The value of suffering can’t be denied. Christ commands us to pick up our cross and follow him to Calvary—to lose our life in order that we may find it. A brief perusal of literature from any Saint or Doctor of the Church—from St. John of the Cross to St. Thérèse of Lisieux to St. Pope John Paul II—will quench any doubt that suffering in this life is inescapable and necessary—an extension of “hard” grace needed for our own sanctification and entrance into heaven. There is a reason we display the corpse of God strung on a crucifix in our churches. We are broken, our bodies at war with our spirits. Or to reference St. Paul’s allusion to concupiscence: “What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate.” And so we need to be purified, pruned, shaken out of our stupor of self and reformed in God’s image. This requires—to all of humanity’s grave disappointment—suffering. Whether in the form of sickness, death, disease, financial hardship, addictions, war and so on, suffering clutches its wan grip on all the living.
Suffering can lead to bitterness, a turning even farther away from God. Instead of a catalyst for conversion—sincere repentance—it spawns resentment, hatred, jealousy and, consequently, more suffering. This is obviously never God’s will, and why our response to suffering is of eternal importance. We can be tempted to believe that it’s God’s will to stay mired in our suffering, as if remaining captive to it is a necessary panacea for our soul. And while we know that suffering can be quite medicinal, if we allow it to overtake us and cause greater, unnecessary suffering—and eventually sin—then we have replaced God’s true will with the will of our own twisted ego, harrying neurosis, false understanding of Catholic suffering, or worse, the devil himself.
Think of a man who becomes sick. At first it’s no more than a cold, and outside of the mere annoyance and inconvenience of it, there is nothing by which to be alarmed. However, the sickness remains and begins to worsen. Days stretch into weeks. Now he coughs up blood and is beset by terrible chills and nausea. Of course, it would be preposterous to believe that it’s God’s will for him to refuse the aid of a doctor or some medicine, and instead, to simply offer up his suffering for the good of all souls and let nature’s course take its toll on him. Unless God has given us an undeniable and rare directive, we can safely assume that in this specific case, God’s will is to seek a doctor!
Yet, it’s disturbingly easy for us to act like this hypothetical man in other areas of our lives that may not be as obvious. We may have an addiction that causes us great distress, yet believe we are helpless in its iron grip. We may suffer from anxiety or depression, and instead of seeking the aid of professionals and loved ones, rely on some variation of the grossly ineffective “white-knuckle approach.” I know that I’ve struggled with falsely assuming that certain sufferings in my life were to be left alone—only offered up to the providential will of God while I sat back, gritted my teeth and bore the crushing weight of the cross—a cross that only caused resentment, unnecessary pain and an inability to love God and others more completely. The result was a towering stack of illusory wood strapped to my back—a host of splintered crosses, none of which ever willed for me by God.
God asks us to fight against the suffering in our lives—to do everything in our power with a spirit of patience and faith to mitigate or overcome it. We mostly accept this with ease in light of others. We know we are called to feed the hungry, comfort the lonely, heal the sick. Yet, when looking inward we can fail to heed this calling, instead cozening ourselves into believing we are not meant to seek healing, and in this way, resign—fail to take advantage of the people, tools and resources God has given us to relieve our own suffering.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote much about the uncompromising need to fight against the inimical suffering of the natural world as well as God’s desire for us to stave off all forms of evil—both moral as well as physical—and its rotten fruit: suffering.
“To struggle against evil and to reduce to a minimum even the ordinary physical evil which threatens us is unquestionably the first act of our Father who is in heaven; it would be impossible to conceive him in any other way, and still more impossible to love him.” – The Divine Milieu
In fact, as we overcome suffering and evil in this world—with steadfast conviction and hope—we become more like the Father:
“The more we repel suffering at that moment, with our whole heart and our whole strength, the more closely we cleave to the heart and actions of God.” – The Divine Milieu
God is a Father of life and flourishing, and any hindrance to that flourishing must be eschewed with our entire hearts. It’s never God’s will for us to resign to a broken world, shrug our shoulders and say under our breath, “it is what it is.”
Thomas Merton, a man who clearly understood the value of suffering when ordered rightly and willed by God, spoke of the need to fight against suffering in his meditative writings as well:
“That is why a Christian must seek in every way possible to relieve the sufferings of others, and even take certain necessary steps to alleviate some sufferings of his own: because they are occasions of sin.” – No Man Is An Island
Merton isn’t afraid to use strong, convicting language in exhorting us to apply every means of grace available to us—our intelligence, reason, relationships, modern aids, etc.—in living our lives faithfully. His words condemning a false hope in God’s grace can also be applied to our response to suffering:
“Some who think they trust in God actually sin against hope because they do not use the will and the judgment he has given them. Of what use is it for me to hope in grace if I dare not make the act of will that corresponds with grace?” – No Man Is An Island
And he continues, emphasizing:
“Therefore, if I trust in God’s grace I must also show confidence in the natural powers he has given me, not because they are my powers but because they are his gift.”
Our response then—our choice in the midst of suffering—should always be to bring about the Kingdom of Heaven—a world without sin, evil, suffering.
Of course, even though we are called to usher in this new kingdom with all of our heart, mind and soul, we know we will suffer despite our greatest efforts in this life. Our health will fade, mind will soften and death will dawn.
“…there still remains that slow, essential deterioration which we cannot escape: old age little by little robbing us of ourselves and pushing us on towards the end…time which tears us from enjoyment, time which condemns us to death…” – Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Divine Milieu
While “time” stalks us with menace like a prowling lion, and we live in a broken world that remains fixed in the clenched jaws of evil and sin, we still fight against that inevitable end, knowing that everything we do here—every good act, every suffering fought and endured with patient faith, will never be forgotten in the mind of God. Though a mystery, these noble acts have eternal value. It’s in those moments of suffering when we are virtuous and faithful—when we do what we can to relieve our suffering and the suffering of others, and having done all we can, humbly endure what suffering still remains with a spirit of trust and hope.
May God grant us the grace to lay down the crosses that lead to death, and only bear the ones that lead to life.