We all suffer. That is one fact of life we can all agree on. For my family, suffering has looked like enduring the great pain of recurrent miscarriage. Others may have different crosses. The question that has muddled the minds of both believers and nonbelievers down through the centuries is not whether we suffer, but why? This post does not attempt to answer such a profound question, but rather seeks to look at suffering in a new light by reflecting on Pope Saint John Paul II’s 1984 apostolic letter, Salvifici Doloris, which is translated “Salvific Suffering.” This apostolic letter helps us to “make sense” of our suffering and explains how we can begin to view our trials as gifts.
To begin, we should set the record straight: suffering in and of itself is an experience of evil, and is the collateral damage that resulted from sin and death entering the world. However, the great news is that Jesus offers us the potential to redeem our pain; as Scripture confirms, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28).
In our family, for example, God is redeeming our pain through great healing and grace which would not have occurred if God had not permitted these afflictions: our marriage is stronger, our family life is sweeter, and our faith has grown. But there is something even greater than all of that. As we reflect on Pope John Paul II’s words, we hear the good news of what God offers:
In suffering there is concealed a particular power that draws a person interiorly close to Christ, a special grace. To this grace many saints, such as Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Ignatius of Loyola and others, owe their profound conversion. A result of such a conversion is not only that the individual discovers the salvific meaning of suffering but above all that he becomes a completely new person. He discovers a new dimension, as it were, of his entire life and vocation (26).
With suffering can come grace, and that grace can make us more like Jesus. If we allow that grace to work in us, through the mystery of our suffering, we will be more converted to Him. In fact, Pope John Paul also says, “In the eyes of the just God, before his judgment, those who share in the suffering of Christ become worthy of this Kingdom” (21).
If we suffer “well”, we can expect to grow in virtue. We are purified from evil passions and urges. We become more grateful and cognizant of the gifts God has given us. We are humbled by our own weaknesses and rely more fully on our loving Father to see us through. The roughness of our impatience begins to wear away as we begin to simply “Be still and know” (Psalm 46:11) that He is God. In The Imitation of Christ, Thomas À Kempis said it best: “In the cross is the height of virtue and the perfection of all sanctity.”
Our trials may also help us to become more compassionate and sensitive to the suffering of others, which can move us to ease their burdens. Would this conversion of heart happen without the cross? Perhaps not. This growth in sensitivity to the pain of others is just one example of how God uses our suffering to bring about a greater good; but He can do even more. Pope John Paul calls this the “Gospel of suffering”:
The Gospel of suffering signifies not only the presence of suffering in the Gospel, as one of the themes of the Good News, but also the revelation of the salvific power and salvific significance of suffering in Christ’s messianic mission and, subsequently, in the mission and vocation of the Church (25).
The answer to the meaning of suffering then, is something we live into. Pope John Paul further explains:
For it 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 (26).
We hear this echoed in Scripture as Jesus lays out the conditions for discipleship, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Matthew 16:24).
Christ never promised our lives would be easy. We will surely feel betrayed by friends and family; the scourges will cut, and the thorns will pierce deeply; we will fall, and fall again; and finally, we will share that deep ache Jesus felt hanging on the cross. The good news is that death will not have the final say. Through our ache, we can breathe out a deep sigh and give it all up to God. He will surely redeem it all and use it in His plans for salvation.
Pope John Paul writes, “In bringing about the redemption through suffering, Christ has also raised human suffering to the level of redemption. Thus, each man, in his suffering, can also become a sharer in the redemptive suffering of Christ” (19).
You may be thinking, “Wait a minute…How can we as humans can take part in the work of salvation? Wasn’t the Redemption achieved by Christ complete?” Pope John Paul confirms, “…the Redemption which has already been completely accomplished is, in a certain sense, constantly being accomplished. Christ achieved the Redemption completely and to the very limits but at the same time he did not bring it to a close ” (24).
Have you ever been talking to a Catholic friend who, after listening to you bemoan a laundry list of complaints, tells you to “offer it up”? It took years before I realized this was not just a holy saying, but an invitation to partake in the redemptive suffering of Jesus crucified. When we offer up our anguish, sorrow, and distress to the Lord, He can use them to accomplish His purposes. For example, you may choose to humbly ask God to use your sacrifice for the intentions of a specific person (living or deceased), for someone who is sick, for the souls in purgatory, or simply wherever they’re most needed.
This understanding of the “Gospel of suffering” could be why Saint Paul said, “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” (Colossians 1:24).
The Blessed Mother also asks us to pray and make sacrifices for sinners. On July 13, 1917, Our Lady of Fatima appeared to Sister Lucia and said, “Sacrifice yourselves for sinners; and say often when you make some sacrifice, ‘My Jesus, it is for love of You, for the conversion of sinners, and in reparation for sins committed against the Immaculate Heart of Mary’ ” (Rosarycenter.org).
If my sufferings joined to Christ and offered up for love of God and neighbor can help save souls, how can I say no to them? I surely can suffer for a little while during this temporary time on earth to help bring the grace of conversion to a soul so they can be happy for all eternity. What a gift from God that He lets us cooperate and participate in His work of salvation!
Pope John Paul encourages us even more saying, “It is suffering, more than anything else, which clears the way for the grace which transforms human souls” (27). This grace may transform our own soul. This grace may transform the soul of our brother. As Jesus told Saint Faustina (as read in her diary), “You will save more souls through prayer and suffering than will a missionary through his teachings and sermons alone.”
Now don’t get me wrong; I am not asking God for any extra burdens, as there are enough trials that come to us simply from living on this earth. Pain comes to the rich and poor, the believer and the unbeliever, the good and the bad, the old and the young alike, without having to be sought out. When suffering does inevitably come knocking at the door, let’s remember that this is a gift in disguise. This difficulty has great potential to transform our lives and those of our neighbors if we offer it back to God and let Him work through it.
Doctor of the Church, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, said, “It’s true, I suffer a great deal — but do I suffer well? That is the question.” Let us ask God to help us suffer well through the intercession of Our Mother of Sorrows. Give your suffering to God and He will use it. Tell Him, “Take this pain, Lord, and turn it into something good.” May we never let our suffering go to waste!
To God be the Glory.
Christina Margaret Heidemann writes from Lansing, Michigan where she lives with her husband, Fredric, of ten years and their two daughters.