What’s to Be Done with Suffering?

The question as old as Christianity is, “Why would a good God allow bad things to happen?” It is the moment when many give up faith. It is the question upon which much doubt still hangs, even for the most faithful of people. 

It is true that some of us suffer greatly. Family members have terminal illnesses, loved ones die suddenly, the financial burdens seem to never stop. We all suffer day to day from stomachaches, being stuck in traffic, cleaning up after children and spouses, fixing the never-ending list of broken down equipment. And the one, constant truth is that we all suffer from a feeling of loneliness. It is universal. Call it “the human condition” if you like, as my atheist college professors did, but I know this longing to be the result of original sin. 

We are fallen creatures in a fallen world. The first sin separated all of us from our Creator. Most of us know this, or at least recognize it, and yet it still doesn’t answer our initial question: What do we do with it? 

“God had one son on earth without sin, but never one without suffering.”

Saint Augustine of Hippo

I think that those involved in cowboying, agriculture, and other labor-intensive careers may be nearest to understanding the mystery of suffering. Most of us know the reward of pursuing a project with such great fervor that we lose sleep, forget to eat, and at the end feel more fulfilled for having completed the project despite denying ourselves in the process. Legendary cowboy Boots O’Neal of the Four Sixes Ranch said in the documentary movie Cowboys, “​​I think you have to like to suffer if you want to be a good cowboy.” 

I don’t think Mr. O’Neal would mind if I adapted his words to say, “I think you have to like to suffer to be a good Christian.” 

What? Like suffering? Like pain? This is insanity. Or, at least it is from the worldview of our materialistic, pleasure-seeking culture. During my reconversion in college, I began to unravel the mystery of suffering in a very real way. Within this story (read here), I suffered greatly and internally. Some days, the emotional pain was so great that I could barely get myself to class. For all humans, this is the fork in the road that matters most: turn your back on the God that would allow this, or turn fully to the light of God in all His wisdom. 

Much like Victoria Darkey wrote in My Name is Lazarus, 

“I needed a church that knew what to do with suffering.” 

It isn’t enough to just know that suffering shapes you. Even disciplined people can recognize this, but the “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” mentality misses the mark entirely. Being strong doesn’t matter much at the end of your life. However, being sanctified does. 

The true, ultimate purpose of suffering here is to unify it with Our Lord. By offering up our suffering to Him, much good can come of it. In that way, our suffering will not be wasted. 

To be clear, we won’t get to Heaven by our own merits–only the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and the mercy of God. Yet, we can unite our daily crosses to His own. Suffering purifies our intentions, removes temptations, and clarifies our vision so that we may see clearly the end, which is Heaven. 

“If God sends you many sufferings it is a sign that He has great plans for you, and certainly wants to make you a saint.”

Saint Ignatius of Loyola

What does this look like on a practical level? I personally incorporate these daily offerings in three ways: a morning offering, in any moment that brings me suffering, and by suffering intentionally. 

Each morning, I start my day with this prayer: 

O Jesus, through the Immaculate Heart of Mary, I offer you my prayers, works, joys, and sufferings of this day for all the intentions of your Sacred Heart, in union with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass throughout the world, for the salvation of souls, the reparation of sins, the reunion of all Christians, and in particular for the intentions of the Holy Father this month. Amen.

Another way of “offering it up” can be done anytime throughout the day. Whenever I encounter an annoyance, inconvenience, or genuine physical or emotional pain, I use this as an offering. Even the pains I bring on myself, like running late, overindulging in something sweet, or struggling to wake up in the morning because I stayed up too late reading, can be used for good.

The third method is denying oneself. Believe me, I suffer this way as poorly as I suffer in all of the other ways, but it is still something that ought to be a part of the spiritual life. The saints are the ultimately great examples of this. Look at any number of them, and they have given up belongings, served the poor, and fasted. 

To be honest, I was going to take this blog post in an entirely different direction… then I met Debrah at the Sacred Liturgy Conference last week, whose husband taught this very lesson during his life. I was chatting to this vibrant, South African woman when she told me that her husband had died 10 months ago. 

Because they lived in Oregon, the restrictions for visiting him in hospital were inhuman and draconian. She, their four children, and 17 grandchildren never got to see Stephen as he lay in the hospital for one month, alone and isolated. 

One day, as Stephen was finishing his Rosary, he was crawling back into bed and felt an immense presence come into the room. Peace like he had never known it, with unmistakable love overwhelmed him and lingered for 15 minutes. 

When Debrah Facetimed her husband that day, he was in tears. As his children and grandchildren looked on, he told them that Jesus had come into the room to be with him. “Wake up every morning and thank Jesus for His love for you. He loves you so much,” he said. Later, when it was just Debrah and her husband speaking, he told her to thank God for Facetime, and that he was offering up his isolation and his suffering. “Surrender everything,” was the repeated phrase between the spouses.

Their son, who Debrah described as “macho,” was profoundly affected by the last days of his father’s life. When their father passed, he told his mother, “My dad taught me how to live, and he taught me how to die.”

“Why must we suffer? Because here below, pure Love cannot exist without suffering.”

Saint Bernadette Soubirous

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