Humility can only take root in the heart through humiliations. Without them, there is no humility or holiness. If you are unable to suffer and offer up a few humiliations, you are not humble and you are not on the path to holiness. The holiness that God bestows on his Church comes through the humiliation of his Son. He is the way. Humiliation makes you resemble Jesus; it is an unavoidable aspect of the imitation of Christ.  –  Pope Francis, Gaudete et Exsultate

Suffering is a sign that we are not yet at our destination. We know God did not create us to suffer; he gave us everything we could ever want. In Genesis, we are born into a lush garden full of good things to eat and are given dominion over the whole world. The world is at peace.

However, with sin comes pain. It is the mental and spiritual pain of guilt and shame. The physical pain of hard labor, working in the fields, and the pain of childbirth. The pain of death. The story of Genesis illustrates that for many the sufferings of this world were too hard to bear and humanity quickly fell into all sorts of wickedness, including murder, deceit, and debauchery.

In a perfect act of love, the Word of God became man to save us. God could have saved us in any number of ways, but in his infinite love he chose the path that would result in the most excruciating pain and suffering–mental, spiritual, and physical. Jesus would be tried and tempted. His friends would abandon him. He would be flayed and pierced. And he died arguably on one of the most gruesome instruments of torture that humanity has ever devised. Pope Benedict cites St. Bernard of Clairvaux, saying that God cannot suffer, but he did “suffer with” us, in our most human weaknesses, even death.

Jesus, knowing that he was going to die in this way, tells his disciples (and us) that they too must take up their cross. In this same narrative, Peter rejects what Jesus has to say: “This will never happen to you!” And here Jesus reveals the crux of what it means to suffer: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” Suffering, the kind Jesus will experience, the kind that is part of what it means to be holy, is the result of setting our minds on God in the midst of sin. It means bearing what we must for the sake of the Kingdom of God. We do not seek it out. We do not desire it. But it is unavoidable.

God does not directly will our suffering. It is a product of the fall and a sign of how distant we remain from God.  Pope Benedict XVI, in his encyclical Spe Salvi, reminds us that we “must do whatever we can to reduce suffering: to avoid as far as possible the suffering of the innocent; to soothe pain; to give assistance in overcoming mental suffering.” Suffering is not a good.

At the same time, we can say that the devil doesn’t want us to suffer either. The devil is not a creature who wants us to feel constant pain. Really, he wants us to be comfortable. In the desert, he wanted to give a hungry Jesus bread and the power to be a most benevolent king. He wants our bellies to be full. He wants our bank accounts overflowing. He wants us to be satiated with anything and everything–except for God.

Of course, the Devil knows that trying to satisfy our need for the infinite God with the finite material comforts and attractions of this world will inevitably result in excess. Our things will consume us. They will crush us and defeat us, and the Devil will have won.

And so, as we climb our own hill bearing our own cross, we will experience suffering. Our false attachments will afflict us, our friends and family will abandon us, we may even suffer great physical pain and suffering doing what is good, as Mother Teresa has and as the martyrs have. But it is a suffering that reveals our hope in the Kingdom. It is a hope that gives us strength to keep going, “hope that gives us the courage to place ourselves on the side of good even in seemingly hopeless situations.”   We suffer, not because we want to suffer, but because it is unavoidable, as we travel through this world of sin and make our way to heaven.

Pope Benedict XVI writes: “We can try to limit suffering, to fight against it, but we cannot eliminate it. It is when we attempt to avoid suffering by withdrawing from anything that might involve hurt, when we try to spare ourselves the effort and pain of pursuing truth, love, and goodness, that we drift into a life of emptiness, in which there may be almost no pain, but the dark sensation of meaninglessness and abandonment is all the greater.”

In more specific terms, the Church’s teaching on various matters might be the cause of suffering. Strictly speaking, the teachings do not cause suffering inasmuch as they reveal where we might still be attached to sin or the ways of this world. Even more tragically, the suffering we experience trying to live by the Church’s teachings may, in fact, have nothing to do with us and our own personal sin, but is merely a product of our “finitude,” as Pope Benedict puts it. We live in a world that, in many ways, reflects the “mass of sin which has accumulated over the course of history.” Still, when the Church teaches, it is not because it will be easy to follow but because it is good for us.

