What Does it Mean to Love Suffering?

The true love of God necessarily includes the love of suffering.

St. Thérèse of Lisieux
St. Thérèse of Lisieux (photo: Office de Lisieux, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

I was reading a book on predestination by Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange when I ran across a statement that opened up a new perspective on love and suffering. He explains that we as Catholics do not believe in assurance of salvation, i.e., we cannot know for sure that we are among the elect outside of a special revelation. But there are certain signs that give evidence of election. Among those signs, Garrigou-Lagrange mentions the love of suffering. That seemed like a strange thing, that someone could love suffering, let alone the fact that this is a sign of sanctity and election. Strange as it was, there also seemed to be something right in what he said, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.

What does it mean to love suffering?

I began to pray over this question, and I began to pray that God would grant me the love of suffering, whatever that might mean, if it really were a good thing.

A few months passed, and I found myself at a men’s day of reflection with the Community of the Friars of the Renewal (CFRs) in Newark. I resolved to ask one of the priests there about my question if I had the chance. At the beginning of the lunch break, I saw Fr. John-Mary alone, and I pounced on him.

“What can you tell me about the role of suffering in the spiritual life?”

We sat down, and he pointed me primarily to the Cross where Jesus suffered and died for us out of love. True love is willing to suffer, and true love transforms suffering. Even suffering has been redeemed by the Cross. By embracing our suffering and uniting it to the suffering of Jesus on the Cross, our suffering now also has spiritual value. St. Paul wrote that he rejoiced in his suffering as he filled up what was lacking in Christ’s suffering (Colossians 1:24). As Christ’s body, the suffering that is lacking is the suffering ordained for us to endure, suffering that is valuable because of Christ’s suffering.

It was a lot to take in. Of course, I had meditated on the Cross and the love of God before, but this was a new angle. It was more mysterious. It was more jarring.

As I sat in the chapel during Eucharistic Adoration later that day, I looked at Jesus in the Eucharist, and I thought about this role of suffering and love. Everyone suffers. Many other criminals were crucified during the Roman Empire’s reign. What was it about Christ’s suffering that gave it so much power? It was his love. His love was so deep and so intense that the shame and horror of the cross was transformed into the redemption of the world. I realized that the love of suffering is really an application of true love. What will a man mad with love not do for his beloved? But of what value is any action if it is not animated by love? If I do not have love, I am nothing (1 Corinthians 13:3). Those who love suffering do not love suffering in itself. That is madness. They love suffering because of its redemptive value; they love suffering because they are consumed with love. God could not grant me the love of suffering as an isolated virtue; but the true love of God necessarily includes the love of suffering.

The primacy of love applies to all the other virtues as well. If I am impatient with my children and ask God for patience, I am asking for the second thing first. Patience not powered by love is not as effective or enduring as patience that is an overflow of love. An increase in love is necessarily followed by an increase in all the other virtues, and love will unite all the other virtues.

As I have continued to pray and read, I have found this relationship between love and suffering confirmed in other places. St. Thérèse of Lisieux demonstrates the love of suffering in her endurance of a painful disease and even in the small annoyances of everyday life. St. Francis de Sales writes eloquently about love and suffering in his Treatise on the Love of God. St. Francis of Assisi experienced the relationship between love and suffering in a unique way with the stigmata and showed that suffering is not only spiritually valuable for ourselves and others but also that it is a profound way of encountering Christ. All suffering is a kind of stigmata by which we identify with Christ and encounter Him.

And so I continue to pray that God will teach me the love of suffering. The implication in the prayer, though, is that God will produce in me a love for Him so strong that I would embrace all suffering for Him. I keep a Crucifix nearby whenever I can because I know that the Cross is the source and exemplar of this love for me.