When Mother Teresa’s work in Calcutta, India was gaining fame in the 1970’s, she drew the attention of national news reporters. A reporter was interviewing Mother Teresa in the slums of Calcutta. In the morning, Mother Teresa told the reporter all about the joy of God. The secular reporter interpreted the “joy” St. Teresa was talking about as how one experiences joy in the modern culture – a nice, comfortable, exciting experience. The reporter was to follow St. Teresa around all day to write about her experience of joy. During this day, St. Teresa served the poorest of the poor in Calcutta. It was a long hot day of hard work in the slums in which they were exposed to some of the most horrifying images. Being exposed to contagious diseases, Mother Teresa herself got sick that day and threw-up a few times. While she was sick and tired, Mother Teresa was cleaning the wounds of a half-dead man as he laid in a pile of garbage. The exhausted and beaten reporter asked her, “Where is the joy in this?” Mother Teresa turned to the reporter and sternly said, “The joy is in doing God’s work.”
With this story, we see the dramatic difference of how the modern culture views joy as a pleasant experience and how the saints view joy – embracing pain and suffering so as to help save souls.
When it comes to suffering almost all people would agree that the best idea is to avoid it. Why do people take drugs? To relieve their pain. Why do people consume alcohol? To temporarily escape their problems and feel relaxed. Almost all of life is built around the idea for one to increase pleasurable, comfortable experiences and at the same time to eliminate suffering. However, when it comes to the lives of the saints, their motto is the exact opposite. Admittedly, the saints seem a bit bizarre on the surface. However, if we dig below the surface, there is profound wisdom in their idea to gravitate to suffering. So, why is it that the saints and the Catholic Church, in general, teach to truly live, you need to welcome suffering.
Where did St. Teresa and the Church get this crazy idea that to do God’s work is to embrace suffering? The answer is simple – Colossians 1: 24. Here, Paul declares, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I do my share on behalf of His body, which is the church, in filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.”
A lot his packed in this verse. First, notice Paul says rather matter-of-factly, “I rejoice in my sufferings.” Second, his sufferings have a point to it. His anguish is geared to “your sake” or the sake of the other. Third, by saying “I do my share,” he is indicating that his suffering is a sharing or participation in Christ’s work. Finally, he states that something is lacking in Jesus’ suffering. Does that mean Jesus didn’t suffer enough? No, Jesus suffering on the cross was enough for him to complete his work of salvation. What then is lacking in Christ’s afflictions? What is lacking is our participation in suffering with him. This fact is why there are numerous other suggestions throughout the New Testament that explain why we need to incorporate suffering as a necessary ingredient to live out the faith (see 2 Corinthians. 1: 6, 4: 17, 11:16-33, 12:7-10; Matthew 5: 10-12, 10:16-24, 38-39, 16: 24-25; John 16:33; Romans 5: 3, 8:17, 12:1; James 1:2-3; Acts 5:41; 1 Peter 1: 6-7, 2:19-21, 4:1-2, 12-14, 19; Philippians 1:21, 3:8-10, Hebrews 2:10).
The obvious question is why does God include pain and suffering as part of his ingredients to live out the faith? To fully unpack this, we need to back up to see the big picture of God’s plan. Recall, that once original sin entered the human scene in Eden, the result was pain and suffering in which man would experience “thorns and thistles” (see Genesis 3:16-19). Therefore, pain and suffer is the end effect of a bad cause – divorcing oneself away from God. However, as a good father typically does, God uses the very negative effect his children experience as a spring-board to be the cause to a new, positive effect.
Imagine that instead of holding his father’s hand in the parking lot, a child runs away from his father, and thus, experiences the scary consequence of cars coming at him. Any good father would then use this negative experience of the child as an opportunity to teach the child a valuable lesson – that being close to his father is where he needs to be. In this sense, the father uses the negative effect as now a positive cause that draws the child closer to him. Therefore, God uses human suffering (negative effect in Eden) as an instrument to draw his children closer to him. The divine formula outlined is that original sin = suffering, but now God transformed this equation to suffering = redemption.
The other reason that God uses suffering is because that love, itself, is attached to suffering. We can see this if we first comprehend that the focal point of love is the other, not the self. Paul indicates, love is “not self-seeking” (1 Corinthians 13: 5). Thomas Aquinas puts it more concretely when he wrote, “Love is to will the good of the other.” (Summa Theologica Vol. II 26, 4). Therefore, love is not concerned primarily about the self. Love is all geared to the other.
Indeed, the formula of love is that the self must endure pain to will the good of the other. In Mother Teresa’s noble peace speech, she said, “For love to be real it must hurt.” In fact, Jesus indicated that in love, the self would suffer to some degree in willing the good of the other. “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for the beloved” (John 15:13). Here, Jesus is implying that to love one must sacrifice himself in laying down oneself for the other. Almost every time the word “love” surfaces it is associated with self-sacrifice or suffering. Therefore, whenever you hear the word “sacrifice” or “give up” these terms practically go hand in hand with love.
