How Should a Christian Respond to Suffering? Archbishop Sample Reflects

Suffering is a mystery, the archbishop of Portland said, but the Christian faith helps us understand that suffering does have purpose.

Rays of light from a stained glass window shine down on a crucifix inside a Catholic church.
Rays of light from a stained glass window shine down on a crucifix inside a Catholic church. (photo: Thanasos / Shutterstock)

 PORTLAND, Ore. — Archbishop Alexander Sample of Portland discussed the meaning of suffering — and how Catholics should respond to it — in a recent video reflection.

“We've been suffering through this pandemic. We're suffering through these terrible divisions in our country and the remnants of evils, such as racism [and] social unrest. Here in Oregon, we've had these terrible wildfires,” he said October 23 on his weekly video program, Chapel Chat.

“Even though we know suffering is always there, it's a little bit in our face right now more so perhaps than in the usual course of things. It's important for a Christian to understand the meaning of suffering.”

Suffering is a mystery, the archbishop said, but the Christian faith helps us understand that suffering does have purpose. He said the question of how an all-good and all-powerful God can allow suffering is particularly important to answer in today’s culture.

God did not create evil or suffering, the archbishop said. Rather, evil entered the world through the disobedience of Adam and Eve and brought with it suffering and damage to creation.

“This fallen world has resulted in alienation of the human person from nature even, and certainly that alienation between persons. So things like these natural disasters and diseases and those sorts of things that aren't the result of human action are part of a fallen world,” he said.

“That may be hard to kind of grasp, but it wasn't just human beings that were affected by that sin, but this perfect harmony and beauty and goodness that God put in his original creation, all of that has been wounded by that great sin of disobedience.”

But Christ’s sacrifice on the cross has reclaimed suffering and given it value, the archbishop continued. In Christ, suffering is given a new meaning and hope, and it is no longer void of purpose, as Christians can unite their suffering to that of Christ.

“This suffering has been redeemed by Christ ... Suffering has value. I know that sounds crazy to people, but Christ has given meaning to human suffering. It's no longer just an evil that has no purpose, no relation to anything else,” he said. “Now in Christ, it takes on a whole redemptive meaning because we now participate in the redemptive act of Christ.”

By participating in Christ’s passion, we are also able to join in his resurrection, Archbishop Sample said. He noted that Christ’s sufferings were not merely physical, but that he embraced spiritual suffering as well, as he shouldered the “total reality of sin, of evil, taking it to the cross.”

“Then this means that the weaknesses of all human sufferings are capable of being infused with the same power of God manifested in Christ's cross,” the archbishop said. “[T]o suffer means to become particularly susceptible, particularly open to the working of the salvific powers of God, offered to humanity in Christ. In him, God has confirmed his desire to act, especially through suffering.”

While this understanding does not remove suffering, Sample said, “it takes on a whole new meaning because we see it in the light of Christ's redemptive act.”

José Benlliure Ortiz, “Leaving Mass in Rocafort,” 1915

On Suffering and Hope and Forever

‘In the Eucharist the sacrifice of Christ becomes also the sacrifice of the members of his Body. The lives of the faithful, their praise, sufferings, prayer, and work, are united with those of Christ and with his total offering, and so acquire a new value. Christ’s sacrifice present on the altar makes it possible for all generations of Christians to be united with his offering.’ (CCC 1368)