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Note: what I have written in each Appendix is my own opinion, and not an attempt to represent Church dogma or doctrine.

Catholic Apologetics


Suffering


 

The Basis

In Isaiah Chapters 50-53 we hear the story of the suffering servant, which was a prophesy of Jesus. It is a good idea to read it all, but I will highlight some of it here as it pertains to our topic:

Is 50:5-6 - I did not refuse, did not turn away. I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who tore out my beard; My face I did not hide from insults and spitting.

 
Is 52:13-14 - See, my servant shall prosper, he shall be raised high and greatly exalted. Even as many were amazed at him—-so marred were his features, beyond that of mortals his appearance, beyond that of human beings.

 
Is 53:3-7 - He was spurned and avoided by men, a man of suffering, knowing pain, Like one from whom you turn your face, spurned, and we held him in no esteem. Yet it was our pain that he bore, our sufferings he endured. We thought of him as stricken, struck down by God and afflicted, But he was pierced for our sins, crushed for our iniquity. He bore the punishment that makes us whole, by his wounds we were healed. We had all gone astray like sheep, all following our own way; But the LORD laid upon him the guilt of us all. Though harshly treated, he submitted and did not open his mouth; Like a lamb led to slaughter or a sheep silent before shearers, he did not open his mouth.

 
Is 53:8-10 - Seized and condemned, he was taken away. Who would have thought any more of his destiny? For he was cut off from the land of the living, struck for the sins of his people. He was given a grave among the wicked, a burial place with evildoers, Though he had done no wrong, nor was deceit found in his mouth. But it was the LORD’s will to crush him with pain. By making his life as a reparation offering, he shall see his offspring, shall lengthen his days, and the LORD’s will shall be accomplished through him.

Several hundred years before Jesus walked the Earth, Isaiah prophesied about His suffering. All of this came true.

    We learn several things about suffering from these verses.
     
  1. Jesus did not run from His suffering. He did not refuse, did not turn away, gave His back to be whipped. Like a lamb led to slaughter, He did not utter a word.
  2. Jesus' suffering was severe. His features were so marred, He did not resemble a human being. He knew pain in a way few of us ever do.
  3. Jews of the day thought of Him as struck down by God. To die on a cross was proof in their eyes.
  4. He bore the suffering for our sakes. Our guilt was laid upon Him.
  5. He did nothing wrong, nothing to deserve the suffering.
  6. It was God's will that He suffer. God had a greater plan in mind. Jesus' life was a reparation offering, and God's greater will was accomplished through Him.

In Matthew Chapter 26, Mark Chapter 14 and Luke Chapter 22 we hear of Jesus' agony in the Garden. All three versions are in accord in that Jesus was deeply distressed, and prayed that God relieve Him of His (pending) suffering, but that Jesus knew He should do not His will, but the will of God.

Paul considered Jesus' suffering to be an example for us all. Jesus showed the way we must follow, and set the bar higher than any of us would ever have to go. Let's look at how Paul and other New Testament writers addressed suffering.

Phil 3:8-11 - For his sake I have accepted the loss of all things and I consider them so much rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having any righteousness of my own based on the law but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God, depending on faith to know him and the power of his resurrection and (the) sharing of his sufferings by being conformed to his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

What is Paul talking about here? He is explaining to the Philippians how he used to be a good Pharisee, but for Christ's sake he accepted the loss of all Earthly things. Then he goes on to state he obtains his righteousness from, among other things, sharing in Christ's sufferings and being conformed to his death. What does he mean by this? He doesn't feel the need to explain himself; he assumes his readers know and understand this concept of sharing Christ's sufferings.

Rom 8:16-18 - The Spirit itself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if only we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us.

There he goes again. It sounds like "no pain no gain". Paul clearly states we are heirs and joint heirs with Christ under the proviso we suffer. He qualifies the message by assuring us the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared to the glory revealed for us. In other words, a little suffering now will pay big dividends for eternity.

This introduces the notion that all Christians can expect to suffer. Not only can they expect it, but they should embrace it. That is not to say one should seek opportunities to suffer, nor should one suffer needlessly. It is only to say if suffering is unavoidable, recognize it as an opportunity to be a joint heir with Christ in joining your sufferings with His. Offer-up your suffering in conformity with Jesus. The Catholic Church accepts this Biblical truth, many other Christian faiths do not.

