The Meaning of Suffering

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By Ben Daly-Labelle, University of Rhode Island

“Are you living or are you just breathing?” Catholic speaker Mark Hart posed this question at a Steubenville Youth Conference and it has stuck with me since. Do we go about our day with a sense of purpose, or do we let our days fly by, existing just because that is the way it is? How one answers this question is very informative to how they approach suffering. First, I must define suffering. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, suffering is the bearing or undergoing of pain, distress, or tribulation. The world tells us that suffering is useless, that it just impedes on my ability to be happy. But happiness is fleeting, whether we are suffering or not.

Having a life goal of being happy will end up leaving most disappointed. God cares more about our souls than mere happiness. God actually created our souls in such a way that we could only ultimately attain beatitude (supreme blessedness and joy) through Him. The world tells us that money, relationships, sex, etc. will fill us up but God, in accord with human psychology and experience, tells us these are fleeting gratifications. What does it mean that God created us for more than happiness? Saint Augustine tells us that, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” The Lord has created us not out of necessity but out of His goodness. He created us with a free will, free to choose or reject Him. He respects our freedom but also subtly moving our hearts to implicitly know that it is only in intimate union with him that our desires are fulfilled. One of the most effective but difficult ways to be united to God is to “offer it up”. Sure, it has been known to be an overused Catholic catchphrase but looked at in context, it is a most beautiful prayer. When we surrender all and let Jesus know in word and deed that we are prepared to imitate Him in suffering, our lives fundamentally change. It is in our suffering where we learn of our complete inability to be in control and totally depend on God (1 Corinthians 10:13).

Do not let me lead you to believe that suffering is an isolated act intended only for the person in question. Yes, suffering has great potential to build up our faith and hope. But God intended man to be a social creation. Saint Paul says in Colossians 1:24 “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.” This does not mean that Christ’s sacrifice was insufficient. God has chosen to make us his “co-laborers” (1 Corinthians 3:9), therefore our own sufferings are fruitful and redemptive. St Paul tells us that in order to participate in a resurrection like Jesus’, we must live our life and die like Him (Romans 6:3-6). Now this death isn’t always physical, the primary death Paul talks about is spiritual. This death entails saying “Not my will but thine [the Father’s] be done.” (Luke 22:42). Jesus, who we are called to imitate, tells us “ ‘I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep…For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life, that I may take it again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again; this charge I have received from my Father.’ ” (John 10:10-11,17-18). We have likewise been called to martyrdom, not necessarily a physical death but living by the spirit and letting go of carnal passions (cf. Galatians 5:22-25, Romans 7:4-6).

If you choose to believe my words are bankrupt, you are well within your right. More times than I would like to admit I fled from suffering, I have told God that I am innocent, that my pain is unmerited. But you have to know that I am only a messenger, and a very fallen one at that. Jesus Christ, although God, took on flesh that was infinitely below him and suffered great humiliation and pain so that we might know God’s love and have eternal life through Him (cf. Philippians 2:5-8, 1 John 4:9-12,19).

We have been called to nothing short of greatness. Being a body-soul composite, we are always at war with ourselves. Our spirit (God working through our conscience) tells us what is right but so often we listen instead to the flesh (cf. Romans 7:15-21). We have hope though, through baptism God has made us new creations (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:17). He has added a redemptive dimension to our suffering, that we no longer live just keep our heads above water but as sons and daughters of a God who reached down from Heaven to elevate us. Take solace in the fact that even Jesus needed help carrying His cross (cf. Luke 23:26). I encourage anyone reading this to go out and find your Simon of Cyrene today.  

Edited By: Ariel Hobbs

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