The Value of Suffering

The Value of Suffering

The 1993 movie Shadowlands tells the story of the great English author C. S. Lewis, who wrote such classics as The Chronicles of Narnia, Mere Christianity, and The Screwtape Letters. An atheist as a young man, Lewis converted to Christianity and became a well-known and popular apologist. One of the many topics he addressed in his writings was the problem of pain and suffering; one of his quotes on the subject is “Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home”—in other words, if our journey through life were too easy and comfortable and pleasant, we wouldn’t yearn for Heaven. Lewis also wrote, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” That’s a valid point: if we don’t think of or thank God when everything’s going well, or heed His voice expressed in our conscience, He has no choice but to use pain and suffering to get our attention.

C. S. Lewis was frequently invited to give public lectures, and one scene in the movie shows him ending his talk with the emphatic declaration “Pain is God’s megaphone!,” followed by a standing ovation from the audience. Shortly after this, however, Mr. Lewis—played in the movie by Anthony Hopkins—met an American Jewish woman named Joy Davidman, played by Debra Winger. Lewis and his brother Warren lived together at Magdalen College in England, and were both confirmed bachelors, quite content with a simple, orderly lifestyle and routine. The American woman came into C. S. Lewis’ life not as a breath of fresh air, but as a whirlwind, stretching his horizons in a manner he found disconcerting and delightful. Because of immigration laws, Joy wasn’t able to stay in Great Britain indefinitely, so at the age of 59 Lewis married her as a matter of legal convenience, as it would allow her to remain in England. Soon, however, he fell in love with Joy, and was happy in a way he had never before imagined—until, less than four years later, his beloved wife died of cancer. Lewis was heartbroken, and realized that none of the many wise words he had written and spoken over the years about the meaning of grief and pain were of the slightest consolation or help to him. Oh, everything he had said was true—but only in a theoretical way; until Joy’s death, Lewis himself never personally knew the full reality of suffering. In the few years remaining before his own death, C. S. Lewis came to terms with his grief—but in the process his religious certainties and his faith in God were sorely tested.

I am keeping this story firmly in mind as I speak this evening on the subject of pain and grief. Through no merit of my own, my life has been relatively free of suffering; while of course I’ve had some difficult times, overall I’ve had a much easier or lighter burden than many people carry—certainly including some of you here. For this reason, I feel I have no right to stand before you as if I have all the answers to your questions about why you or your loved ones or other good people have had to suffer, or to act as if I can say the magic words that will completely take away your hurts and sorrows, your fears and your doubts about whether God is really listening to your prayers and is truly with you in your need. Such an attitude on my part would be patronizing and presumptuous, and an insulting or unkind way of belittling or dismissing your very real pain and affliction— and I will not do that to you. No, all I can do is offer some stories and examples, some religious images and perspectives, and some quotes from persons who’ve discovered first-hand how to cope with and make sense of their own suffering, in the hope that what I’ll say may bring at least a small degree of insight and consolation, even as I insist and remind you that Jesus is indeed with you, helping you bear your burdens and giving a deeper meaning and value to what you suffer.

Human Suffering Often Serves a Higher Purpose

Many authors like to use examples from nature to describe how human suffering can fit into God’s creation and serve a higher purpose. For instance, a tiny grain of sand jammed or lodged in the shell of an oyster causes it great irritation; unable to remove it, the oyster coats it with a milky substance that eventually hardens and becomes a valuable pearl. In the same way, God may use something that pains or annoys us to produce a valuable new insight or ability or even a virtue that we otherwise wouldn’t have had. Also, when a bee or butterfly is hatching, it has to struggle to break out of its cocoon. This struggling process allows it to develop the muscles it needs to survive. Similarly, our struggles—painful as they are—might eventually prove to be very useful or even essential in facing life’s challenges. Suffering can sometimes bring about renewal or prepare us for a new stage of life. In Yellowstone Park there’s an unusual tree called the lodgepole pine whose pine cones do not open like those of other trees; they remain closed unless and until they encounter intense heat—such as that of a forest fire. Such an event, of course, devastates the forest, but then the cones open and the seeds from this particular pine tree take root and reforest the land. In something of a similar manner, our suffering may somehow contain the seeds of renewal necessary for us or our loved ones to rebuild our lives—as in the case, for instance, of being uniquely able to console and help someone else because we have firsthand knowledge of what the person is going through.

