Fr. Joseph Byerley used scripture, St. Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic letter on the meaning of human suffering and practical examples to answer the age old question of why God allows good people to suffer.
I will attempt to give a summary of his talk here, but will preface that this is just a summary and does not do justice to the clarity, depth and beauty of his talk.
He started by defining the word Redemption, meaning to buy back or ransom. Human suffering, when united with Christ’s, can remit punishment due to sin, which differs from forgiveness. Divine justice requires that the original goodness, existing prior to the offense, must be restored. We may be forgiven of our sins, but there is still damage which must be repaired. The classic example of a boy breaking a window, exemplifies that although he may be forgiven, the window must still be fixed. That reparation comes at a cost. Sin is always an offense against God. To offend an infinite God is an infinite offense; thus perfect justice requires an infinite punishment or an infinite redemption. CHRIST LITERALLY BUYS US BACK from eternal punishment.
But, if Christ’s sacrifice was eternally redemptive, why does St. Paul say, “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.” Col. 1:24
The answer is below, but first, What is the goal or purpose of punishment? There are two primary goals. The first is to promote growth, while the second is to make reparation or to restore back to original beauty.
Sin is the ultimate cause of all suffering. The sin of Adam and Eve disrupted the harmony between God, man and creation. This sin and each of our sins is the cause of all suffering. In some cases the suffering is a direct result of a specific sin. For example, if you drink too much, you will suffer a hangover as a result of your action of drinking. But often times, suffering is not directly related to personal sin. For example disease, accidents and natural disasters are not directly connected to personal sin.
When we have to suffer, yet see no connection to sin, our first response is “Why God?!” John Paul II in his Apostolic letter on human suffering elaborates on Job’s suffering. Job was completely innocent, yet his neighbors blamed him for his suffering.The story of Job prefigures the suffering of innocent Jesus. In Jesus, we see that Divine love is the ultimate source of all meaning. The meaning of suffering is found in Christ crucified.
To understand this, we must first define love. Simply stated, love is the giving of self. Love always requires some cost. It always requires sacrifice. Father shared a theoretical example of receiving a call at 3:00 in the morning from a friend needing a ride. Love requires us to get out of bed and go out of our comfort to pick up that friend, regardless of how we feel. Love is not the emotion. We won’t feel like getting out of bed, however the important part is our active choice. There should always be a connection between love and suffering. Jesus’ suffering in love, conquered suffering. The cross is right in the middle between suffering and love. Suffering is a result of sin in the world…suffering by itself is never good, but when it is consumed in love, it becomes redemptive.
Father then went on to explain, “In the midst of our suffering and especially in our daily prayers, we must ask Our Lord for a heart that understands the value of suffering in love, so that when suffering comes our way, we can see that as an opportunity to take away its meaninglessness. To understand that, there on the cross of infinite love, Jesus is pouring out, still today, the power of the redemption of the world, and that our place is right there with Him. And that we are with Him. And can be with Him. And that we mean something to Him, being there with Him. That He wants us there. And we have a positive effect on the redemption of the world through our embracing of our suffering. This should be our prayer everyday, that we receive that grace.”
“Since we are called to participate in the life of Christ, then we are also invited to participate in redemption, even our own redemption. We are invited to be partakers of the Sacrifice of Christ.” “We are called to participate in the Sacrifice of Christ as we live our daily lives…Faith in sharing in the suffering of Christ, brings with it the interior certainty that the suffering person completes what is lacking in Christ’s affliction.””It is suffering more than anything else which clears the way for the grace which transforms the human soul.” – John Paul II
Offering up our suffering is not psychological. It is a real and true participation in the loving sacrifice of Christ that earned our redemption. We participate in that.
John Paul II said, “Thus to share in the sufferings of Christ is at the same time to suffer for the Kingdom of God. In the eyes of the just God, before his judgement, those who share in the suffering of Christ become worthy of His kingdom….Christ has led us into His kingdom through His suffering, and also through suffering, those surrounded by the mystery of Christ’s redemption, become mature enough to enter into His kingdom.”
“It’s not that redemption is not complete. We know that redemption is complete, but we say that redemption is also continually open to all love that is expressed through human suffering.” Suffering can be offered up for others as an act of love. But as St. Catherine of Siena said, we must not go out looking for suffering, as in and of itself, it is not good. Enough is sent our way, without searching it out. Only when it is consumed in love, can it be converted to good. So as we offer up our suffering, remember what St. Augustine said, “A general derives no joy from vanquishing a weak enemy.”
Further reading: John Paul II’s encyclical on human suffering.