The Economics Of Human Suffering
BY J. R. Morse
September 30 - October 6, 2001 Issue | Posted 9/30/01 at 2:00 PM
One thing we economists always teach is that smart people snap up undervalued resources, fix them up, and resell them at a profit.
Investors mean much the same thing when they say “buy low, sell high.” Suppose I told you that you had ready access to a very common but deeply undervalued resource, and that you could snap it up for a song. Would you be interested?
Suffering. Pain. Everyone has it. Nobody wants it. Yet, for a Christian, pain and suffering are spiritual goldmines.
Everyone faces pain. Sometimes, we bring it on ourselves. Other times, pain just drops into our lives out of the clear blue sky—as it literally did in the tragedy that struck New York Sept. 11. Most people in the world see suffering as something to avoid. The modern world goes to great lengths to avoid pain, discomfort or even mild inconvenience. When grief cannot be avoided, the modern world has trouble knowing how to face it.
But Our Lord taught us otherwise. Jesus showed us during his passion that suffering has redemptive value. Through his suffering on the cross, he redeemed the sins of the world.
Even our own grief and sorrow can have redemptive value. We all know the experience of becoming a better person through facing and surviving a tough time. That is only the most readily visible example of good coming from evil. At a more spiritual level, God himself transforms our pain into grace. By offering up our sufferings to God, we unite ourselves with Christ and his passion.
As St. Paul says, “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” (Colossians 1:24). St. Paul doesn't mean that Christ needs our assistance to effect redemption. He means that we can participate, in fact, that God wants us to participate—in the passion of his Son.
We know that the prayers of the sick and suffering are especially sweet to God. In our suffering, we have a unique contribution to make to the long-term spiritual health of our country. We can turn the trials of our sickness, infirmity or old age into a constant prayer.
We know from the lives of the saints and holy people that this kind of prayer will be the source of a great deal of comfort and consolation for us. Our suffering seems to be pointless to the world and, indeed, it may seem pointless to us at times. But Our Lord assures us that any suffering united to his is not pointless, but precious and powerful.
We know that the prayers of the sick and suffering are especially sweet to God.
As a deacon of the early Church, St. Lawrence had responsibility for the distribution of food to the poor. The Roman authorities assumed he must be in charge of vast sums of wealth. So they arrested him, and demanded that he turn over the riches of the Church. St. Lawrence gathered the poor of the city, and said that they were the wealth of the Church. When the enraged authorities martyred Lawrence by roasting him alive over a massive stone cooker, he had the fortitude to joke with them.
He told them that he was done on one side, and they should turn him over. This, I think you'll agree, is not ordinary behavior. This was the extraordinary behavior of a man sustained by divine grace. God took his suffering and transformed it.
And he can do the same with yours and mine. We can offer him our tragedies, great and small, and ask him to use the grace to benefit whoever needs it the most. He will in turn bring us into closer union with him, and help others, whom you may never see.
It may be the most highly leveraged transaction you ever participate in: You give God something completely worthless, and he transforms it into love and grace and strength and hope. But then, God is like that. He always outdoes us in generosity.
This is the way that we can find meaning in the mundane events of everyday life. We offer them up as a continual prayer. Peeling potatoes, bathing an infirm person, smiling instead of grumbling—these little things become big things in the arsenal of love. They sanctify our souls.
So give the Church's advice. Give it to your grandmother in a nursing home, your sister-in-law who just had a miscarriage, your co-worker whose wife insists on a divorce, and, yes, to anyone you know who has suffered from the terrorists' attacks. Tell your unbelieving friends to act as though they believe.
Go through the motions of allowing God to sanctify ordinary actions. At least they will know that they have allied themselves on the side of goodness and love.
In less than 100 years, every one of us will see God face to face. Perhaps you or I will see him much sooner than that. When we do, he will show us how much our offerings meant to the world.
Jennifer Roback Morse is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author of Love & Economics: Why the Laissez-Faire Family
Doesn't Work (Spence, 2001).
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