Not all suffering happens by chance; sometimes God has to allow it because it’s the only way He has of getting our attention and keeping us from going astray. There was once a shepherd who deliberately broke the leg of one of his sheep—for this particular sheep had continually ignored the voice of the shepherd, wandered into dangerous places, and was starting to influence the rest of the flock. The first day the shepherd brought food to the sheep as it was recovering, it tried to bite him, so he left it alone for a few days. The next time he approached, the sheep took the food; the time after that, it even licked the shepherd’s hand—so he knew that from then on, it would be a model sheep and willingly follow its master’s voice. It’s a shame such things must happen, but some of us can be so stubborn the Lord must first bring us to our knees before He can lift us up.

There’s also the analogy of the herring, a type of fish. While being shipped in large barrels, the herring grew comfortable and lazy—but the lack of exercise degraded their muscles and ruined the taste of their meat. Fishermen discovered that putting one catfish in each barrel of fish changed everything. The catfish would chase after and eat some of the herring, forcing them to swim constantly to save themselves—and this continual movement preserved the flavor of their meat. If we had no problems or irritations in life, we might easily become spiritually flat, lazy, and flavorless—like salt that lost its tang, becoming good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot (Mt. 5:13). God, of course, doesn’t want that, and if we let Him be in charge of our lives, won’t allow it. Furthermore, the Lord is a master at using the difficulties in our lives to bring us closer to Him. A little boy set his plastic toy boat in a lake, but it soon floated beyond his reach, Seeing him cry over its apparent loss, a teenage boy stopped to help—but to the younger child’s dismay, then began throwing stones at the boat. The boy cried even more—until he saw that the teenager was actually lobbing the stones just past the boat—and the ripples caused by the stones hitting the water began pushing the boat closer to shore. Could it not be that our problems and afflictions have had a similar effect in our lives?

Biologists refer to a certain dynamic at work in nature as “the adversity principle.” This means that continual well-being—in other words, a life without any stress—is actually disadvantageous to a species; without challenges, animals and plants don’t thrive, but decline and die prematurely. Because of original sin, the same dynamic is at work in our flawed human nature. As the saying goes, “What doesn’t destroy us makes us stronger”—though in this case the opposite is true: if the events and challenges of life aren’t making us stronger, we’re growing weaker. Since we rarely choose to undergo the pain and inconvenience necessary for personal growth and for overcoming sin’s power in our lives, God is forced to discipline us—much as an expert diamond cutter strikes an unattractive diamond to make it something exquisitely valuable and beautiful, or a great sculptor chisels away at a piece of marble in order to produce a masterpiece. If the diamond or marble were conscious and able to speak, it would at first howl in agony and protest its treatment—but in the end be amazed and delighted at what it had become.

Turning Problems into Blessings

The Lord has a way of turning problems into blessings. A woman possessed a beautiful handkerchief having great sentimental value to her—so she was heartbroken when she accidentally ruined it by spilling on it a drop of indelible ink. An artist friend of hers took the handkerchief and promised to return it to her a few days later. When he did, the woman was overjoyed—for her friend, using the spilled ink mark as a starting point, created a design of great beauty with India ink, making the handkerchief even more beautiful and valuable than before. God is a master artist—but it can be hard to believe and remember this from our limited perspective. If we were to look at the back side of a beautiful tapestry, for instance, we would only see random threads of various sizes and colors, without any apparent pattern or meaning; only when viewed from the other side can we truly appreciate the pattern or design of our lives. In a similar manner, the Lord is like a skilled photographer who carefully develops His film in a darkroom; the negatives we experience—suffering, trials, and afflictions—can result in valuable images and memories. God will—if we allow it—weave or develop something new and magnificent out of our sacrifices and sorrows, and our challenges and hard times, but we probably won’t be able to recognize or understand His purpose and plan until it’s time to see the finished result. Moreover, in terms of the darker times of life, someone once said, “Never fear shadows—that just means a light’s shining somewhere nearby.”

