It’s quite common in spiritual direction to hear someone say, “If God would just take away this cross, I would be a much better Christian.” Suffering impacts all of us to a greater or lesser degree such that, to live is to suffer. This is not to suggest that life can be reduced to suffering, but that suffering is a significant aspect of life. Hence, the real question is not so much “that” we suffer, but “how” we suffer. Our faith teaches us that suffering can simply be the endurance of pain or, united with the crucified and risen Christ, truly redemptive. In this respect, it’s a divine gift.
The gift of redemptive suffering, which exists for the good of our souls, doesn’t imply we shouldn’t try to alleviate suffering beginning with prayer. Recall how Jesus, before entering into his Passion, prayed: “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will (Mt 26:39).”
Our Lord’s prayer in the garden expressed a twofold desire – one rooted in the reality of the present and the other trusting in a promise of the future. Jesus knew what lay before him and, being fully human and fully divine, understood the suffering he would endure. At the very same time and in the very same prayer, he surrendered his will to the Father, recognizing that, despite the reality of the moment, despite his sufferings, there was something bigger at stake, the salvation of the world.
For us, the acceptance of this kind of suffering is nothing less than an exercise of discipleship which requires us to pick up our cross and follow Jesus daily (Lk 9:23). Accomplished with the aid of grace, it enables us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling(Phil 2:12), bearing witness to the One who bore witness to us.
When we intentionally unite our sufferings with Jesus, when we consciously offer up our imperfect sacrifice with his perfect sacrifice, suffering moves beyond the mere endurance of pain. If we allow it, it can become a true path to holiness enabling God to heal us through our woundedness. More a process than an event, we begin to see, perhaps ever-so-slowly at first, that our suffering isn’t a curse, but a gift. It’s not an impediment to intimate union with our Lord, but a means to draw so close to us that, in our suffering, his loving presence brings about the deepest kind of healing.
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