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  • Lizzie Self

Suffering as an Exercise of Faith

In his encyclical Salvifici Doloris, St. Pope John Paul II writes that suffering is “essential to the nature of man” and “co-exists with him in the world.” Suffering, John Paul II says, shows “that depth which is proper to man, and in its own way surpasses it.” The pain of suffering, attributable to our worldly condition and fallen nature, hints at that in us which is unworldly and holy. We are "destined," John Paul II writes, to transcend ourselves in a mysterious way.

In accepting suffering, we come to terms with one of the hardest facts of our existence. In listening to suffering, which C.S. Lewis calls God’s microphone to a deaf world, we arise from drudgery restored in His divine life. We can understand suffering as a force for good, a sanctifier, a way to fall more in love with God made Man.

Why Do We Suffer and Why Does it Intimidate Us?

John Paul II writes that God expects us to ask why we suffer, and so He responds clearly that suffering, as a call to recognize divine mercy, is a force for conversion. Just as “the purpose of penance is to overcome evil [and] strengthen goodness both in man himself and in his relationships with others and especially with God,” so too all forms of suffering work to detach us from worldly things and reattach us to Christ’s side.

Our response to suffering as Christians is very important, as John Paul II calls suffering an indicator of “the deepest need of the heart: the imperative of faith.” While most people agree that suffering inspires compassion, John Paul II also argues that it intimidates. Why does suffering intimidate? The mysterious imperative of faith. John Paul II calls us to overcome fear and take seriously the importance of faith, because no amount of reasoning can do its work, and man in his suffering always “remains an intangible mystery.”

How Does Suffering Strengthen Us?

With faith, suffering brings people together in a unique way. Under the operation of faith, suffering unites, humbles, and encourages us to ask whom we serve when we suffer. In Holy Scripture we read that suffering is the bench-press that strengthens us for communion with God:

"For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Cor 4:17).

If we do not invite God to “spot us” as we suffer, we will likely be crushed by the weight. “But if at the same time in this [our] weakness there is accomplished His lifting up,” we become infused with the power of the Cross. John Paul II reiterates that God “wishes to make his power known precisely in this weakness and emptying of self.” He desires to be our strength.

You Were Made for This.

When we are actively engaged in suffering, it becomes a powerful virtue that defends our dignity: “the individual unleashes hope, which maintains in him the conviction that suffering will not get the better of him.” In offering our struggles to God and allowing Him to carry our crosses with us, suffering is no longer an obstacle to the lives we want and we’re more aware of the sanctity to which He calls us. While the world tells us to seek comfort and serve ourselves, the Church helps every person “rediscover the ‘soul’ which he thought he had ‘lost’ because of suffering.”

We need to “work out” to know our own strength and to see the dignity of every human person. Our dignity is rooted in our potential for sharing Christ’s strength. There is great joy in knowing that God asks us only to do what we are capable of: "If any man would come after me... let him take up his cross daily. ''

The Stakes are High.

John Paul II reminds us that “the way that leads to the Kingdom of heaven is ‘hard and narrow,’” and so we need to undertake difficult, penitential work for our souls. We shouldn’t be surprised that we confront evil in our daily lives, as Christ told his disciples that they could depend on the fact that they would “meet with much persecution, something which—as we know—happened not only in the first centuries of the Church's life under the Roman Empire, but also came true in various historical periods and in other parts of the world, and still does even in our own time.”

We can take comfort in the ranks of saints that went before us into conflict. Their martyrdom, their faith, their willingness to accept suffering may seem far beyond what we can handle. And while it is true we might never enter a gladiator ring or be tied to a stake, we should not expect an easy out. The strength of the saints can be ours, if we too set our eyes on Christ and allow love to consume our fear.

The Healthy Athlete

We support all the good God is working in the world when we suffer in faith. Each of us can become a “completely new person. He discovers a new dimension, as it were, of his entire life and vocation.” Of course, not everyone is called to serve as a missionary in other countries, and as a matter of fact all of our earthly bodies will fail us sooner or later. In this weakness too we can be a witness to the eternal life we share with God. When we’re incapable of acting independently and must graciously allow others to support us, “all the more do interior maturity and spiritual greatness become evident, constituting a touching lesson to those who are healthy and normal.”

Jumpstarting the Exercise

Who wouldn’t be interested in “overcoming the sense of the uselessness of suffering?” While we can trust that our suffering is not useless, looking to the world for validation of its usefulness will only feed this feeling that “not only consumes the person interiorly, but seems to make him a burden to others.” The salvific meaning of suffering with Christ recapitulates this experience, though we have to decide daily if we will listen to the world or Christ.

We can hold fast the “certainty that the suffering person ‘completes what is lacking in Christ's afflictions’ (Col 1:24); the certainty that in the spiritual dimension of the work of Redemption he is serving, like Christ, the salvation of his brothers and sisters. Therefore he is carrying out an irreplaceable service.”

Call to Action

Let us look forward to rediscovering our own sufferings through faith; it may very well change everything. John Paul II addresses each of us in the encyclical’s final proclamation of hope:

“We ask precisely you who are weak to become a source of strength for the Church and humanity. In the terrible battle between the forces of good and evil, revealed to our eyes by our modern world, may your suffering in union with the Cross of Christ be victorious!”

Lizzie is a junior in the Program of Liberal Studies while also majoring in theology and minoring in Constitutional Studies at the University of Notre Dame. She hails from Arizona, where her love for hiking and horseback riding were fostered. She enjoys exploring different liturgies, reading about Mariology, political realism, and virtue ethics, and strolling about campus to take in the subtle beauty of the Midwest.

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