If we’re living in shadows, we must learn to look for the nearby light instead of staring at or focusing on the darkness—but that’s not easy to do. The Lord understands; He’s not angry when we blame Him, but He wants us to try to move forward in trust. One man undergoing a great deal of suffering imagined God saying to him, “I wish you’d leave all this reconciling [that is, trying to make sense of] things to Me, since you are so hopelessly unequipped for it, and that [instead] you would use whatever influence you have with your fellow fussers and worriers to do likewise. I know what I’m doing. I’ll go over it with you when you get home.” It is indeed the case that some of our questions will only be answered in Heaven, and that only then will we truly be able to understand the answers. That truth may not fully satisfy us right now, but it does give us something to look forward to, and may provide us with some consolation and hope.

One man was grieving when his stepbrother Richie murdered his next-door neighbor Mrs. Prosser. He angrily confronted God, and in his heart heard Him respond, “I’m not upset by your prayers. I’ve been waiting for you to talk to Me like this. Don’t you think this has caused Me anguish, too? How do you think I feel about Richie? And all the others like him? And Mrs. Prosser? Haven’t I wept over them? Haven’t I sent My only Son to die for them?” As the man later wrote, “All this flowed into me with the force not of ‘answers,’ but of powerful connections [emphasis added] with God—personal, actual, with a sense of purpose and peace in their wake. I sensed the Lord was drawing me into His perspective, that He was calling me almost as a colleague to join forces in extending His love, to intercede for others in their helplessness . . . and that He was indeed in charge, transcending tragedies.”

That’s an interesting way of looking at things: in our times of suffering, God invites us to help Him reach out to and assist other people who are suffering. If we choose, we can allow our pain to make us more compassionate—though that might go against our natural reaction. One author makes this point in an amusing way, writing: “A class of ten-year- olds had been asked to write a little essay on ‘Care of the Teeth.’ One student wrote: ‘(1) See your dentist often. (2) Brush your teeth after every meal. (3) Watch out for shovers at the drinking fountain.’ That’s good advice: watch out for those shovers who are going to inflict pain upon you. But the trouble is some of us spend so much time watching out for shovers that we are never able to drink deeply of the water of life. It’s become a whole style of life for us: avoid suffering at any cost.”

Suffering and Life’s Deepest Joys

As this reflection suggests, if we somehow get through life without any real experience of suffering, it’s likely we’ll also miss out on some of life’s deepest joys; if we lock the door of our hearts to misfortune, we’ll likely also block the entry of God’s blessings and the possibility of truly loving and caring relationships with others. Moreover, in the words of one commentator, “God uses broken things. It takes broken soil to produce a crop, broken clouds to give rain, broken grain to give bread, broken bread to give strength. It is the broken alabaster box that gives forth perfume. . . . it is Peter, weeping bitterly, who returns to greater power than ever.” The experience of brokenness, and other forms of suffering, was never part of God’s plan for His creation, but original sin brought corruption and death into the world. However, as the saying goes, God is able to write straight with crooked lines—meaning, in this case, that—if we agree—He can use our brokenness to bring about something new and better.

Helen Keller was someone who discovered this truth firsthand. She was born blind and deaf, but through the heroic patience and efforts of her tutor Anne Sullivan in the late 1880s, and her own unwillingness to give up and feel sorry for herself, she learned to read Braille and made a life for herself as an author and public speaker. She once stated, “Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.” Another example of such an overcomer is Joni Eareckson Tada, who in 1967, at the age of 17, was paralyzed in a swimming accident. From her wheelchair she taught herself to become an accomplished artist, painting by holding and moving a small brush with her mouth. She claims there are only two joys in life, saying: “One is having God answer all your prayers; the other is not receiving the answer to all your prayers. I believe this because I have found that God knows my needs infinitely better than I know them. And [He] isutterly dependable, no matter what direction our circumstances take us.”

