How Faith in Redemptive Suffering Can Keep Us Sane

“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.” (CCC 1505)

(photo: Francisco de Zurbarán, “Christ on the Cross”, 1627)

“I understood that to become a saint one had to suffer much, seek out always the most perfect thing to do, and forget self... I do not want to be a saint by halves. I'm not afraid to suffer for You. I fear only one thing: to keep my own will; so take it, for I choose all that You will!” —St. Thérèse of Lisieux

Recently, I was on the phone with my 77-year-old Dad after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Always used to being “up and at 'em,” playing Super Dad and serving as an elder in a Calvinist Reformed church, the news of his debilitating illness was deeply troubling to him. I wanted to tell him how much God loved him, and that God would be with him – so I did. But I also wanted to tell him how valuable his suffering was, and that God had allowed it to come his way so that he could be sanctified in so far as he united his pain to Christ Crucified – but I couldn't.

I wanted to ask him to “offer it up” for my younger brother who does not go to church; for my older brother whose wife left him behind with seven children for another man; for an end to abortion... but I couldn't do that either. I felt muzzled, and it was painful. Frankly, it hurt my heart so intensely that I had to “offer it up” myself. I knew I couldn't be straight with my dad because his Calvinistic views maintain that the idea of uniting one's sufferings to that of Christ's in order to make them redemptive is in fact, a blasphemous ideology.

Sadly, many Protestants, perhaps even a majority of them, do not embrace the doctrine of redemptive suffering in the same wholehearted fashion that devout Catholics do. As it states in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 1505), “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.” And in the words of Padre Pio:

O what precious moments these are. It is a happiness that the Lord gives me to relish almost always in moments of affliction. At these moments, more than ever, when the whole world troubles and weighs on me, I desire nothing other than to love and to suffer. Yes my father, even in the midst of so much suffering I am happy because it seems as if my heart is beating with Jesus' heart.

As Catholics, we are profoundly privileged to have a Magisterium that teaches us the value of uniting one's sufferings to Christ's, and even hails it as redemptive. We are also blessed to have a long list of canonized Saints who treasured suffering and even yearned for it according to God's will. They held it dear because they knew that God could use it to accomplish mighty works. As Our Lord once told Saint Faustina, "If the angels were capable of envy, they would envy us for two things: one is the receiving of Holy Communion, and the other is suffering... You will save more souls through prayer and suffering than will a missionary through his teachings and sermons alone."

The first time I heard of “offering it up” was when I was 21 years old. I was doing missionary work in the South Bronx with a group of young, fervent cradle Catholics. It was sweltering hot, and the Sisters we worked and lived with did not allow themselves the luxury of air conditioning. Night after night, through our barred windows, we would hear glass bottles being smashed on the sidewalks, gun shots, screaming, and people drumming up rap music on the streets (that was quite impressive, I have to admit, despite the bad language involved).

I distinctly remember when one of the volunteers, Helena, was complaining about how hot and miserable she felt, and then caught herself and said, “I guess I just need to offer it up.” I asked her what she meant by that, and she told me that her parents had always taught her when something is tough, you need to offer it up to Jesus and then it won't be so hard. I was awestruck by what this 19-year-old girl said to me. Up until that point, I had lived my entire Christian life thinking that trials, pain and suffering were merely there just to help me “grow closer to the Lord.” I had been deceived into thinking that although such dark things were baffling enigmas to the human heart, they simply had to be accepted and swallowed like chunks of ice – with no major questions asked. After I heard Helena's words, however, I began to catch the glimmer of one of the most clandestine jewels of Catholicism – the mystical power of redemptive suffering.

Suffering often leaves the average, wandering non-Catholic Christian feeling defeated by a state of confusion and helplessness. Despite their many acts of trust in God, without a theology of redemptive suffering to cling to, pain and sorrow easily get the best of them. But to the Catholic who suffers in union with Christ the Suffering Servant, pain and sorrow can make sense, and even, in some wild, spiritual way, bring serenity to the soul.

In the Modern Catholic Dictionary, Servant of God Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J. explains regarding suffering:

Its purpose, however, is not only to expiate wrongdoing, but to enable the believer to offer God a sacrifice of praise of his divine right over creatures, to unite oneself with Christ in his sufferings as an expression of love, and in the process to become more like Christ, who having joy set before him, chose the Cross, and thus 'to make up all that has still to be undergone by Christ for the sake of His body, the Church,' (1 Colossians 1:24).

So, the next time you bang your head on that darn corner of the cabinet again, have to wait until that nasty influenza bug goes through the whole house, or have something serious to grieve over, just remember to offer it up to Jesus, and you'll feel better. You'll stay sane.

And some day, sweet Dad, I pray I'll tell you to “offer it up” and you'll know just what I mean.