There are, however, a great number of Protestants who eschew the concept of suffering at all. They rationalize a good and loving God would not require that of His children, and Catholics endure suffering needlessly. Catholics hold that suffering and Penance go hand in hand. Let's look at what else the Bible has to say about it.

Matt 16:24-25 - Then Jesus said to his disciples, "Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

Mark 8:34-35 - He summoned the crowd with his disciples and said to them, "Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it."

Luke 9:23 - Then he said to all, "If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me."

If you want to follow Jesus, you must first take up your cross. Jesus knows his audience understands what it means to 'take up your cross', but to emphasize the point, He goes on to explain it includes suffering to the point of death for His sake. And the reward for accepting this suffering is significant.

1 Cor 1:18 - The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

Those who eschew suffering do not accept the message of the cross. It is foolishness to them. If you do not accept the message of the cross, you are one of these people.

Col 1:24 - Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church.

Many Protestants have a hard time with this verse. Many read over it and move on; many try to explain it away without acknowledging what Paul clearly states. Paul says he rejoices in his sufferings. For those who espouse the concept that if you have enough faith, there is no need to suffer, then Paul is admitting he does not have enough faith. For those who rationalize that God would not require suffering of any of His disciples, then Paul would seem to be excluded from discipleship. But, if you read it in the plain sense of how it is written, Paul seems to say he is suffering for the sake of his audience, and that is a good thing.

But the next statement is even harder to understand for Protestants. Paul seems to be saying his sufferings are filling up what is lacking in Christ's afflictions. What could be lacking in Christ's afflictions? Did Jesus not suffer enough? Should He have hung just a little longer on the cross? After all, just before He breathed His last, Jesus said "it is finished".

Consider that Jesus said we must take up our crosses; consider that Paul states we must share in His sufferings. It was understood by early Christians that everyone must go through this hardship. Then consider that Paul states his sufferings help fill up what is lacking in Christ's sufferings. Paul is stating those who should be sharing in Christ's sufferings are failing to do so, and he (Paul, a member of the Body of Christ) is helping make up for that. It's not that Jesus didn't suffer enough, it's that other members of the Body of Christ are failing to embrace suffering. That is what is lacking. The Body of Christ is lacking in acceptance of suffering. Paul emphasized this by saying "on behalf of his body, which is the church".

Now consider that when Jesus said "it is finished", that means sacrificing Himself for the sins of mankind is complete. The Ressurection is all that remains to complete the redemptive act. Now we need only to apply that redemption by sharing in Christ's life and death, as explained above. Now Paul's words in Col 1:24 make perfect sense.

1 Pet 2:21 - For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his footsteps.

Christ is not lacking in suffering; we are lacking in following His example. This also implies we are to embrace suffering, in this case unjust suffering, as Jesus did.

1 Cor 12:20-26 - But as it is, there are many parts, yet one body. ... God has so constructed the body as to give greater honor to a part that is without it, so that there may be no division in the body, but that the parts may have the same concern for one another. If (one) part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy.

Within the Body of Christ, if one suffers, all suffer, and we support one another in that suffering. If you experience suffering, you are better equipped to encourage others when they suffer. God wants us to support each other, to lift each other up. There is a benefit to willingly accepting suffering.

There are a small number of Protestants who adhere to the "name it and claim it" theology, whereby if one has enough faith, they can claim anything. If you have enough faith, and you are running a fever, you can just name the fever, and claim you are not suffering from it, and it will be gone, almost as if it were only a figment of your imagination. If you have enough faith, and you are paralyzed, you can name it and claim you are not paralyzed, and it will be gone. If the suffering lingers, you must continue to claim it, because it means you do not yet have enough faith to make it happen. This flies in the face of the verses above. This is a bogus theology.

2 Cor 1:3-11 - Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and God of all encouragement, who encourages us in our every affliction, so that we may be able to encourage those who are in any affliction with the encouragement with which we ourselves are encouraged by God. For as Christ’s sufferings overflow to us, so through Christ does our encouragement also overflow. If we are afflicted, it is for your encouragement and salvation; if we are encouraged, it is for your encouragement, which enables you to endure the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for you is firm, for we know that as you share in the sufferings, you also share in the encouragement.
 