Joni also offers this interesting insight: “Every person alive fits somewhere onto a scale of suffering that ranges from little to much. However much suffering we have to endure, there are always those below us who suffer less, and those above us who suffer more. The problem is, we usually like to compare ourselves only with those who suffer less. That way we can pity ourselves and pretend we’re at the top of the scale. But when we face reality and stand beside those who suffer more, our purple heart medals don’t shine so brightly.” In other words, the cliché is true: there are always people who have itworse than we do—which means we always have some reason for giving thanks to God, and some opportunity to sympathize with and show compassion toward others who are worse off than ourselves. Furthermore, the British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge suggests there’s a sense in which we need our suffering, for he says: “Suppose youeliminated suffering—what a dreadful place the world would be. I would almost rather eliminate happiness. The world would be the most ghastly place because everything that corrects the tendency of this unspeakable little creature, man, to feel over-important and over-pleased with himself would disappear. He’s bad enough now, but he would be absolutely intolerable if he never suffered.” Mr. Muggeridge is suggesting that, because we live in a sinful, imperfect world, suffering or misfortune is sometimes the only thing that keeps us humble, motivates us to look for God, and makes us willing to stumble along in the right direction, learning lessons and growing and improving by using His grace.

A Protestant theologian and scholar was reflecting on how his twenty-year-struggle with cancer changed his perspective; he wrote, “First, ideas were once most important to me, but now people and relationships take priority. Rather than teaching topics in religion and philosophy, I see myself as teaching students [emphasis added]. They are more important than the content of my courses. I have also developed a more pastoral attitude toward people, feeling much more sensitive and aware of their pain and sorrow and anxiety. . . . the ways of God are a mystery to me. No religious theory adequately explains why I contracted cancer, nor do I know why I am alive and not dead. And I have stopped seeking explanations. . . . I have learned that I must believe in spite of, rather than because of, if I am to believe at all. [For me] Christianity was once a doctrinal system of truths to believe and laws to obey. I now comprehend my faith as a faltering trust in [a] God I barely understand. Faith is primarily relational and not conceptual. My faith now is rooted in an experience of receiving daily life as a gift.”

This is a wonderful example of someone who allowed great misfortune to bring about great insight and wisdom, thereby deepening his relationship with the people in His life and with the Lord—something C. S. Lewis was struggling to do near the end of his life. The great American Church leader Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen summed it up very well: “One advantage of being thrown on your back is that you face Heaven”—in other words, affliction frequently causes us to turn our thoughts to God and to the weightier questions of life and death.

The Lord Has a Plan

The Lord has a plan—a mysterious plan that often makes no sense to us. In particular, we can speculate as to why God allows suffering—but usually we’ll only come up with possibilities, not solid answers. Is misfortune a punishment for our sins, a form of hard but loving discipline, a way of getting our attention, a means of preventing even greater suffering, or a nudge or motivation to grow in patience and virtue? It might be any or all of those things—but what matters most is that the Lord is with us, accompanying us on our journey through what the Hail Holy Queen prayer calls “this valley of tears.”

The famous German Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer was arrested and eventually executed by the Nazis for opposing Hitler; in prison he wrote:

In me there is darkness, but with Thee there is light.
I am lonely, but Thou leavest me not.
I am restless, but with Thee there is peace.
In me there is bitterness, but with Thee there is patience;
Thy ways are past understanding, but Thou knowest the way for me.

Those who, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, have suffered greatly come to have great credibility when they testify to God’s presence and aid in the midst of affliction.

There’s something within us that rebels against the idea of suffering, whether our own or someone else’s—but sometimes the only correct response is to accept it, even when it isn’t easy to do so. A chaplain at a physical rehabilitation center saw a badly injured young man struggling to walk; his natural impulse was to rush over and help him, but the staff wouldn’t let him. They knew what they were doing, for eventually the young man, after much effort and perseverance, did manage once again to walk on his own. God often helps us not by miraculously taking away our suffering or disability, but by giving us the grace to endure and persevere and overcome. A young man was friends with a classmate suffering from muscular dystrophy, and one day said to him, “You must be one of God’s favorite students.” The disabled youth objected, ”How can you call me a favorite? Look at me! Look at how God made me!” His friend explained, “No, it’s just like in school. The teacher always gives the hardest problem to her favorite student, knowing he’ll have or figure out the answer—and you have the hardest problem.”

