This is sort of a follow-up to my last post, and it is based on Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Letter, Salvifici Doloris, which literally means “salvific suffering,” but the document in English usually is rendered: “On the Christian meaning of human suffering.” It is a kind of extended commentary on St Paul’s enigmatic saying: “In my flesh I complete what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ, for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col. 1:24), though its scope is wider.
Recently I read an article by a Christian woman (non-Catholic) who has suffered for many years with several painful and debilitating conditions. Her faith and courage and acceptance of God’s will were quite admirable, but I looked in vain for any evidence that she was aware that she could do good for other souls by offering her sufferings to God in union with the Passion of Jesus. Even though this is a biblical idea (championed especially by St Paul), most Bible-only Christians don’t seem to get it. Bishop Sheen used to lament, as he would drive by hospitals, over all the “wasted suffering” of those who didn’t realize that there was meaning and spiritual value in their sufferings, if they would but offer them to the Lord.
In the Old Testament, suffering was usually regarded as a divine punishment. Thus it was mainly understood within the concept of justice. All suffering is in some way related to sin, at least to the fact that sin has entered the world, and with sin entered suffering and death. Therefore it was natural to look for guilt in the midst of suffering, as its likely cause. The Book of Job questioned this, for it broached the subject of innocent suffering and so opened the door to a broader understanding of the mystery. Suffering isn’t always a matter of justice, then, or punishment, and it can have a deeper meaning in the wisdom and providence of God.
Even suffering that is some sort of divine chastisement can still have some meaning beyond sheer retribution, for as the Pope writes, “it creates the possibility of rebuilding goodness in the subject who suffers.” That is, if the divine punishment is received as a call to repentance, evil can be overcome and the relationship with God restored and given the potential for further growth.
The specifically Christian meaning of suffering, however, comes from the mystery of the sufferings of Christ. He took the sin of the world upon Himself, thus enduring incomprehensibly vast and deep suffering, in order to redeem the world. He alone truly suffered “punishment” for innocent suffering, but this was part of his loving sacrifice to the Father for the salvation of the world.
Where, then, do we come in? Are we mere uninvolved bystanders in the great mystery of salvation? What was St Paul talking about when he said that in his own flesh he made up what was lacking in Christ’s sufferings, for the sake of his body, the Church? Being members of Christ’s Body is not a mere metaphor, so the very fact that Christ is the Head and we are the members of his Body means that we are included, incorporated in the mystery of who He is and what He has done.
Pope John Paul II writes: “In bringing about the Redemption through suffering, Christ has also raised human suffering to the level of the Redemption. Thus each man, in his suffering, can also become a sharer in the redemptive suffering of Christ… Each one is also called to share in that suffering through which the Redemption was accomplished. He is called to share in that suffering through which all human suffering has also been redeemed.”
Through Christ’s sufferings on our behalf, then, suffering not only has acquired a profound meaning, but it also serves a purpose. “Completing” Christ’s sufferings through our own, as St Paul wrote, does not mean that there was anything defective in Christ’s sacrifice for our salvation. His sacrifice, in itself, was perfect and sufficient for the redemption of the world. But our “completing what is lacking” means, at least in part, that we accept and take our place within the Lord’s Mystical Body as full members, united to Him in everything, including his redemptive suffering. There something lacking in the fullness of his Body—not in the efficacy of his sacrifice—if we do not bring our own sufferings into union with his, for Christ wants all suffering to be taken up into his own, so that He can sanctify it and make it spiritually fruitful. The “completing what is lacking”, in a mysterious way which St Paul does not fully explain, is for the sake of others, for the good of the other members of Christ’s Body, the Church.
Several times in the Scriptures we hear about sharing in Christ’s sufferings (e.g. Phil. 3:10; 1Peter 4:13). St Paul even goes so far as to say that we carry in our own bodies the death of Jesus (2Cor. 4:10). Again, these are not mere metaphors. But in order to share in the sufferings of Christ, the writers of the New Testament don’t mean we have to be physically crucified or crowned with thorns. Therefore it must mean that through our own sufferings, which have been ennobled by Christ’s, we share in the spiritual essence, the meaning and purpose of his sufferings, and hence to some extent in their redemptive value. If this were not so, then our sufferings could do nothing for the other members of the Body, but St Paul says they can.
In a similar way, that is what happens at the Divine Liturgy or Mass. We don’t have to go to the geographical Golgotha; no one has to be nailed to a cross; Christ offered his bloody sacrifice once for all. But the essential reality, the grace and power of his sacrifice, are made present by the working of the Holy Spirit and the consecrating words of the Lord, which the priests always say because of his command: “Do this in memory of me.” We receive the fruits of his Sacrifice in Holy Communion, for Jesus also told us to eat his Body and drink his Blood if we want to have life within us and be raised up on the Last Day (Jn. 6:51-58).
To share in Christ’s sufferings, especially for the sake of others, “means that the weaknesses of all human sufferings are capable of being infused with the same power of God manifested in Christ’s Cross. In such a concept, to suffer means to become particularly susceptible, particularly open to the working of the salvific powers of God, offered to humanity in Christ. In him God has confirmed his desire to act especially through suffering, which is man’s weakness and emptying of self, and he wishes to make his power known precisely in this weakness and emptying of self.” It is not merely suffering as such that unites us to Christ’s redemptive Passion, but suffering that is offered in faith and love. “The Redemption, accomplished through satisfactory love, remains always open to all love expressed in human suffering… Christ opened himself from the beginning to every human suffering, and constantly does so… this Redemption, even though it was completely achieved by Christ’s suffering, lives on and in its own special way develops in the history of man. It lives and develops as the body of Christ, the Church, and in this dimension every human suffering, by reason of the loving union with Christ, ‘completes’ the suffering of Christ.”
The Pope goes on to describe other elements of the mystery, such as how suffering matures us and hence prepares us for entry into the Kingdom, how it draws us interiorly close to the Lord, and how it produces compassion in us for the suffering of others.
I’ve just given a brief overview here; you would do well to read the entire document, which you can find here. The mystery of suffering is always one that makes us ask, “why?” But Christ has illuminated that question with his sacrificial obedience to the Father’s will, and He has thus invested our suffering with a significance and spiritual fruitfulness it could never have had if He hadn’t accepted suffering as the means to redeem us. As members of his Body, we are invited by Him to share in the mystery of his own life and mission, and our sufferings can now be means of obtaining grace for other souls, other members of the Body, who may be in need. In a spiritual sense we are to be “Good Samaritans” who can minister to others by the offering of our own sufferings.
This fruitfulness of sharing in the efficacy of Christ’s sufferings by uniting ours to his, for the good of others, was a great discovery for St Paul, and this realization filled him with joy. That is why he said: “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s sufferings for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” We may not quite be ready yet to rejoice in suffering, but at least we know now that there’s a good reason for it.