By Fr. Amal, SdC
When human suffering is understood in its deepest meaning, it ceases to be something that is experienced in a passive manner. Rather, one becomes free to meet suffering with courage, seeing it as an opportunity for active and positive collaboration in the work of human redemption. Suffering, whether physical, spiritual or psychological, is often an opportunity when many question the existence of God, or at the very least whom this God is who allows suffering, in particular the suffering of the innocent.
This year we celebrate the 27th World Day of the Sick on February 11th. In 1993, Pope John Paul II instituted this annual commemoration as a way to bring compassion and greater attention to the sufferings of humanity, as well as the mystery of suffering itself. Don’t waste your suffering, feel fortunate to suffer, offer it up, I will pray together with you for the redemption of humanity, are all words of St. John Paul II whenever he encountered the sick and suffering.
Charles Spurgeon once said, “Health is a gift from God, but sickness is a gift greater still.” Life is a gift from God. St. Paul asks: “What do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Cor 4:7). Precisely because it is a gift, human life cannot be reduced to a personal possession or private property, especially in the light of medical and biotechnological advances that could tempt us to manipulate the “tree of life” (cf. Gen 3:24). God had an eternal purpose in allowing His own Son to suffer. St. Paul taught that this purpose was that we might understand and know God’s wisdom and love through His plan to redeem us through the death of His Son. Therefore, if God has allowed even His own Son to suffer to fulfill His eternal purpose, then we must also trust that He is working out His eternal purpose in us in the midst of our suffering. God may use our suffering to redeem someone else’s life by our testimony and example.
But, how can we be sure that something good will come of our suffering? St. Paul taught, “We know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Rom 8:28). Note that Paul does not say that all things that happen to us are good, but that God takes all things and works them together for good in order to fulfill His eternal purpose. There is a story in the Gospel about Jesus walking along with his disciples and they see a man begging who was born blind. The disciples ask Jesus, “whose fault is it – this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus says it’s not anyone’s ‘fault’ but rather the man is born blind for the glory of God. The apostle Paul tells the Corinthian church that God’s power is made perfect in our weakness. When St. John Paul II once visited the sick people he said, “I am here with you to pray with you for all those who trust in your prayers.” In its brokenness the human body still reveals itself as a call to make a gift of ourselves in love.
Whenever St. John Paul II had a special intention he went to the sick saying to them, “I am entrusting the Church to you,” because in their weakness they have power. Jesus didn’t suffer so you wouldn’t have to, but Jesus suffered that you will know how to suffer. The Church is not merely a collection of Christians. It is a living instrument of redemption- an extension of Jesus Christ throughout time and space. He continues His salvific work through each member of His body. When a person understands this, he sees that the idea of “offering it up” is a calling to participate in the salvation of the world.
Suffering is also a place of purification. St. Thomas Aquinas in one of his conferences said, “Whoever wishes to live perfectly should do nothing but disdain what Christ disdained on the cross and desire what He desired, for the cross exemplifies every virtue.” In suffering we learn humility, obedience, how to love and be patient as Jesus exemplified on the cross.
You’ve probably heard the saying, “Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.” Whether we cry or smile the pain does not change but the suffering does. When we accept our pain without resisting it and offer it as a gift, the pain becomes a means of salvation for us and for the whole world.