Problems can become opportunities; difficult challenges can help us achieve more in life than would otherwise have been the case. The famous Jewish psychiatrist Viktor Frankl spent years writing a book on the importance of finding meaning in life. When arrested by the Nazis and sent to Auschwitz, he hid his precious manuscript in the lining of his coat—but he was soon forced to surrender his clothes and instead wear the dirty, beat-up coat of an earlier prisoner who had been executed. Frankl was near despair over the loss of his research and writing—but in the pocket of the shabby coat he was given, he found a page from a Hebrew prayer book containing the Shema (“Hear O Israel! The Lord our God is one God. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”) As he later said, “How should I have interpreted such a ‘coincidence’ other than as a challenge to live [emphasis added] my thoughts instead of merely putting them on paper?” Viktor Frankl survived Auschwitz, and went on to re-write and publish his book; in Man’s Search for Meaning, he, from first-hand experience, asserts, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.

Carrying a heavy burden is almost never pleasant, but it can be beneficial and even life- saving. An adventurer exploring deepest Africa discovered that when native tribesmen needed to wade across a dangerous, fast-moving river, they first picked up a heavy rock and then laboriously lugged it across to the other shore; this hard-to-carry extra weight was the ballast they needed to avoid being swept away by the river’s current. It’s certainly possible that some of the burdens we’re forced to bear, no matter how inconvenient or painful, are in fact keeping us anchored or helping us move in the right direction. Sometimes a sacrifice or even an apparent tragedy we greatly wish to avoid is truly best for us. A shipwrecked man was washed ashore on a deserted island. He built a crude little hut to shelter himself and the few possessions he had salvaged, and then each day looked out to sea, hoping to spot a ship. One day, however, his hut was completely destroyed by fire, along with everything he had scrounged and stored inside, and that night he fell asleep in hopelessness and despair. He awakened the next morning to find a ship anchored offshore, and a landing party arriving on the beach. The captain of the rescuing ship explained to the castaway, “We saw your smoke signal yesterday, and changed course to investigate.” What seemed like a disaster turned out to be a blessing.

We, of course, cannot predict the future, so we’re easily caught by surprise when the Lord manages to bring good out of apparent misfortune. However, God does want us to have the proper perspective. A pastor (Tony Evans) once observed a woman come to a gym wearing full workout clothes and with wristbands, a towel, and water bottle. She appeared very serious, but after just one minute of lifting weights, she wiped her face with her towel while saying, “Okay, that’s enough for today.” Using this incident as an illustration, the pastor later wrote, “Many Christians come to church every Sunday looking like they are ready for a workout. We wear the right clothes, sing the right songs, and talk the right talk, but building real strength requires real effort and a little sweat. God figures that we will not voluntarily go to a spiritual gym so He brings the gym to us. Adverse circumstances, cross-bearing situations, difficult scenarios, and problematic encounters all serve as opportunities for Christian growth.”

I like this quote because it reminds us that as followers of Jesus, we have to realize discipleship isn’t always easy, and quite often involves effort and sacrifice. However, we are never alone in this process. According to the French Catholic poet Paul Claudel, “Christ did not come to do away with suffering; He did not come to explain it; He came to fill it with His presence.” In a very beautiful Scripture passage, Jesus says, “Come to Me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am meek and humble of heart, and you will find rest for yourselves. For My yoke is easy, and My burden light” (Mt. 11:28-30). Not only can our afflictions unite us with Christ; they can make it easier for us to evangelize, or share the Gospel. One Christian author notes, “The child of God is often called to suffer because there is nothing that will convince onlookers of the reality and power of true religion as suffering will do, when it is borne with Christian fortitude.”

