Simcha Fisher, author of The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning writes for several publications and blogs daily at Aleteia. She lives in New Hampshire with her husband and ten children. Without supernatural aid, she would hardly be a human being.
A few weeks ago, I asked converts what most puzzled them when they first became Catholics. Several people said they heard "offer it up" all the time, and had no idea what it was supposed to mean. The best they could gather was that it was Catholic code for "suck it up."
It does get used this way. Let's say (just to choose a random example with no basis in reality) that an overworked mom went to bed after midnight because she was making special cupcakes for the class party, and then the teething baby kept her awake, and then she tripped over the dog and spilled her coffee and sprained two toes and now there's broken mug shards all over the floor . . . and one of the other kids chooses that minute to whine that the new kind of toilet paper they've been getting isn't as quilty as the old kind. Maybe that mom might be tempted to bark, "Well, offer it up!" in a way that suggests, "Deal with it!" or "That's your problem!" or "Keep it to yourself!"
Sometimes, this is the best possible advice. When we tell someone (or ourselves) to suck it up, we're saying that the bad thing that happened is no excuse to fall apart or behave badly. We're saying to manage it and move along. I remember working at McDonald's as a teenager, and feeling completely terrible one day, like I couldn't possibly function for another six hours. The manager told me to suck it up -- and so I did. I thought I couldn't, but I could, and all I really needed was for someone to tell me that I could.
So "suck it up" isn't necessarily a bad thing to say; but it's definitely not the same as "offer it up." In a way, it's the opposite, even though they are both ways of dealing with trials and pain.
First, the logistics. How do we offer something up? Pretty simple: When something bad happens, like pain, or fear, or suffering, or bad news, we tell God, "I offer this up to You" or, "Lord, please use this." You can add in " . . . for Aunt Sally, who's in the hospital" or "for the souls in purgatory" or "because I'm sorry for the way I acted in traffic yesterday." Or you can just let God decide what to do with it. (We can offer up good things, too; but let's focus on offering up suffering right now.)
What do we mean by it? We mean that we're making a choice not to be passive victims in the grips of senseless suffering. We mean that we want our suffering to mean something. Christ became a man so that He could suffer and die to redeem us, and when He did this, He changed the nature of suffering so that any and all human suffering can be united with His as part of the work of redemption. THIS IS A BIG DEAL. We get to be like Christ. Here's a short essay that explains some of the beauty and significance of this teaching.
I was once too broke to bring a gift to a wedding. A friend of mine had brought an expensive and thoughtful present, beautifully wrapped, and she let me add my name to the card. ... Jesus allows us to “add our name” to the gift of his sacrifice to the Father—that we can do this every time we suffer, and also any time we attend Mass.
Suffering is a strange thing. When we suck it up, it's like burying a seed, but refusing to water it. It probably won't do any harm that way, but it won't do any good, either. But if we bury that seed and then offer it up, it's like telling the Holy Spirit, "Psst, over here! This one needs some water." And we know what happens next: the thing cracks open and starts to grow. Amazing!
Now, keep in mind, we may not be around to see that growth come about. We believe in redemptive suffering, but that doesn't mean we're entitled to see it happen right before our eyes. It may very well be that we offer something up, it feels a lot like no one was there to receive our offering. That's part of what makes pain painful: sometimes we can see good coming of it, but sometimes we can't. There were plenty of people who saw Jesus die on the cross, and who thought that was the end of it -- just suffering and death, the end. But if we believe that His pain was transformative, then we should trust that ours is, too -- because that's what the Incarnation did. It linked us together. It made us brothers. It gave us a shared experience. Nothing has to be meaningless unless we let it be that way.
When we offer up suffering, we turn pain into an act of love. We turn something passive into something active. We turn a painful rupture into a door through which good can come. That's why I say that "offer it up" is the opposite of "suck it up": because when we suck it up, we take it into ourselves, shove it down, keep it in. But when we offer it up, we turn outward, upward. That is one of the defining characteristics of love: it moves outward, and it is fruitful. What a gift that even our suffering can be turned into something good.