Suffering is a facet of human life that is ever rife. Every human person suffers in one way or another. Friedrich Nietzsche said, “To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.” For Christians, life finds its meaning only in Jesus. Thus, to find meaning in suffering also means finding it in Jesus. Does human suffering have a purpose and meaning? How do we find meaning in something so undesirable?
The presence of Christ in human suffering
The Gospel of Matthew 25: 31 onwards beautifully brings out Jesus’ presence in all human trials and pain. He is not only present in the hungry, thirsty, naked, incarcerated, lonely and sick, but he actually shares their pain and sorrow. The presence of Christ in the sick and suffering is also corroborated in the CCC 2448 which says, “Moved by so much suffering Christ not only allows himself to be touched by the sick, but he makes their miseries his own: "He took our infirmities and bore our diseases…" While Jesus Himself is present in the sick and suffering, He also expects the faithful to reach out to them and accompany them on their journey of pain and agony. CCC 1509 says, “Heal the sick!” The Church has received this charge from the Lord and strives to carry it out by taking care of the sick as well as by accompanying them with their prayer of intercession. She believes in the life-giving presence of Christ, the physician of souls and bodies.”
While Christ is ever present in our lives, it is essential that we make known to Him our presence too. There was a man named Joseph, who worked in a certain factory. His strenuous work schedule kept him from spending a lot prayer time during his work hours. Thus, during his lunch break, he would visit the Blessed sacrament and pray one short sentence, “Jesus, Joseph has come.” This went on day after day, until one day the parish priest who observed Joseph’s daily visits, noticed that he did not see Joseph anymore. One day, the parish priest saw Joseph again after a while, and asked him out of curiosity, “What do you pray for in so short a moment? Where have you been all these days?” Joseph answered, “I just tell Jesus, ‘Joseph has come, and now Joseph is leaving.’ I was sick and unconscious, and hospitalized for three days, but when I opened my eyes, I saw Jesus standing by my bedside and Jesus said to me, “Joseph, Jesus has come and Jesus heals you.” This is the power of prayer, however short. When we make our presence known to Christ, during our moments of suffering, He makes His presence known to us, no matter how short our conversations with Him are.
Praying like Jesus in times of suffering
During our moments of joy and happiness, our prayers echo with praise and thanksgiving. Is it the same when we suffer? If anything, we whine and complain and question God. Our Savior took upon Himself all our sufferings and infirmities. Hebrews 4:15 says, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” Thus, in Jesus, our divine Lord, who took up a completely human form, we have the perfect example of dealing with suffering.
At Gethsemane, not once did Jesus question the will of his Father. Instead, His prayer was one of petition as well as surrender. Jesus prays in Matthew 26:39b, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” This is precisely what our own prayers must be when we suffer. While Jesus asked “His Father to take away the cup of suffering from Him, He also abandoned Himself to His Father’s will. He prayed this prayer not once, but thrice.
I’ve personally experienced how this prayer of Jesus when prayed by us, is answered almost always. However, sometimes, it is not in God’s will to take away the cup of suffering from some people. In such instances, He gives them the strength to bear the suffering. This was the case with Jesus too. It was not in the Father’s will to take the cup of suffering away from Him. The Gospel of Luke 22:43 says, “Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength.” If it isn’t in God’s plan and will to take away the cup of suffering in our lives, He provides the strength to bear it. 1 Corinthians 10:13 says, “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.”
Sharing in Christ’s redemptive suffering
When Christ suffered through His passion and death on the Cross, He was redeeming the whole of mankind. Christ’s suffering was redemptive and salvific. Suffering for the sake of suffering in itself is futile. However, when human suffering is offered up to Jesus and united with his own suffering, the same human suffering is now transformed into suffering that is redemptive.
Suffering is not eternal. There are moments of sunshine and happiness and moments of dull-gray suffering in every person’s life. When the moments of suffering come, it is important that it must be united with that of Christ. CCC 1505 says, “…By his passion and death on the cross Christ has given a new meaning to suffering: it can henceforth configure us to him and unite us with his redemptive Passion”.Thus, we become co-redeemers in those moments when our suffering is configured with that of Christ.
CCC 618 beautifully elaborates on the sacrifice of Christ and the path His suffering has paved, for all of us to reach heaven. Christ sacrificed Himself once and for all, to save the whole of mankind, but His redemptive work did not end at Calvary. Instead, we must also take up our crosses and follow Him, because therein lies His redemptive mission which is at work even today.
Jesus willingly takes upon Himself our weaknesses and sicknesses. A vivid picture is painted of Christ as the suffering servant in Isaiah 53. However, more than just the suffering servant, Christ was the willing sacrifice. He offered Himself up for the salvation of the world. God the Father found in His son, a spotless and willing victim for the redemption of the world he so loved, as mentioned in John 3:16. The reward for believing this sacrificial savior is eternal life. Believing also means willingly configuring our own sufferings to His, knowing that He takes our pain and makes it His own.
After Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law, later that evening, he performed many more miracles, as the Gospel of Matthew 8:14-16 recounts. Verse 17 says, “This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah, ‘He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.’” Jesus willingly healed all those in pain and distress and took upon Himself their burdens, to fulfill what had been spoken about Him in scripture. Configuring one’s suffering with Christ not only brings about redemption, but also deliverance from that suffering, if it is the will of God. A woman named Maria, who was praying along with Logosvoice.Tv telecast on 3.9.2021, had a painful and carcinogenic lump in her breast. She configured and united her suffering with that of Christ. She gave it to Jesus, who willingly took it upon Himself, healing her. She says she is healed completely and lump is being dissolved during the time of prayer. Jesus took upon himself the diseases and infirmities of those who were brought to him 2000 years ago, and He does the same even today.
Four blessings received through redemptive suffering
God doesn’t leave His children to suffer alone. He promises remedy and solace. 1 Pt 5:10 says, “And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you.” Four acts of God are promised in this Bible verse, that is, restoration, support, strength and establishment, as elaborated further.
After a temporary phase of suffering, the Lord promises restoration. When we go through times of suffering, we feel neglected and forgotten by God. But as the Lord promises in the book of Jeremiah 30:17, He restores those who suffer- “For I will restore health to you, and your wounds I will heal, says the Lord, because they have called you an outcast: ‘It is Zion; no one cares for her!’ When God restores us, He restores us in the likeness of His son, Jesus. He restores all things to perfection. Does this mean that God’s creation before restoration is imperfect? Not at all! Everything that God made is good. (Gn 1:31) Through our first parents’ sin, a doorway was opened for the devil to deform God’s perfect creation. Therefore, it is necessary that all believers must be restored to God’s perfection once again.
Restoration means freedom from the sickness or affliction that leads to suffering. This freedom comes from the Holy Spirit, and when there’s freedom, all of us are transformed in the image of Christ from one glory to the next. (2 Cor 3:17-18). This kind of Christo-centric transformation has been spoken about by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a French Jesuit priest, who worked majorly with spiritualizing Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, and fitting it in Christianity. According to him, “Christ is the one whose spiritual and unifying force sustains and guides the evolution of creation seen as a pilgrimage to a destination willed by God.” (Sutton, Agneta. “Teilhard de Chardin’s Christocentric Trinitarianism.” New Blackfriars, vol. 92, no. 1037, Wiley, 2011, p.93.)
The story of Job is a perfect example of someone being supported by God. God gave the devil permission to attack Job (Job 2.3), but he was not alone. He had God through it all. Towards the end of Job’s story when God answered Job, He also rebuked Job’s friends who had not spoken rightly about God to him. God’s restoration to Job shows clearly how strongly God was Job’s champion and when his suffering had ended, he was not only supported by God, but everything he lost was restored in double measure except the number of wife and children (Job 42:10,13).
When we receive support from the Lord, we are able to provide support to others who face similar situations. 2 Cor 1:3-4 says, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God.” This is an exhortation to support and console those who suffer from similar afflictions as we have suffered. The support we receive from God, we ought to render to others.
God promises strength after suffering to all those who wait upon Him and hope in His salvation. Isaiah 40:31 says, “But those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint." God not only strengthens us to bear the suffering, but also to get back on our feet after the period of suffering is over.
St. Paul narrates an instance from his life, when He was in deep agony and pain. He asked the Lord to take it away. Instead, God answered Him saying, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Cor 12:9a). Paul then goes ahead to say, “So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12: 9b-10). During the moments we feel weakest, Christ is the strongest. And as promised to us, after suffering, we will receive strength.
Again, borrowing from the life of Job, after his period of suffering was over, the Lord established him. He made him prosper. The Lord renews and establishes His people after their trials and sufferings have passed. God tells us through Isaiah 43:18-19, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” What God establishes and sets firm, no one can destroy. The Lord will turn that same misery into joy. He will make you bloom in the same place where you are planted. He promises redemption and establishment to all those who suffer with Him, and unite their pain with His.
As we’ve reflected above, suffering is only momentary. Jesus Himself suffered when He took on our human form, and through His suffering, we have assurance of healing and deliverance. All we have to do is configure our suffering to Him. We can emulate saints like St. Padre Pio, St. Alphonsa, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Agatha and so many others who suffered greatly in their lifetime for the sake of Christ, only to share in His eternal glory in heaven. We must also configure our sufferings to that of Christ, and so share in His redemptive work.