Our Suffering and Eternity

Think of it: our humble and courageous willingness to continue trusting in and serving God, despite bearing a heavy cross, may inspire others and become the primary reason someone else becomes a follower of Jesus and thus saves his or her soul. In this way our suffering, if we choose, can take on eternal significance; it can be a way of leading others to Jesus, even as we ourselves become more closely united to Him. St. Teresa of Calcutta (Mother Teresa) once said, “Suffering by itself is nothing; it’s useless. But suffering shared with Christ in His passion is a wonderful gift to human life. It is the most beautiful gift for us to share in the passion of Christ, yes, and a sign of love, because His Father proved that He loved the world by giving His Son to die for us, and so in Christ’s own life it was proved that suffering was the gift, the greatest gift. As Our Lord has said, ‘Greater love than this no man has, that he gives his life for his friends.’ And so when we suffer for Jesus, this is the greatest love, the undivided love.”

In the end, it all comes down to love. It’s true that the more we love, the more we become capable of suffering—but at the same time, the more we love, the easier it can become to bear our burdens, and the greater spiritual value and benefit they achieve, Other than Jesus Himself, the Blessed Virgin Mary is the foremost example of this. She is truly Our Lady of Sorrows, for indeed her Heart was spiritually and symbolically pierced by many swords, as Simeon had foretold (Lk. 2:35)—but she is also the most blessed among women (Lk. 1:42) because of her perfect love, trust, and surrender to the Will of God. Our Lady is not only an example for us, but an advocate for us. The Memorare prayer says, “Never was it known that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy aid, or sought thy intercession, was left unanswered.” Whenever we turn to Mary in our sorrows, she consoles us, points to her Son, and repeats the words she said to the servants at the wedding in Cana, “Do whatever He tells you” (Jn. 2:5).

There’s a wonderful scene in Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ, in which Jesus encounters His Mother Mary while carrying His Cross on Good Friday, and says to her, “Behold, Mother: I make all things new.” These words in this context aren’t taken from Scripture, Tradition, or even private revelation; they’re Mr. Gibson’s interpretation, and before inserting them here, he consulted with several Catholic and other Christian scholars and theologians. All agreed that they fit this scene perfectly. In the same way, Jesus is able to take our suffering, grief, and afflictions, and make of them something new and holy, uniting them to His great sacrifice and thereby allowing us to share in His work of redemption.

Our Lord desires the happiness and well-being of His people even more than we do ourselves, and this means we can afford to trust in Him and live as His disciples, obeying His teachings and commandments, following His plan for our lives, and doing whatever He asks of us. He warns that this will not always be easy, and may well involve the same type of opposition and hatred from this world that He Himself experienced (Jn. 15:18- 20), even to the point of dividing us from some of our family members and friends (Mt. 10:34-38). These painful experiences can unite us ever more closely to Him, for Our Lord frequently told His apostles that He would have much to suffer, including rejection, condemnation, and an unjust death, but would triumph in the end. Then He added, “I have told you this so that you might have peace in Me. In the world you will have trouble, but take courage; I have conquered the world” (Jn. 16:33). He also promised, “You are now in anguish, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you” (Jn. 16:22).

Redemptive Suffering

The Catholic Church has always believed in the reality of redemptive suffering—that is, we can freely choose to unite our anguish and trials to the Cross of Jesus, offering them for ourselves, our loved ones, and any worthwhile intention we choose, especially the conversion and salvation of sinners. This concept is based on St. Paul’s words in the Letter to the Colossians, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of His body, which is the Church” (1:24). Technically there’s nothing lacking in the saving passion and death of Jesus, for the merits of His sacrifice on the Cross transcend all limits of time and space, and are sufficient to save every human being who has ever lived. What St. Paul refers to is our imperfect and incomplete openness to the grace of God; in our suffering and grief, or in our foolish sinfulness and human stubbornness, our hearts may be closed to the gift of salvation purchased for us by Jesus at so great a price. However, the humble prayers, sacrifices, and freely-offered sufferings on the part of others—especially parents for their children, and grandparents for their grandchildren—may be the final measure of inspiration or encouragement we need to accept what God wishes to give us.