For example, Jesus associates love with a sacrifice when he declared, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son” (John 3: 16). Here, Jesus links “love” with suffering in that God “gave up” his Son in a sacrificial manner. Indeed, the first time the word “love” appears in the Bible, it is associated with sacrifice and suffering. “Take your son, your only son, whom you love–Isaac–and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you” (Genesis 22:2).
We now begin to see that love and sacrifice are a package deal. The love-sacrifice connection is further implied when Paul wrote, “Husbands love your wives just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25). In Paul’s writing, we can pick up that love comes with sacrificing precisely by giving up oneself in some manner. The willing and the giving of love will necessarily involve sacrifice and hurt. Indeed, Jesus’ death on the cross displays both the act to will the good of the other and highlights how love requires sacrifice and pain. Therefore, where there is no sacrifice (i.e., suffering), there is no love. As the song by Nazareth declares rather pointedly, “Love Hurts.”
But, you don’t just suffer isolated apart from a purpose. It doesn’t make sense for a person to inflict suffering on himself to prove he can love. The suffering in love is geared for something. It has a point to it. This is why we hear the common phrase in the Church “to offer it up.” Much like Paul is suggesting in Colossians 1:24 that he suffers “for your sake.” So, Paul’s sufferings have a purpose to it. The point is to take your anguish (whatever it is) and unite it to Christ’s sufferings to do what he does – help save souls.
Here, we come to the key point that God wants us to participate in the work he does.
Like a great Father that cures all illnesses, God wants his children to also play a role in his healing process. Therefore, his work is a group effort, not because he needs help, but because he wants us to share in what he does (see Galatians 2:20, Hebrews 3:14, 6:4, 1 Peter 5:1, 1Corinthians 12:26, Ephesians 2:20-22, 3:6, Colossians 2: 12-13, Phillippians 1:5).
Much like John announced, “I, John fellow partaker” (Revelation 1:9) and Peter declared we are “partakers of the divine life” (2 Peter 1:4) and Paul as well made clear “for we are God’s co-workers” (1Corinthians 3:9), God wants to elevate his children up to his level to join him in his healing nature.
Like a Father who wants his children to learn the family business and actually do the family business, God very much wants his children to play a role in his family work – to save souls. So, what Christ experienced in his life, we his followers will experience (see Romans 6:1-8, 7:4, 8:29, Galatians 2:20, 3:27, John 15:20, 1 Corinthians 6:15).
Therefore, if Jesus experienced suffering to save souls, guess what? He wants us to experience suffering precisely to do what he does – save souls. No wonder Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34).
As members in the Church we are also connected to the mystically body of Christ. Jesus is poetically described as the head of the body while we are members of it (Col. 1:18, Eph 5:23, 1 Cor. 12:12-27). And just like the head suffered so to do all united members of the mystical body must suffer. As Jesus reminded us, “If they persecute me, they will persecute you” (John 15:20).
As God’s adopted children, we are asked to participate in his family business. Like it or not, one of the crucial aspects of the family business is to do what Jesus did – to save souls through suffering. In fact, the whole point of the Holy Spirit is to make us God’s children, and, in turn, to reproduce Jesus’ life and death in our lives (cf. Romans 8: 8-11, John 6: 62-63, 20: 17, Ephesians 2: 18-19, Titus 3: 4-7).
As Pope Pius XII penned, “The salvation of many depends on the prayers and voluntary penances which the members of the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ offer . . . as though they were His associates” (Mystici Corporis Christi, paragraph 44, see also CCC 1368).
As though they were his co-workers doing what he does – suffering and sacrificing to save souls.
Suffering is embedded in God’s work. As Jesus alluded to when he assured us that “Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness” (Matthew 5:10).
So, instead of viewing suffering as a horror, we can now view suffering as an honor because it unites us to Christ and allows us to play a role in God’s masterful work. This dramatic idea of uniting our sacrifices to Christ to do His work is boldly announced in the middle of the Mass when the priest says, “Pray sisters and brothers that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God, the almighty Father.”
What is further revealed about suffering is that it exists to also perfect our soul. Now, the idea of suffering to perfect one’s soul might cause people to scratch their head in confusion. However, this concept makes sense when we apply it to the body. If someone is overweight, the only way he or she can attain a near-perfect body is through suffering. The personal trainer’s workout in the gym is an unpleasant experience for an obese person. However, notice this suffering produces a positive effect in the long run – conversion into a healthy body. Given the light of human sin, our soul is analogous to an obese person’s body – it’s in bad shape. Therefore, just like the body experiences suffering to reach perfection so too does the soul experience suffering to achieve perfection.
This suffering = saving souls concept is why all the saints readily embraced suffering. The saints welcomed suffering not only to heal their souls but to participate in God’s work to heal other souls. St. Faustina experienced numerous mystical encounters in which she conversed with Jesus over several years. She compiled these conversations with Jesus throughout her diary. In her diary, one of the central messages Jesus conveys to her is to embrace suffering to help save souls. The following is a sample of what Jesus communicated to her:
“You are not living for yourself but for souls, and other souls will profit from your sufferings. Your prolonged suffering will give them the light and strength to accept My will.” (Diary no. 67).
