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:
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Jews of the day thought of Him as struck down by God. To die on a cross was proof in their eyes.
- He bore the suffering for our sakes. Our guilt was laid upon Him.
- He did nothing wrong, nothing to deserve the suffering.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
When you encounter trials, that produces perseverance, and when perseverance is perfect, you are perfect.
Not only are we to embrace our own suffering, we should bear each other's suffering.
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.
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. In 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.
Twice in the verses above Jesus emphasizes that suffering is not necessarily caused by sin.
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.
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:
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