Divine justice means that the more we suffer for Jesus, the more we will be blessed by Him; the more we trust in Him as our Savior, the greater will be our future reward. In the year 313, after Constantine became Emperor of Rome, he issued an edict legalizing Christianity. One follower of Jesus had been imprisoned for his faith in a dark dungeon for many years. When Constantine learned of this, he not only ordered his immediate release from prison, but also that his ball and chain be weighed—and that the man then be given an equal weight of gold as a reward for his fidelity in spite of suffering. We, of course, are looking forward not to receiving gold, but a heavenly reward, and our efforts to continue hoping and trusting in God despite our sufferings and burdens can be our way of obeying Jesus when He urges us, “store up treasures in Heaven . . . for where your treasure is, there also will your heart be” (Mt. 6:19-21).

I began this talk by referring to C. S. Lewis, whose Christian faith and understanding of the meaning of suffering was twisted inside out when his beloved wife died prematurely of cancer. When struggling to cope with his grief, Lewis came to realize that instead of questioning, he needed to praise God more, for the very act of praising can bring some degree of peace, consolation, and eventually even joy. His final book, A Grief Observed, shared some of the painful lessons he learned (though he published it under a different name, since he was a very private person by nature). According to the book, Lewis learned that in matters of life and death, there are mysteries whose answers will only be known in Heaven, and that “our apparently contradictory notions [on these subjects] . . . will all be knocked from under our feet. We shall see that there was never any problem.”

That’s the testimony of someone whose understanding of suffering was transformed in an intensely personal way—and our faith teaches us that there is every reason to believe in these reassuring words, and every reason to hope for eternal life and everlasting joy. Scripture promises that when we finally enter God’s Kingdom, every tear will be wiped away (Is. 25:8; Rev. 21:4), our good and loving deeds will be rewarded (Mt. 25:40), and all our hopes and dreams will be at long last fulfilled, especially in regard to a joyous reunion with our loved ones who’ve gone before us. Many of us are, to one degree or another, already united with Jesus in His carrying of the Cross on Good Friday—and if we remain faithful to Him, we will also share in the glory and new life of His Easter victory.

Scripture Passages

Psalm 13:2-4 – How long, O Lord? Will You utterly forget me? How long will You hide Your face from me? How long shall I harbor sorrow in my soul, grief in my heart day after day? How long will my enemy triumph over me? Look, answer me, O Lord, my God!

Psalm 25:16-18 – Look toward me, [O Lord], and have pity on me, for I am alone and afflicted. Relieve the troubles of my heart, and bring me out of my distress. Put an end to my affliction and my suffering, and take away all my sins.

Psalm 119:49-50 – Remember Your word to Your servant since You have given me hope. My comfort in my affliction is that Your promise gives me life.

Sirach 2:1-2 – When you come to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for trials. Be sincere of heart and steadfast, undisturbed in time of adversity.

Isaiah 25:8 – The Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces; the reproach of His people He will remove from the whole earth.

Isaiah 65:16 – The hardships of the past shall be forgotten and hidden from [our] eyes.

Lamentations 3:17-18, 21-22 – My soul is deprived of peace, I have forgotten what happiness is; I tell myself the future is lost, all that I hoped for from the Lord. . . . But I will call this to mind, as my reason to have hope: the favors of the Lord are not exhausted, His mercies are not spent. . . .

John 16:20, 22, 33 – Amen, amen, I say to you, you will weep and mourn, while the world rejoices; you will grieve, but your grief will become joy. . . . I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you. . . .
I have told you this so that you might have peace in Me. In the world you will have trouble, but take courage: I have conquered the world.

2 Timothy 1:8 – Bear your share of hardship for the Gospel. . . .

Matthew 11:28-30 – Come to Me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves, for My yoke is easy, and My burden light.

Romans 5:3-5 – We even boast of our afflictions, knowing that affliction produces endurance, and endurance, proven character, and proven character, hope, and hope does not disappoint. . . .

Romans 8:18 – I consider that the suffer- ings of this present time are as nothing com- pared with the glory to be revealed for us.

Colossians 1:24 – Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of His body, which is the Church. . . .

2 Thessalonians 1:5 – This [faithfulness and endurance during suffering] is evidence of the just judgment of God, so that you may be considered worthy of the Kingdom of God for which you are suffering.

