Why Be Catholic? 3: Suffering
The oldest and most painful riddle of human existence is the riddle of suffering. In every time and place, man has sought an answer. Yet apart from Judeo-Christian Revelation, man has had very little to say. Stoic fortitude, Epicurean pleasure-seeking, Buddhist negation, the Utilitarian calculus of pleasure and pain: It seems nobody has very much useful to say about the riddle of suffering, except God.
Two lessons are taught about suffering in the Old Testament. The first is the great lesson of Genesis concerning the consequences of the Fall. Here we learn that suffering is the result of sin, which breaks creation from the Creator and causes everything to fall out of kilter. The second lesson comes through the height of Old Covenant wisdom reached in the book of Job. Here we are taught that we cannot begin to understand the significance of suffering on our own. In fact, we are exceedingly foolish when, thinking we understand suffering, we devise some human theory to explain it or, perhaps, we even challenge the justice of God’s plan.
“Where were you,” God asks Job, “when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know!” (Job 38:4-5). God’s answer to Job’s complaints in chapters 38 through 41 conveys a vital lesson which Job is not slow to grasp: “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know” (42:3).
This twin understanding—that suffering is rooted in sin and that we cannot on our own understand how it is supposed to work out—sets the stage for Christ’s further revelation of the Father’s love. For in Christ we see God Himself take on a human nature and suffer as an offering for sin. Suffering, then, is at once the consequence of sin and the means God has built into Creation for overcoming sin and all of its effects. God's justice and mercy are ever one. In Christ suffering becomes the means of repairing the rift between God and man, of bringing man back into union with God. Suffering is, in a word, redemptive.
The Catholic Church teaches that there is both a natural and a supernatural aspect to the redemptive character of human suffering. On the natural level, suffering is quite obviously the best possible teacher about our limitations. Through it we learn that we are not in control of the most important things in life and so, if there is to be an alternative to despair, we must depend on Another. On the natural level, then, we can dimly glimpse that suffering has the positive value of increasing our understanding of what we are and what we are not, of inculcating a certain basic wisdom.
On the supernatural level, this basic understanding is clarified and elevated in three distinct and complementary ways. First, we learn through Revelation the identity of this Other on whom we must depend. Second, we learn specifically that the infinite debt of sin and the effects of sin in human suffering can ultimately be overcome only by the infinite cost of Christ’s embrace of suffering out of love. Third, we learn that it is part of God’s plan that we should joyfully join our own sufferings to Christ in order, as St. Paul says, to “complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col 1:24).
This Catholic understanding of suffering is not only a unique answer; it is the only answer that actually makes sense because it fits suffering into a coherent pattern of human life. All Christians who have not altogether lost the concept of sin and redemption understand Christ’s salvific role. But a great many Christian groups have lost the understanding that we are much more than passive beneficiaries of Christ’s suffering. Again, the Catholic doctrine of suffering includes a profoundly active element: It is the gracious will of the Father that we are to participate in Christ’s redemptive work by joining our sufferings to His.
This should, of course, be the pattern of our existence, continually offering our lives to God in Christ. But Catholics have the opportunity to do this in a special way at each Mass, when through the action of the priest the sacrifice of Calvary is represented anew in an unbloody manner. Thus we participate fully in the Sacred Liturgy precisely by joining ourselves to the Son in His sacrificial offering to the Father. In the Holy Eucharist, which is our foretaste of eternal life with God, we partake again of Christ’s freely offered body and blood. At these sacred Catholic moments, the significance of suffering becomes clear: Suffering becomes a participation of love in the redemptive work of Jesus Christ.
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