“It is not for the success of a work, but for the suffering I give reward.” (Diary no. 90)
Today the Lord said to me, “I have need of your sufferings to rescue souls.” (Diary no. 1612)
“My daughter give Me souls. Know that is your mission, to win souls for Me by prayer and sacrifice, and by encouraging them to trust in My mercy.” (Diary no. 1690)
“Join your sufferings to my Passion and offer them to the heavenly Father for the salvation of sinners.” (Diary no.1032)
“You will save more souls through prayer and suffering than will a missionary through his teachings and sermons.” (Diary no. 1767)
“If the angels were capable of envy they would envy man for only two things: One is receiving Holy Communion and the other is suffering.” (Diary no. 1804)
Additionally, in probably the most extensive writing on the topic of suffering, Saint John Paul II wrote, “Christ sanctified suffering by making it a means to attain salvation through His love.”
Therefore, by God’s grace, through our suffering, we can be partners in God’s work of redemption. While this teaching is hard to hear, it actually produces good news. Because what it means is that your suffering is not pointless. It has a point – to help save souls. Now, we can view suffering in a whole new light. Whatever your current plight is (cancer, poverty, stress, loss of loved one, etc.) you can actually take it and use it for good by simply telling God that you unite your suffering to Christ’s suffering in order to save souls – your own and others.
While this teaching can be immensely helpful to people who suffer, sadly, we see how most use their suffering in the opposite direction. Rather than use it for the good of others, most use their suffering for small rewards of the self. Studies in psychology reveals that people often use their suffering for attention or personal gain. In other words, people turn their suffering inward towards their self so they can selfishly have the spotlight on themselves rather than using it to help others. We can see clear examples in which Jesus tells us not to play the self-pity or “woe is me” victim card. He, in fact, instructs those who suffer through fasting to not draw attention to themselves by keeping their appearance as if they aren’t suffering (see Matthew 6: 16-18).
The second someone uses their plight to draw attention to themselves for their own selfish directives, Jesus has left them.
Moreover, Jesus articulates that when you experience suffering in persecution you response is simply to welcome it – “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if anyone would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. (Matthew 5:39-41).
In today’s world too many people have been so compromised by the self-absorbed message of comfort and pleasure of the culture that they’ve become overly sensitive and emotionally unstable to handle even minor suffering. And since love involves the ability to suffer we now see that most people are really incapable to love authentically. What a sad state we find ourselves in today when people are so in love with themselves they can’t handle any suffering to love others.
However, by focusing in on the Church’s message to “offer it up” we can guide people to the knowledge of what suffering really means in the grand analysis and the good it can bring us.
Victor Frankl was an Austrian psychologist that survived the Nazi concentration camp. During the Holocaust, he experienced immense suffering. He later wrote in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear almost any how.” What Frankl was getting at is once a person knows why he is suffering he’ll be better able to handle his current plight.
This Catholic idea is profoundly helpful for people who experience suffering. Rather than reciting vague emotional platitudes to one who is suffering such as “we’re thinking about you” this teaching allows people to get a concrete answer to their suffering and provides them with the why of suffering which, in turn, allows them to deal with it in a heroic way.
The saints and apostles all suffered, Jesus himself suffered. If you’re seeking Christianity as a way to avoid any suffering, I hate to break it to you, but that would be like seeking a world-class personal trainer so your body can avoid being uncomfortable. There is a false disposition that Jesus suffered so we do not have to. Clearly, by all the verses cited above this is not the case. The prayer Jesus delivered didn’t say “deliver us from suffering.” Rather, we see in many examples that Jesus, in fact, called his followers to embrace pain and suffering. Therefore, Jesus didn’t come to remove suffering or simply help us through it, he came to transform it from bad to good precisely if we embrace it just as he embraced his cross.
While people might shriek and run away from this teaching, I hope they realize it actually helps us see the big picture. This means that your suffering has profound meaning and good embedded in it. You need not despair in your suffering as it can be used for a grand cause.
As Paul said, “So I ask you not to lose heart what I am suffering for you, which is your glory” (Ephesians 3:13). In other words, Paul is telling people, “Don’t worry about my problems, I’m uniting them to Christ suffering to save your souls.”
While enduring pain and suffering is incredibly challenging and mentally exhaustive, you are not alone. As a Catholic, you have access to the communion of saints, Christ in the Sacraments, and the Blessed Mother to guide you through your suffering. Remember, this is a family business, and the Father gives you a treasure trove of people and family heirlooms to do the hard work in the family business.
Suffering is built into everyday life. It seems to be particularly essential to the nature of humanity. However, instead of running away from it, because of what Jesus did and what St. Paul announces, you can use your own personal suffering for greater works – to participate in saving people’s soul. And the more you do this, the more you’ll see the joy St. Teresa was talking about.