Finding Meaning in Suffering

Finding Meaning in Suffering March 25, 2024

Often, it can be excruciatingly difficult to find meaning in our suffering. This was no different for Victor Frankl, who was a Jew consigned to one of Hitler’s death camps during World War II. Frankl was also a psychologist and his experience of countless horrors during those years led him to believe that man does not have to view suffering as meaningless.

If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death, human life cannot be complete. (Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning)

He remarks in his book that he was surprised by what he observed during his years of imprisonment. Often, he would see new prisoners arrive to the camp. It was not the apparently strong and robust who always survived, but rather those who were able to maintain a sense of purpose. This led him to develop a methodology of therapy called “logotherapy,” where the therapist helps the client re-interpret the reality of his life, finding meaning in everything that is happening.

Why does God permit suffering? Only through suffering are we able to access our true selves and discover ourselves in Christ. I am always amazed when I meet someone who has suffered truly but come through to the other side. I see a depth and strength that I do not find in people who have not suffered or who have not embraced suffering as a path to meaning. Until we have suffered, we have not truly lived.

This discovery caused Saint Paul to write particularly strong words in the Letter to the Galatians: “I have been crucified with Christ, it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me: and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:19-20). Faith enables the author of these words to know that love which led Christ to the Cross. (St. John Paul II, Salvifici Doloris, 20)

Stained glass window of the crucifixion of Jesus
Suffering is universal | Courtesy:

When we unite our sufferings to the Passion of Christ, we find meaning.

Each one of us has meaning and purpose in our life. The materialists may try to eradicate a sense of meaning from life, but there is something deep in the human psyche that rebels against the assertion that human life makes no sense. We find our ultimate purpose when we realize who we are in God’s eyes.

I remember the passing of Pope John Paul II in April of 2005. Here was a man who had suffered an assassination attempt and recovered. He confronted the powers of the East and West to maintain some level of world peace. Then, for the last decade of his life, he suffered from Parkinson’s disease in plain view of the eyes of the world. Perhaps the most painful moment was when he lost the use of his voice. I remember going to the Gemelli hospital and seeing him just a few weeks before he died; he tried to speak, but the words died in his throat. This great man, who had been such a great communicator, was silenced and could communicate only through the language of suffering.

Less than a month later, Pope Benedict communicated something important to the world at his inaugural mass.

Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary (Pope Benedict XVI, Homily 24 April 2005).

Pope Benedict was responding to the pain of orphans when he stepped onto the piazza of St. Peter’s. These poor children who had lost their spiritual father needed reassurance, and Pope Benedict reminded all of us that we begin our existence as a kind thought in the mind of God. This truth is both comforting and consoling.

Coming to Peace with Suffering

This reminder of God’s love for us does not wipe away the possibility of suffering, but it may help us come to peace with the reality of suffering.

If one becomes a sharer in the sufferings of Christ, this happens because Christ has opened his suffering to man, because he himself in his redemptive suffering has become, in a certain sense, a sharer in all human sufferings. Man, discovering through faith the redemptive suffering of Christ, also discovers in it his own sufferings; he rediscovers them, through faith, enriched with a new content and new meaning (St. John Paul II, Salvifici Doloris, 20).

Power of Suffering with Christ

It is crucial for us to discover the power of suffering with Christ. It is beautiful to contemplate the empty side of the cross. When we look at the crucifix, we look at the corpus – the body of Jesus – and we do well. However, it can also be helpful to turn the cross around and see the bare wood. Look at the empty space on the cross and then face yourself in the mirror. Tell yourself, “that’s your place.” Remind yourself that we are all called to share the cross with Jesus. He saves us through the cross and we are able to unite our sufferings to him spiritually. It is only then that we can finally discover meaning in our suffering.

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About Fr. Nicholas Sheehy, LC
Fr. Nicholas Sheehy was ordained a Catholic priest in 2013 for the Legionaries of Christ. He has been involved in youth work including missions, retreats and apostolic outreach in Germany, Italy, the United States and Central America. He is passionate about the New Evangelization and formation for young adults and married couples. He is a spiritual director and retreat director, offering marriage preparation and marriage counseling through the Divine Mercy Clinic and Family Center. He is currently Executive Director and Chaplain of the Newman Center at St. Philip the Apostle Parish in Pasadena, California. You can read more about the author here.
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