How The Church’s Understanding of Suffering Makes Today “Good”

While some people balk at the Catholic Church’s teaching on suffering, it was precisely that theology—and its sweet relief to my soul—that pulled me back into the Church from evangelical Protestantism nearly thirty 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:

1. 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.

2.  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, the God-man transformed suffering and death 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.

3. “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.

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.

This article was previously published at Aleteia.

The Hidden Glory of the Cross: What the Blessing Looks Like

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Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.

Luke 1:42

“What does it take to get the blessing?” I asked my spiritual director, Sandy, two years ago as I walked through the front door of her home in a huff.

“The question is not what it takes to get the blessing,” Sandy replied pointedly. “It’s what you perceive the blessing to be.”

Her comment came after I’d shared the news that my then-25-year-old son-in-law, Grayson, had just been diagnosed with cancer—the same week Sandy had directed me to beg for the grace to truly know and experience God’s tender love for me.

“Grayson has cancer,” I spit out as I entered her home for our weekly meeting, where she was leading me through the 19th Annotation of St. Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises. “Is that how God demonstrates his tender love for me? By sending more suffering?” I scoffed. “I can’t seem to get the freaking blessing.”

“You keep thinking that the blessing means that everything goes well in your life,” Sandy countered. “A Catholic understanding of the blessing is that we know that God is with us and we trust his love for us no matter what circumstances life delivers. You’ve bought in to the prosperity gospel,” she pushed further, “and I want you to spend the next week renouncing that false belief from the core of your being.”

Bam! Sandy had hit the nail right on the head. Needless to say, it was a painful week of renunciation.

Before Sandy confronted the problem directly, it wasn’t so clear to me that I was a card-carrying member of the “Secret Prosperity Gospel Club.” But somewhere, I had definitely bought into a specific idea of what the “blessing” looks like: a happy marriage, successful kids, good health, financial stability, etc.—in other words, a life where all goes well. With that paradigm tucked deep into my mind, I’d spent much time and energy over the years not only comparing myself to others who appeared to have the “blessing,” but also wrestling with God about why his “blessing” had eluded me, especially as multiple tragedies visited our lives. The fact that Sandy pegged the problem so precisely prompted me, at long last, to nail to the cross the insidious lie that a blessed life equals a prosperous life, and that my life was therefore cursed.

Now let’s be clear: I do not attend a church that teaches the prosperity gospel; nor do I follow a single mega-church TV minister who preaches this popular, culture-friendly message. I am Catholic—one of more than a billion people in the world who attend a church where the crucified Christ is the focal point of our worship. In spite of that, a virulent strain of the prosperity gospel somehow seeped into my heart and brain; a “gospel” that essentially looks like this: I believe that my will should be done on earth. And when it’s not—for example, when people get sick, when they die young, when children have serious life crises, when finances crash—I conclude that God’s “blessing” is not on my life.

This false and frankly, un-Christian, belief wreaked havoc in my soul as I grasped for my way, my will to be done in the face of tremendous suffering, which included the deaths of a stepson, two brothers and my husband, Bernie—all in a few short years. It was after our lives imploded with loss—Grayson’s cancer being the last straw—that I finally discovered the paradox that only a surrendered life is a blessed life, with the most blessed life of all being a life that is fully surrendered to God. Those are the terms of God’s kingdom.

I have learned that Christianity is not for wimps or for those who want the soft, easy way. No. It’s strong medicine for those who desire to be Christ-like, which means taking up one’s cross, dying to oneself and uttering the often gut-wrenching prayer: Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.

Christians are called to live in a land where swords that pierce hearts are willingly embraced, where glory is revealed through open wounds, and where the fragrant aroma of holiness pours forth from souls who have been tried and tested—and found to be true. This is the hallowed ground of our Savior, and his Mother. And as their lives clearly tell us, it’s territory that’s accessed only by way of surrendered acceptance of the cross.

“The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God,” St. Paul tells us in his First Letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 1:18).

Truly, I am finally being saved. Through the cross and from my own twisted notion of what the “blessing” looks like.   Better late than never.

Note: This article was previously published on Aleteia.