We All Suffer, but Not All Suffering is the Same

There are three types of suffering: Suffering from self, suffering for self, and suffering for others.

Mihály Munkácsy, ‘Golgotha’, 1884
Mihály Munkácsy, ‘Golgotha’, 1884 (photo: Register Files)

Recently, on EWTN’s Franciscan University Presents, Regis Martin and Scott Hahn said lovely things about an analysis on suffering that I’d written in my book Nudging Conversions. “Where did you steal that?“ Martin asked, with a smile on his face. 

Surprised by his question, I gave credit for the idea to the Holy Spirit. It was a framework I’d come to see suffering through over many years and sort of thought it was obvious. But as I learned from Martin and Hahn that day, it isn’t as obvious as I thought.

So, what is this vision of suffering? It basically divides all kinds of suffering into three categories: 1) suffering from self, 2) suffering for self, and 3) suffering for others. These three types of suffering also happen to map on to our understanding of hell, purgatory, and heaven.


Suffering From Self

The first kind, suffering-from-self, involves the pain of an individual who has no relationship with God. It is a kind of hell. The characteristic marks of this kind of suffering involve a lot of self-destruction, bad habits, and self-affliction. It is a suffering that by definition can never be fruitful or joyful, but remains self-absorbing and self-perpetuating. As I explained in the book:

As most of us have experienced, sin – any sin, but particularly mortal sin – is accompanied by some kind of pain. It can be seen in broken relationships, weakness of character, wounded offspring, addictions, etc… Regardless of our intentions, sin is going to hurt. The hurt is built right into the package on purpose. God allows the pain as a warning to us that something we are doing isn’t right, so even if the conscience fails, the pain should be a helpful clue. Suffering is God's meat tenderizer pounding out our hard hearts that have been turned to stone by pride, sin, indifference, vanity, etc… At some point, one hopes and prays, the soul will sit up and say: “Enough!”

Sadly, many do not say “enough” and the suffering-from-self ricochets and reverberates in the lives of all who are near – leaving even more grief, strife, and pain.


Suffering For Self

The second stage looks a lot like purgatory. It comes when the soul turns to God, but unlike the previous stage, this is where the pain is largely in atonement for sins. It is “suffering for self.” At this point, “offering it up” can actually be effective and spiritual growth happens. We can begin to see some purpose beyond our own destructiveness taking root. 

The reason for this type of suffering is simple: we must both make amends for that which we have broken, while also growing deeper in holiness. It is necessary step in our sanctification that cannot be skipped over. In the book, I explain:

In one form or another, reparation has to be made. Some of it may not be obvious, and there isn’t really a clear line to indicate that your penance is finished, but it is necessary to give back our daily sufferings – large or small – to repair that which we have broken (or left in ruins). This is not to say that prayers for others cannot be offered during this spiritual stage, just that the necessity of suffering for oneself still exists.

Romans 5:3-4 offers a further understanding of this penitential suffering: "We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope." Truly, this type of suffering is a key part of the journey toward spiritual maturity.

This also happens to be the stage where most of us get comfortable. We know we are sinners, but we aren’t quite ready to go in whole hog for suffering. In her gentle approach, however, the Church offers ways to get us used to making sacrifices through recommended fasts, tithing, almsgiving, and so on. These sorts of offerings slowly take deeper root, transforming our hardened hearts.

As I warn in the book, however, “regardless of our thoughts on suffering, the obstacles to our learning how to love will be roughed out somewhere, either on earth through our own efforts (and the Holy Spirit), or in Purgatory, where we can’t do anything to merit progress, but must rely upon the prayers and sacrifices of others.” It seems better to get it done here. So, if you have a hard time putting the needs of others before your own, increasing your sacrifices would be a good place to start. This is one of the advantages of parenthood where putting the needs of others is just part of the package.


Suffering For Others

The third stage is the more heavenly state of “suffering for others.” At this stage, the soul reaches a point where it understands that the key to joy and to fruitfulness for the world is in mimicking Christ’s own suffering poured out for others. “Suffering is a great grace” wrote St. Faustina. “[T]hrough suffering the soul becomes like the Savior; in suffering love becomes crystallized; the greater the suffering, the purer the love.” 

St. Thomas Aquinas puts a finer point on it by differentiated between the two types of suffering, namely, for self vs. for others. “The affection of charity,” the Angelic Doctor wrote, “in one who suffers on behalf of a friend makes greater satisfaction to God than if he suffered on behalf of himself; suffering for others is prompted by charity but suffering for self is prompted by necessity.”

A remarkable aspect of suffering-for-others is that it can have the appearance of hell to the causal onlooker, even though those who practice it are very near heaven. I once asked Fr. James Flanagan, the founder of the Society of Our Lady of the Trinity (SOLT), what he did when others betrayed him. His response: “I just get more joyful.” At the time, I found it a baffling response, but later came to realize why: there is a tight hinge linking suffering for others and joy. The greater the suffering, the greater the joy.

At this stage, there will also undoubtedly be suffering that mimics Christ’s trials, such as false accusations, ridicule, calumny, disdain, and so on. If we understand this balance of love, these are not signs of disfavor, but give the soul to a deeper resemblance to the Savior. 

Yes, suffering will always be challenging and difficult and these categories are not neat and tidy, but ebb and flow in our own lives. Perhaps the biggest obstacle is that we scarcely know the whole view of what our suffering can do on earth, but knowing that our pain has a purpose might make the trite Catholic saying, “offer it up” a little bit easier to execute.