As Pope Benedict says, “It is not by sidestepping or fleeing from suffering that we are healed, but rather by our capacity for accepting it, maturing through it and finding meaning through union with Christ, who suffered with infinite love.”

To the extent that anyone of us suffers, we have a Christian responsibility to help. No one can be holy and not suffer. Even if one has been freed from all earthly attachments, even if one has everything provided for them, even if the effect of sin in the world do not touch them personally, they must still suffer. For in holiness, we “share in the same gaze of Jesus”, says Pope Francis in Lumen Fidei. We share in the gaze of Jesus who bears our pain and suffering on the cross. Our path of holiness, therefore, must include the suffering of others. Just as Christ suffered with us, so we must suffer with others.

Pope Benedict writes, “To suffer with the other and for others; to suffer for the sake of truth and justice; to suffer out of love and in order to become a person who truly loves—these are fundamental elements of humanity, and to abandon them would destroy man himself.”

The Church is in great need of holy people who are able to suffer with others on their journeys. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that much of the scandal we are dealing with in the Church today is a direct result of individuals who were unwilling to suffer, who were unwilling to lay down their lives for the sake of truth and justice.  In many others ways, our local Churches need “ordinary” holy people too. Our parishes need them. In “com-passion” with others, each of us can help others find a way through their individual pain and suffering, in the hope that Jesus will heal all pain and suffering in his Kingdom.

 

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5 Responses

  1. Peter Aiello says:

    1Peter 5:5-7 tells us to “be clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble. Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time, Casting all of your care upon him; for he careth for you.”
    This defines humility toward God that brings holiness. It is a simple as casting all of our care on the Lord and being anxious for nothing (see also Philippians 4:6-7).

    • Christopher Lake says:

      Peter, I am curious as to your quoting of that verse in commenting on an article about suffering and holiness. Do you disagree with the article’s thesis that suffering, for Christians, is part of what leads us to holiness? In your understanding of Scripture, is there a role that suffering plays in our sanctification?

      Certainly, I do see Scripture telling us that humility, and casting all of our cares on the Lord, are *important parts* of our becoming holy. However, Scripture also states that Jesus Himself, the Son of God, humanly speaking. learned obedience through suffering. If we truly take up our crosses, as Scripture exhorts us to do, will we not also, as Christ’s followers, learn obedience through suffering?

  2. Christopher Lake says:

    This is a thoughtful and helpful piece, and I would agree with almost all of it. It resonates, largely because I’ve been through quite a bit of pain and trauma, both physically and emotionally, in 45 years. Without going into a very great amount of painful details, I was born with the disability of Cerebral Palsy, was raised in a fairly traumatic household, and, later, was psychologically/emotionally brutalized by some of the very people to whom I went for help (sadly, there are some sick people who are “credentialed professionals” in mental health).

    The one detail in this article where I would differ is in the assertion that Satan doesn’t want us to suffer. I think, with some personal experience, that Satan finds a very dark pleasure in the manipulation of *any* situation to potentially turn our hearts away from God– whether that experience is one of personal comfort or deep suffering. He is the one who comes to steal, kill, and destroy, any way that he can. (God has won the war, but Satan definitely still tries to win battles!)

    If Satan can play a part in lulling us to spiritual sleep, or death, with hedonistic materialism (with our cooperation), he will. If he can influence us to turn away from God, out of resentment, or rage, or perhaps, bewilderment, over terrible suffering, then he will certainly try.

    From what I can tell, Satan loves personal comfort *and* personal suffering, as long as either one can be manipulated to turn us away from light and toward darkness. On both counts, I have been there. Thanks to God and His grace, I have not *remained* there.

    • Daniel Amiri Daniel Amiri says:

      Thank you for your thoughts here. I agree with the distinctions you have made with my piece. A fuller treatment would definitely include facets along the lines of what you suggested. I think here I was speaking too much from my own personal experience. Maybe got carried away with the rhetoric some… Thanks again.

      • Christopher Lake says:

        Thanks for replying and for the helpful article, Daniel! It’s one that I will be turning to again in the future when suffering comes. It’s good to be periodically reminded that we are here in this life to become like Christ, and not simply to feel easy, hedonistic pleasure all, or most, of the time.

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