A Catholic Reflection on the Meaning of Suffering

A Catholic Reflection on the Meaning of Suffering May 20, 2019

In my early twenties, some former friends I once worked for told me if you plead the blood of Jesus, God will protect you from any potential problems or hardships. In lieu of this, God would also bless you immensely with prosperity. Upon hearing this, I recited this form of prayer almost every day for about a month. That lasted until I accidentally crashed my pickup truck into another vehicle on my way home from work one day.

Prior to the accident, working for these friends had turned into an emotionally abusive working environment. Because I had quit so abruptly, they withheld my paycheque as a way of punishing me for leaving them. Admittedly, I had been spending my money frivolously at the time, and I was flat-broke after my truck was written off. But after explaining to them what had happened with my accident, I was met with spiteful condemnation. Rather than asking whether I was doing okay, their response was that I needed to reconcile with God and I had deserved what had happened to me.

I had severed ties with these people after a prolonged process of back-an-fourth bickering. But I can’t help feeling tremendously sorry for people who have such a contemptuous outlook on life. It made me wonder how anyone who calls themselves Christians could lack so much empathy in response to someone else’s misfortune? Admittedly, forgiveness has never been my strongest quality, and dealing with such treatment from people I once thought I could trust as godly friends has almost made me consider agnosticism or atheism. But one thing I did learn from this experience was that a person’s personal theology determines their way of thinking. This usually translates outwardly in how they live their lives and treat others.

Although pleading the blood of Jesus is a distinctly charismatic method of prayer that isn’t explicitly mentioned in the Bible, I see nothing intrinsically wrong with the practice. However, what doesn’t sit well with me is when prayer becomes a selfish tool intended to manipulate God as though He were some kind of genie who grants us wishes. This type of theology, in my own perspective, seems to lead people to become so inwardly focused that they become numb to the feelings and needs of others, place more value on acquiring material wealth and act as though everyone else’s existence revolves around serving them. This, among other reasons, is why I’ve grown to find postmodern, Americanized Christianity (namely Prosperity Theology), so repulsive.

God Wants Us To Be Happy?

It’s common to hear the phrase, ‘God wants us to be happy,’ but is that actually true? What if what makes us happy turns out to be harmful to ourselves and others? What comes as a shock to those who pray for things like money, good health, companionship or general happiness is when they receive the opposite of what they asked for. Situations like these can cause people to become discouraged and easily question their beliefs. I recall C.S. Lewis once quoted in God in the Dock,

“I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”

With all the corruption, abuse, murder, rape, violence, disease and death that happens throughout the world, it can be extremely difficult for people to imagine how a God of love can allow for such things to happen. Some Evangelical friends who used to be involved in international ministries used to tell me how seeing all the injustice and suffering in underdeveloped countries made them question their belief in God’s existence. Mother Teresa, who lived and served among the poor throughout her life, was no stranger to experiencing such darkness.

Are Christians Exempt From Suffering?

Many Christians in North America seem to think mere belief in Christ renders people to be happy at all times. In reality, I find it tends to produce the opposite effect. I’d like to think most people who become Christians for the first time ought to be told that their lives will actually become even more difficult than ever before. If they aren’t, then they have fallen victim to an evangelistic sales pitch. I believe making the initial step to give one’s life to Christ is a step in the right direction. But what many people tend to forget is that a cleansing of the soul does not work like instantly wiping streaks off a window. I think it’s more like the gradual scraping of grime and debris that was calcified over years of buildup. Striving for holiness is a process that spans a lifetime.

It’s easy for people to say, “I’m a Christian, I’m not the same person anymore! I’ve changed!” A person who is addicted to drugs, alcohol or pornography can easily say they are quitting cold-turkey. But if their words don’t follow through with actions to make steps towards recovery, they are more likely to default to their old habits or remain stagnant in their condition. While I believe mere words or thoughts can possibly spark a spiritually-altering process from within, they are not the sole cause of what actually renders a person to change. Every physical process towards change involves some form of suffering that requires consent of the will. This doesn’t mean that people who struggle with addiction are evil or have ‘never been saved from the beginning‘ as some fundamentalists would often say. As Saint Josemaria Escriva once quoted,

“A saint is a sinner who keeps trying.”

Is All Suffering Bad?

There are times when I find myself drawn to the Buddhist perspective of Samudāya and Nirodha — the origin and the cessation of suffering. The first states that greed, ignorance and hatred are the roots of the suffering in life as we know it. The second states that there is a possibility to end the suffering resulted by these causes. While I’m no expert at Buddhist philosophy, I see no harm in wanting to alleviate suffering in the world. I sometimes see a parallel where the pursuit of enlightenment towards Nirvana seems similar to the Christian pursuit of holiness. But from what I understand, they both contrast in how they view the inherent value of suffering.

It is easy to view suffering in such a negative light. Nobody likes to suffer. It’s within our nature to avoid suffering in any way possible. But the funny thing is certain kinds of suffering can be beneficial. When people work out at the gym, they put their bodies through exercises to improve their muscle strength, speed and endurance. It is a form of suffering that produces good health. While some enjoy physical activity, many people like myself would rather sit on the couch and do anything but that. For the amount of times I’ve gone running, working myself up to run 5 kilometers without stopping is torturous within itself. But, like anything else we focus our energy towards, the more we do it the better we get. One could say that, with the help of God’s grace, it is possible to become good at suffering.