We do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction that came to us in the province of Asia; we were utterly weighed down beyond our strength, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, we had accepted within ourselves the sentence of death, that we might trust not in ourselves but in God who raises the dead. He rescued us from such great danger of death, and he will continue to rescue us; in him we have put our hope [that] he will also rescue us again, as you help us with prayer, so that thanks may be given by many on our behalf for the gift granted us through the prayers of many.

This doesn't sound like a "name it and claim it" theology. This doesn't sound like God would not allow suffering of His children. Paul states God is the father of compassion. There is a reason for suffering, and God doesn't keep us from it.

Paul says, the Word of God says, God encourages us in our every affliction. God doesn't always heal us of our afflictions, sometimes/oftentimes He has a greater plan in mind. Christ's sufferings overflow to us; this is why Paul stated previously that he is "filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body". Paul states if we are afflicted, it is for our salvation. Paul doesn't say suffering is evil--he says we should embrace it. And Paul states another reason why this is so--because when we are afflicted, we trust not in ourselves, but in God.

Phil 1:29,30 - For to you has been granted, for the sake of Christ, not only to believe in him but also to suffer for him. Yours is the same struggle as you saw in me and now hear about me.

Paul tells the Philippians that they were not only to believe in Jesus, but also to suffer for Him, and suffer the same struggle as Paul.

2 Cor 12:7-10 - Therefore, that I might not become too elated, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, an angel of Satan, to beat me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me, but he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness." I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong.

The plain reading of this verse tells us Paul was suffering from an infliction. He prayed that God would remove the suffering from him, but God responded that "power is made perfect in weakness". The Bible says that God says that power is made perfect in weakness. Through weakness we become strong. Thus Paul stopped praying to remove his suffering, and was not only content with being weak, but boasted most gladly of his weaknesses, knowing in turn that would make his strong. God said so and Paul believed Him.

Heb 12:1-14 - Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith. For the sake of the joy that lay before him he endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God. Consider how he endured such opposition from sinners, in order that you may not grow weary and lose heart. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood.
 
You have also forgotten the exhortation addressed to you as sons: "My son, do not disdain the discipline of the Lord or lose heart when reproved by him; for whom the Lord loves, he disciplines; he scourges every son he acknowledges." Endure your trials as "discipline"; God treats you as sons. For what "son" is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are without discipline, in which all have shared, you are not sons but bastards. Besides this, we have had our earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them. Should we not (then) submit all the more to the Father of spirits and live? They disciplined us for a short time as seemed right to them, but he does so for our benefit, in order that we may share his holiness. At the time, all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain, yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it.

Paul says, the Word of God says, for the sake of joy, Jesus endured suffering. In the previous verse, we saw that Paul endured suffering as a discipline to make him strong. The theme is repeated here where Paul points out that we all are children of God, and God will discipline us for our own benefit. Paul says to endure your trials as discipline and rejoice that God loves you enough to encourage us to share in His holiness.

Rom 5:3-5 - Not only that, but we even boast of our afflictions, knowing that affliction produces endurance, and endurance, proven character, and proven character, hope, and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the holy Spirit that has been given to us.

Paul explains why suffering can be good for us, as it is good for the entire Body of Christ. God told Paul that there is power in weakness, and Paul therefore finds power in general suffering.

Jas 1:2-4 - Consider it all joy, my brothers, when you encounter various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. And let perseverance be perfect, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

When you encounter trials, that produces perseverance, and when perseverance is perfect, you are perfect.

Gal 6:2 - Bear one another's burdens, and so you will fulfill the law of Christ.

Not only are we to embrace our own suffering, we should bear each other's suffering.

1 Cor 10:13 - No trial has come to you but what is human. God is faithful and will not let you be tried beyond your strength; but with the trial he will also provide a way out, so that you may be able to bear it.

God will not allow you to suffer more than you can bear. If you suffer a great deal, God knows of your hardship, and He knows you can handle it.

