for each individual is particular to that individual’s spiritual needs, similar to how an oncologist prescribes an individualized treatment plan to each of his patients. Therefore, your suffering, and the appropriate response to your suffering, will not be the same as your neighbors’.

There are three types of suffering. The first consists of things that just happen to you that are beyond anyone’s control — from the serious, such as chronic pain, grave illness, troublesome anxiety, and natural disasters, to the more trivial, like having to change your plans due to weather. The second type is what other people do to inflict suffering, such as causing scandal, lying about or betraying you, or a stranger being rude to you. The third type of suffering is that which we seek out and have some control over because we know that suffering is redemptive. To increase our participation in the suffering of Christ, we intentionally offer forms of self-sacrifice. These are things like fasting, not taking ibuprofen when you have a headache, or kneeling in prayer several minutes longer after your knees have asked you to stand up. A virtuous and redemptive response to each of these three types of suffering will look a bit different, but whatever your response is, it should bring you closer to God in some way. One note, however, is that the key to any response is accepting it as the suffering God allowed for your spiritual journey. The one thing guaranteed to increase suffering in a non-redemptive way is to resist it. Once you accept your trials and resolve to endure them with the help of God, they are much easier to bear.

With accepting our afflictions, we must also understand that suffering, in and of itself, is not redemptive. It is up to us to respond in a way that gives it redemptive value by imitating the love with which Jesus suffered for us. So, in the case of the first type of suffering — that which happens outside anyone’s control — we might avoid complaining out of love for God’s will. We can be cheerful to those who care for us or help us despite feeling cranky due to our pain. Since we are all members of the mystical body of Christ, we can and should offer our sufferings as acts of sacrifice for the salvation of other souls — the way Jesus did for us. In the case of the second type — suffering caused by others — we can, first and foremost, forgive the person who caused us pain. You can also decide that, while you have not forgotten, you do not have to speak of it again or hold it over that person’s head. You can quietly offer your pain as an act of compassion toward those who hurt you as a sacrifice for their salvation, the way Jesus forgave others on the cross. Thank God for the opportunity to pray for those who cause you suffering. Keep in mind that you are neither required nor advised to stay in an abusive, dangerous, or unhealthy situation for the sake of redemptive suffering. You can separate from a situation as necessary while still dealing with the accompanying suffering in a redemptive way. With the third type of suffering — that which you choose and control — you have essentially already accepted it, except, perhaps, when you are wondering why you did such a thing because you are starting to get very uncomfortable. A good response here is to persevere because the harder it gets, the more redemptive it becomes. Choose and offer these acts of sacrificial suffering for other people’s salvation as an act of love and a desire for their ultimate good — heaven. Once you realize the depth of what Jesus endured out of love for you, then the acts of suffering you choose to endure for others seem pretty easy in comparison.

Lent is just around the corner. It is a season in the Church during which we reflect on Jesus’ suffering as an act of love for us. It is also when we sacrifice by giving things up and increasing our prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Reflect on the value of suffering and think about how it might influence how you approach Lent this year. Are there ways you can respond better to your sufferings in regard to the first two types? Can you increase the third type of suffering by making this Lent a bit more uncomfortable than you have in past years? The reward is eternal peace and comfort in heaven.

Prayer to Unite Our Sufferings With Those of Jesus

Oh my loving Jesus, my heart suffers and longs to be consumed by Your Sacred Heart that was pierced by the soldier’s sword. As I contemplate the mystery of Your Cross and Your five holy wounds, through the Immaculate Heart of Mary, I unite all of my misery with Yours, now and forever, knowing that your Holy Passion will sanctify my suffering. I offer it up for the conversion of all of the poor sinners here on earth, for the release of the poor souls in purgatory, and for the holiness of all priests, all religious, and all families. Amen.

Find playlists for chaplets for the dead here to offer your suffering for the relief of the poor souls in Purgatory

For further reading on suffering, check out Making Sense Out of Suffering by Peter Kreeft

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