The Secret to Redemptive Suffering

This is the key lesson of Holy Week

(photo: Titian, “Christ Carrying the Cross”)

Promoters of the “Prosperity Gospel” often have less to say during Holy Week. The Theology of the Cross is not their strong suit, especially when applied not simply to the God-man Jesus Christ, but to us mere human beings who are called to follow in the Savior’s footsteps. What to tell a Christian when profound suffering comes unexpectedly in their lives and/or lasts much longer than expected? How do such experiences square with hopes of prosperity?

In contrast, the Catholic Church is at her best during Holy Week, and that’ll continue through the Easter Octave and beyond. Indeed, Catholics are schooled early and often in knowing how personal “Good Fridays” can and should lead to renewed-and-deeper faith “Easter” experiences. After all, suffering without a worthy goal in view is pointless. And that’s what we need to keep in mind in our modern world that seeks to avoid suffering at all costs, even to the point of taking others’ and their own lives, e.g., via abortion, euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide.

The Church can share with the world not only her rich doctrine and related theology about redemptive suffering, but also the witness of her many and various saints who poignantly have exemplified the teachings of Christ. As the Word Incarnate, Jesus knew the manner of his impending death. And because “a disciple is not above his teacher” (Mt. 10:24), Jesus taught his followers to carry their own cross before he ascended to Calvary with his:

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life?” (Mt. 16:24-26).

He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it” (Mt. 10:38-39).

Jesus adds wives (and implicitly husbands) and brothers and sisters to the list in Luke 14:26-27.

“Crazy talk!” the world responds. Well, don’t misunderstand Jesus. He’s simply saying that we need to love him first if we’re going to love our parents, spouse, children, brothers and sisters, etc., as well as we should. Something to ponder. And of course, even if we accept that, there’s still this inescapable conundrum: Why and how to carry one’s cross? Why and how to die to oneself in a society which sees such an outlook as masochistic—antithetical to genuine fulfillment?

Most people realize that they have or will have to sacrifice to gain something or someone worthwhile in their lives. But don’t try to tell them how to sacrifice. Jesus has the audacity to do just that. And because he is “the way, and the truth, and the life” (Jn. 14:6), we should listen. The secret to redemptive suffering, Jesus lets us know, is docility in discipleship: “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 19:14).

Being childlike is definitely not the same as childishness. The latter evinces the immaturity that often goes with childhood. The former bespeaks the radical trust children can often exhibit toward their parents, a trust we don’t like to be reminded that we need to keep exercising in adulthood as the Good Lord’s disciples. The world chafes at childlikeness, precisely because of the radical trust and death to self it requires. Well, it pays to be a docile sheep if you’re following the right Shepherd, who will test and prune like no coach or other earthly mentor, but who also love us and bring us to the greatest fulfillment possible . . . if only we trust.

Jesus leads the way in modeling this radical discipleship, asking his Father in heaven three times to take away his cup of suffering during his Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, yet always saying submitting his human will to the divine will (Mt. 26:37-44). And so, as we will learn again in the coming days, Jesus appears to be at his ignominiously weakest during his Passion and Death, and yet they paradoxically become the occasion of his greatest triumph—and of our greatest triumph (see 2 Cor. 12:8-10).

So too the Blessed Mother, that disciple par excellence and thus the epitome of childlikeness. Her “Fiat,” her “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to thy word” (Lk. 1:38), serves as a primary and indispensable lesson in discipleship. The abundant fruit of learning and living this lesson is writ large in the life of the Blessed Mother and all of the other saints.

And so it can be in ours. Sometimes in going through our own “Good Fridays,” we will have special need of the support of friends and family, the spiritual guidance of a good priest or someone else who excels in discernment. Perhaps even the help of a doctor or licensed counselor. In any event, persevere through your trials. Remember that Jesus who humanly experienced the anguish of feeling forsaken by God (Mt. 27:46) is the same Jesus who moments later committed his spirit into his Father’s hands (Lk. 23:46), knowing that the Father will test us to foster our spiritual perfection (see Heb. 2:10; 5:7-10), but he will never truly abandon us. Quite to the contrary. Keep that in mind this Holy Week and beyond.