Breaking out of bad habits is a process that requires a lot of sacrifice. I wasn’t a huge smoker when I was in my early 20’s, but I’ve smoked often enough to know what it’s like to feel almost completely dependent on it — similar to my insatiable lust for coffee. As I write this, I recall coffee and cigarettes being the most glorious combination. To me, the tastes complimented each other so perfectly! In the days before my wife and I started dating, she said she would never date a guy who smoked. I was willing to work for her affection, so smoking was a comfort I was willing to give up. I still crave a cigarette when I pass by people who smoke or when I’m under a lot of stress. But I’ve learned as I fumbled my way through the process of abstinence to control my craving.

Empathizing With Those Who Suffer

It’s easy for me to talk about embracing suffering when I personally haven’t endured any major health issues as of yet. Sometimes the most difficult thing to witness is when we see loved ones suffer unwillingly. Sometimes we can share in their burdens, but sometimes we are simply unable to. People who have all their senses intact cannot relate to those who have been impaired or disabled. Those who have not experienced chronic anxiety or depression often do not understand people who regularly experience it. People who are secure in themselves can often have difficulty understanding those who struggle with their identity or self-worth. Men cannot relate to women regarding issues of childbearing, labor, menstrual cycles, sexism or rape culture. People who are terminally ill cannot ‘take a break’ from their bodies that are breaking down. Those who haven’t experienced loss often don’t know how to empathize with people who have lost their loved ones.

I think experiencing suffering matters in how much we relate with each other. When we are oblivious to what others are enduring, we can certainly help by listening, understanding and empathizing with them.

Empathizing With Christ Through Penance

I’ve been told ad nauseum that Jesus died once for all for our sins so we don’t have to suffer the consequences of separation from God. It’s understandable how many view the Catholic crucifix with such discomfort because of it’s violent imagery of an impaled Saviour. As a former Evangelical, I’ve found it easy to become habitually ignorant of the temporal suffering Jesus had endured. It can feel as though such an event should never have to be revisited.

People often commemorate tragic events such as World War II in order to remember the injustice that was done, so as not to allow it to repeat ever again. While many Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, we still forget the fact that God had died. It’s easy to develop a sense of entitlement to the free gift of salvation if we do not remind ourselves it was paid in blood. The more we reflect on His willingness to suffer for us, the deeper we empathize with Him. And the more willing we are to suffer for Him and for others in return.

It’s easy to say, ‘I’m sorry for what I’ve done.‘ But if a person is truly sorry, they ought to make every effort to avoid making the same mistake again. This is where I see the value in the Catholic understanding of penance. Contrary to popular opinion, it’s not a form of works-salvation that replaces what Jesus had already died for. Penance has nothing to do with the forgiveness of sins, but rather with repairing the damage caused by sin. It is an act that reflects a repentant attitude, while embracing a willingness to suffer the earthly consequences of sin as opposed to the eternal.

But it’s also important to realize that, without a faithful reliance on God’s grace, penance is utterly meaningless.

“Jesus’ call to conversion and penance, like that of the prophets before him, does not aim first at outward works, “sackcloth and ashes,” fasting and mortification, but at the conversion of the heart, interior conversion. Without this, such penances remain sterile and false; however, interior conversion urges expression in visible signs, gestures and works of penance.” – CCC 1430

Romanticizing Suffering Can Be Dangerous

Regarding penance, I feel it needs to be said that embracing suffering doesn’t mean we ought to seek it out willingly. One of the more controversial penitential practices of certain Catholic subcultures is body mortification. Whether it’s self-inflicted lashings or literally reenacting the crucifixion, I personally have an issue with it. Though I am not well-informed enough to understand why some cultures would feel these acts to be necessary. People will do what they will to their own bodies just as they would decorate their bodies with piercings or tattoos — which is a form of mortification in itself. However, I believe there is something to be said for respecting our bodies as the sacred temples they are. If romanticizing suffering becomes a source of vanity, then I would strongly discourage such a practice.

The Bible even warns about garnering attention while fasting,

“And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

— Matthew 6:16-18 RSV

Regarding my former friends, I probably deserved to be treated that way for leaving them high and dry. This certainly doesn’t mean what they did to me was righteous on their part. But perhaps suffering financial loss was a necessary temporal consequence I had to experience? I don’t have an answer to that. But about a year later I volunteered at a homeless shelter as part of my practical ministry during Bible school. I remember listening and talking to some of the regulars in the dining hall. They had been working minimum-wage jobs, enduring harsh treatment from their employers and living out of their vehicles in order to get by. Had my situation with my former employers been any worse, I could have found myself in a similar situation. But because of my experiences, I was able to empathize with them.

Why Do We Suffer?

We have a choice in life to either suffer with Christ or suffer without Him. Sometimes suffering comes at the expense of our happiness. But on the other hand, suffering can open our eyes, create empathy, help us appreciate what is good in our lives and produce joy. It can draw us closer to each other, and it can also draw us closer to Christ if we are open to Him….

…and being eternally joyful is better than being temporarily satisfied.

“Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ.” — Philippians 3:8 RSV

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