Suffering, a call to love

February 24, 2004

The Lord pours two great gifts into our laps tomorrow! The first: the opportunity to deepen our appreciation of Christ’s suffering for us, as The Passion of the Christ opens in theaters nationwide. The second: the opportunity to unite ourselves spiritually to Christ in his suffering, as Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent. As we prepare to relive the Easter mysteries, the Lord calls us to examine our lives for those obstacles that hinder our relationship with him. He calls us to grow in holiness and to convert the world through our prayers and sacrifices!

“Out of all the world’s religions, only Christianity is able to find meaning in suffering.” I have heard this claim many times, but I never really began to “get” it until I recently found John Paul II’s letter “On Human Suffering.” To our western culture, suffering is seen as something to be avoided. To eastern religions, it is something to be transcended. But to Christians, suffering is a mystery to be willingly accepted and lifted up to God. In and through Jesus Christ, John Paul writes, suffering becomes an invitation, a gift, a joy, and even a vocation!

Talk about counter-cultural! This is the “Gospel of Suffering”—that the Good News of Jesus Christ extends even to our human sufferings! By voluntarily suffering for us two thousand years ago, Jesus became forever united to each of us, and to each of our personal sufferings. Through his suffering on Calvary, Jesus won the world’s Redemption! And through his suffering, Jesus also redeemed human suffering itself! This is what John Paul means when he writes, “In the Cross of Christ, not only is the Redemption accomplished through suffering, but also human suffering itself has been redeemed!” In Jesus Christ, human suffering is given meaning. In Jesus Christ, human suffering becomes grace-filled and salvific! What truly good news!

Suffering has great power—either to move one away from God, or to bring one closer to Him. In their deepest suffering, men can be brought to despair. Their sufferings can make them feel abandoned by God, and they, like Job, can be tempted to “curse God and die.” But paradoxically, throughout the centuries, Christians have found that it is precisely in their deepest suffering that they become most intimately united to Christ. When the sick, for example, accept the pain of an illness and offer it to the Lord, they find that they become mysteriously one with Christ in his passion at Calvary. In this intimate union, incredible graces flow into their hearts. They discover “new content and meaning” in their sufferings. Like John Paul, they discover that “it is suffering, more than anything else, which clears the way for the grace that transforms human souls!”

Ignatius of Loyola learned this truth very well when, fighting as a soldier in 16th century Spain, he received a cannonball smack in the legs. Bedridden for a year, it was in his pain and weakness that he met Christ and that his heart was set ablaze for the Gospel. In our own weakness, our own emptying of self, our hearts become particularly open to the movement of God’s redemptive grace. In the pain and sorrows of our daily lives, no matter how small, we too can encounter Christ and have our hearts set ablaze by his grace!

And the Good News of Suffering does not stop there! Not only are we transformed through our suffering, but in offering our sufferings up to the Lord, we are also able to help bring others to Christ as well! Whenever we unite our sufferings to Jesus, our sacrifice of love mysteriously enables the infinite graces of Christ’s Redemption to be made present in our souls and in those for whom we pray!

This Saturday at the abortion clinic, for example, three seminarians were praying on the sidewalk when a driver pulled up behind them, rolled down his window, and loudly spat at them twice. Their first impulse, of course, was to turn around and belt the guy in the jaw! Instead, Christian charity prevailed and they silently thanked the Lord for allowing them to participate in this small way in the taunting and spitting of Good Friday. They offered the insult up to Jesus, that his grace might touch the heart of the man who spat at them. By doing this they grew closer to Christ in love, self-control, and spiritual maturity—but most of all, they were able to allow Christ to transform this evil into a source of grace for their provoker! Spit rained from that man’s mouth, but through their offering of love, the grace of the Redemption rained down on him from heaven.

Again : there is no pain, hassle, inconvenience, worry, or sorrow that God cannot use to bring great grace into the world! No pain is too little, too “insignificant.” Rather, all can be turned into gifts of grace for ourselves, our loved ones, and the conversion of the world! This is the insight that lead a wise priest to once observe, “The greatest tragedy in the world is not pain, but wasted pain…”

This understanding of suffering can change our entire lives! A long line at Wal-Mart, offered to Jesus, can become an opportunity to spend a few moments with the Lord in the middle of a hectic day. A disappointment in the office, united to the Lord’s Passion, could help a jobless man somewhere to finally taste the joy of work again. A rumbling stomach from a missed meal, offered to the Lord, can help some poor person in the world whose stomach is always rumbling. Every suffering, no matter how big or small, becomes an opportunity to bring powerful graces into the world! As John Paul proclaims: “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!”

This is the Good News, the Gospel of Suffering! This is one of the truths that makes Christianity so exciting! This is what brings St. Paul to proclaim, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake!” (Col 1:24) Through the Redemption won by Jesus Christ, human suffering was forever linked with infinite love. Through Jesus, suffering can find interior peace and even spiritual joy. In the Cross, man can meet Jesus and help bring others to him.

In what is quite possibly the climax of his meditation, John Paul reaffirms that suffering will always remain a mystery, unable to be perfectly understood by our human minds. Man wants an easily grasped, one-size-fits-all answer to the question, “Why?” Jesus does not give such an answer. Instead, writes John Paul, in suffering the Lord gives a call, a vocation:

“Suffering is above all a call. It is a vocation. Christ does not explain in the abstract the reasons for suffering, but before all else he says: “Follow me! Come! Take part through your suffering in this work of saving the world, a salvation achieved through my suffering! Through my Cross!’”

We all suffer, no matter what our age or station in life. Therefore we are all called to the vocation of uniting our sufferings to Christ. The Lord is calling you this Lent to deny yourself, pick up your cross daily, and follow him! (Luke 9:23) It is to you that Jesus whispers, as we begin our Lenten journey: “Follow me! Come! Take part through your suffering in this work of saving the world, a salvation achieved through my suffering! Through my Cross!”

John Paul II, “The Christian Meaning of Human Suffering”
My favorite quotes from this letter : click here.

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