We cannot afford to waste our trials and sufferings

There are two types of people in this world — those suffering and those who will.

I have served the Lord for 23 years in Far East Siberia where some of my parishioners were sent to suffer for their faith under the Communist government. What I learned from them might have been the greatest lesson of my life — not why we suffer but what to do with it.

For the secular left, suffering is worse than sin or death. Suffering has no meaning, and the goal of life becomes maximizing pleasure and avoiding pain. Catholics have a very different view. The late, great John Cardinal O’Connor of New York once told a suffering woman, “Christ could have saved the world by his miracles, but he chose to save the world by his suffering.” This is the basis of our understanding of redemptive suffering.

Sacred Scripture says our days “may come to seventy years, or eighty, if our strength endures; yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away.”

Jesus taught that “in this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16: 13)

Many of us have asked at some point: “Why me Lord? Why my child? What is happening? This is too much. This is not fair. I am so dry inside and alone. Where are you Lord? I just want to give up.”

Suffering is personal. If you are suffering right now, I know the Lord is close to you. Jesus heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds. We have a God who cares enough to suffer for us and with us.

Since we all suffer, we shouldn’t waste these moments. Pray through your fears and tears and offer your suffering with him who suffers with you.

Viktor Frankl, a German concentration camp survivor who was a psychologist, noticed that some people in the prison camps survived while others despaired or committed suicide or just withered away. They experienced the same abuses but lived that suffering differently. He created this formula: Despair is suffering minus meaning. Hope is suffering plus meaning. Most cultures — unlike our own — expect some measure of suffering as inevitable and see in it a means of strengthening and enriching us. Our secular culture, on the other hand, is perhaps the worst in history at helping us face suffering.

For most of human history just about every culture believed in a reality beyond this earthly life — heaven, life with God, reunion with loved ones. It has long been held that suffering, though painful, can help us reach our life’s goal and complete our life’s story. But in modern secular cultures the whole meaning of life is to freely choose whatever makes us happy in this life. Suffering destroys that meaning. And so, in the secular view, suffering has no meaning at all.

This worldview leads to the warped logic that if an unborn baby is going to suffer from disability or from being unwanted then surely an abortion is an act of love. The same logic follows with the elderly or terminally sick — it is better to die than to suffer.

Hope, however, comes when we recognize meaning in our suffering. While Jesus healed many people, certainly not everyone was healed or raised from the dead. He gives an image of what is to come.

Jesus’ suffering was redemptive. What does redemption have to do with suffering? Well, when we were baptized, we were baptized into the Body of Christ. We are the Body of Christ. When we “offer up” our sufferings in union with Christ’s suffering on the cross, we, as his Body, are participating in his atoning work! When God the Father looks upon our offering, he sees his son’s offering, and he is pleased — and graces come flowing down in abundance!

Do you get how amazing this is?

When we unite our suffering with Christ’s suffering, we participate in the redemption of the world! It is as dramatic as it sounds.

When offered to God, no suffering is meaningless. No suffering is wasted. No suffering is worse than death. Suffering offered in union with Christ’s cross has explosive power, including the power to sanctify not only our own souls, but to call down graces upon others as well. The saints knew this. The saints had an abundance of grace in their own souls already, but the suffering they endured was profound. What was it for? What was it worth? The saints offered their sufferings for the sins of the world, for the souls of others, and it was redemptive because it was offered in union with Christ’s suffering. This is how the Body of Christ works.

This doesn’t mean we are to go look for suffering. Suffering will find us. It doesn’t mean that we stand by while others suffer. We are called to ease the sufferings of others. But when suffering comes, it is not meaningless. Recall the words of Saint Paul in his Letter to the Colossians: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh, I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.”

Was something “lacking” in Christ’s afflictions? Of course not. Think of a mother baking a cake. Her little child comes into the kitchen to help. The mother has everything there sufficient for the cake; but the daughter says, “Mommy, I want to help.” So, the mother receives the daughter out of love. She lets the daughter put in the eggs. Is the mother sufficient? Yes. Does she need the daughter? No. Does she allow the daughter to add? Yes. The daughter’s addition is not needed, but it’s received and it’s a true addition. That is love.

Please don’t waste your suffering.

The writer is pastor of the Church of the Nativity in Magadan, Russia.

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