Jesus Relieved Suffering

If suffering is beneficial, why did Jesus spend so much of His early ministry healing the sick and raising the dead? To answer that question, we might take it to its logical conclusion--if suffering is bad, and Jesus had any compassion at all, why did He not heal everyone when He had the chance? For that matter, why doesn't God heal everyone now?

Suffering does have benefits as shown above. Jesus was not trying to turn us all into masochists. We are not to seek suffering, only accept it when it cannot be avoided. Jesus had compassion for the sick, and showed us we should have compassion also. (It also helped gain the attention of the masses so they would believe in Him and His message.)

It can be said that suffering is the result of experiencing something evil. Whether it is self-inflicted or brought about by others, we suffer because something is wrong. You cannot escape wrong doing on Earth-this is the testing ground for becoming righteous. To become righteous, you have to repent from all that is unrighteous, which means you have to suffer the consequences of your unrighteousness, whether it affects you or someone else. We need to recognize this and seek how good can come from all suffering.

Suffering Is Not Necessarily a Punishment for Sin

While it is true that suffering has a meaning as punishment when it is connected with a fault, it is not true that all suffering is a consequence of a fault and has the nature of a punishment. Reference the entire Book of Job.

It is true that God punished the Nation of Israel on many occasions for their incessant breaking of the covenant. It would be easy to draw the correlation that God would punish individuals for their sins as well. But, is all suffering a punishment? Jesus addressed this.

John 9:1-5 - As he passed by he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him. We have to do the works of the one who sent me while it is day. Night is coming when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

The Apostles expressed the common feeling of the day--that sin caused the man's blindness. Jesus said otherwise. He explained that the man's suffering was an opportunity for everyone to see the works of God. This holds true for all suffering even today. It each instance is an opportunity to learn a lesson, grow closer to God, and through accepting the suffering in a Christ-like manner, everyone sees the works of God.

Luke 13:1-5 - At that time some people who were present there told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with the blood of their sacrifices. He said to them in reply, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were greater sinners than all other Galileans? By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did! Or those eighteen people who were killed when the tower at Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem? By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!”

Twice in the verses above Jesus emphasizes that suffering is not necessarily caused by sin.

Matt 5:45 - ... for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus preached love of enemy since God loves all. God's blessings are not withheld from sinners.

But Suffering Is a Consequence of Sin

There must be consequences for sin, otherwise there would not be the experience obtained from lessons learned, and no true repentence of the sin.

When we sin, we suffer ourselves. If we lie or steal, we feel guilt. If we indulge in sexual perversions, we contract diseases. If we cheat, we never learn. There are consequences we experience ourselves for our sins.

When we sin, we cause others to suffer. If we lie, we hurt those who believe us and those we offend. If we steal, we hurt the true owners and the rest of us suffer from increased security requirements placed on us. If we commit rape, or murder, or mutilation, or other sins against people, we hurt the victims and the rest of us suffer from increased fears for our friends and loved ones. If we cheat, we gain an undeserved and unfair advantage over those who are honest. Others suffer the consequences for our sins.

If there were no consequence for ourselves or others, many if not all of us would continue sinning. We would easily rationalize doing it one more time since it hurts no one.

Parting Comment

Suffering is to be avoided, but if it comes, it is to be embraced. We become Christ-like when we take up our crosses daily and endure suffering. When we, as members of the Body of Christ, endure suffering, we are filling what is lacking in Christ's afflictions. We see that suffering, in and of itself, can be a good thing, and not something reserved for the weak in faith.

For a Catholic perspective on suffering outside of Scripture itself, see SALVIFICI DOLORIS, an Apostolic Letter of Pope John Paul II. Great reading! Here is a brief excerpt:

¶4. ...Human suffering evokes compassion; it also evokes respect, and in its own way it intimidates. For in suffering is contained the greatness of a specific mystery. This special respect for every form of human suffering must be set at the beginning of what will be expressed here later by the deepest need of the heart, and also by the deep imperative of faith. About the theme of suffering these two reasons seem to draw particularly close to each other and to become one: the need of the heart commands us to overcome fear, and the imperative of faith-formulated, for example, in the words of Saint Paul quoted at the beginning-provides the content, in the name of which and by virtue of which we dare to touch what appears in every man so intangible: for man, in his suffering, remains an intangible mystery.

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