Hebrews 12:7, 11 – Endure your trials as “discipline”; God treats you as sons. For what “son” is there whom his father does notdiscipline? . . . . At the time, all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain, yet later it brings the peaceful fruits of righteousness to those who are trained by it.

James 5:10-11 – Take as an example of hardship and patience, brothers, the prophets who spoke in the Name of the Lord. Indeed we call blessed those who have persevered.

1 Peter 1:6-7 – In this you rejoice, although now for a little while you may have to suffer through various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold that is perishable even though tested by fire, may prove to be for praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.

1 Peter 4:13 – Rejoice to the extent that you share in the sufferings of Christ, so that when His glory is revealed you also may rejoice exultantly.

1 Peter 3:17-18 – For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that be the Will of God, than for doing evil. For Christ also suffered for sins once, the righteous for the sake of the unrighteous, that He might lead you to God.

Catechism of the Catholic Church

–Even though enlightened by [God] in Whom it believes, faith is often lived in darkness and can be put to the test. The world we live in often seems very far from the one promised us by faith. Our experi- ences of evil and suffering, injustice, and death seem to contradict the Good News; they can shake our faith and become a temptation against it (n. 164).

–By the grace of this Sacrament [of Anointing] the sick person receives the strength and the gift of uniting himself more closely to Christ’s Passion: in a certain way he is consecrated to bear fruit by configura- tion to the Savior’s redemptive Passion.Suffering, a consequence of original sin, acquires a new meaning; it becomes a participation in the saving work of Jesus (n. 1521).

Quotes from the Saints

–If God causes you to suffer much, it’s a sign that He has great designs for you, and that He certainly intends to make you a saint. –St. Ignatius of Loyola

–Suffering is a short pain and a long joy. – Bl. Henry Suso

–Suffering out of love for God is better than working miracles. St. John of the Cross

–Suffering is a great favor. Remember that everything soon comes to an end . . . and take courage. Think of how our gain is eternal. –St. Teresa of Avila

–Suffering borne in the will quietly and patiently is a continual, very powerful prayer before God. –St. Jane Frances de Chantal

–As iron is fashioned by the fire and on an anvil, so in the fire of suffering and under the weight of our trials, our souls receive the form that Our Lord desires for them to have. —St. Madeleine Sophie Barat

Those who suffer for the love of God help Jesus carry His Cross, and if they persevere they will share His glory in Heaven. –St. Paul of the Cross

–Without misfortune, you might not have been wholly bad, but perhaps you might not have been entirely good, either. –St. Claude de la Colombiere

–There are people who make [spiritual] capital out of everything, even the winter. If it is cold, they offer their little suffering to God. –St. John Vianney

–The crosses we meet on the road to Heaven are like a fine stone bridge on which you can cross a river. Christians who don’tsuffer cross this river on a shaky bridge that’s always in danger of giving way under their feet. –St. John Vianney

–Can you expect to go to Heaven for nothing? Did not our dear Savior track the whole way to it with His tears and blood. —St. Elizabeth Ann Seton

–Thank the good God for having visited you through suffering. If we knew the value of suffering, we would ask for. –St. Andre Bessette

–[In reference to our inability to see a meaningful pattern in God’s actions in our lives:] We see the reverse side of the embroidery, because we are seated on a low stool. –St. Pio of Pietrelcina (Padre Pio)

–The more we are afflicted in this world, the greater is our assurance in the next; the more we sorrow in the present, the greater will be our joy in the future. –St. Isidore

–If things always went wrong, no one could endure it; if things always went well, everyone would become arrogant. –St. Bernard of Clairvaux

–Whenever anything disagreeable or displeasing happens to you, remember Christ crucified and be silent. –St. John of the Cross

–Since gold and silver, which are only corruptible metals, are purified and tested by fire, it is but reasonable that our faith, which surpasses all the riches of the world, should be tried. – St. Peter Claver

–The most beautiful Credo (“I believe”) is the one we pronounce in our hour of dark- ness. –St. Pio of Pietrelcina (Padre Pio)

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Written by
Fr Joseph Esper