By Will Duquette
When I was rather younger, and attending an evangelically-flavored Episcopal parish, I participated in a program called Evangelism Explosion. In a nutshell, EE was a program to train parishioners to go door-to-door presenting the gospel; it involved memorizing dozens of pertinent scripture references (we had flash cards) and a detailed outline of a presentation of the Gospel, culminating in an invitation to give your life to Jesus.
One part of the presentation was a personal testimony about the wonderful effects of becoming a Christian. It was supposed to have this flavor: Before I was a Christian, I had problems X, Y, and Z. And then I came to know Christ, and now I have blessings A, B, and C instead. It was the sort of pitch that would work just as well for a floor wax as for the resurrected Son of God. Mind you, it was possible to define X, Y, and Z as real spiritual problems, and A, B, and C as real spiritual blessings; but the tendency was otherwise, it seemed to me even then.
It wasn’t until I became a Catholic that I really saw what was wrong with this kind of testimony: it makes it sound like becoming a Christian will always make your life better right now, in just the same worldly way that buying a new appliance or a better kind of deodorant will make your life better.
But Christ nowhere promises us a comfortable and easy life. On the contrary. He promises us eternal bliss in Heaven, but here on Earth he promises us the Cross and the Crown of Thorns.
Consider a member of the ISIS forces in the middle east. Suppose that such a man were visited by the Lord in a vision, as St. Paul was, and asked, “Ahmed, Ahmed, why are you persecuting me?” And suppose he responded as St. Paul did. The remainder of his (possibly quite brief) life would no doubt be filled with interest, but I doubt it could be called “comfortable” or “easy”. But Ahmed would be crowned with a martyr’s crown in Heaven.
Pope Francis speaks of this kind of Christian suffering in paragraph 56 of Lumen Fidei.
Writing to the Christians of Corinth about his sufferings and tribulations, Saint Paul links his faith to his preaching of the Gospel. In himself he sees fulfilled the passage of Scripture which reads: “I believed, and so I spoke” (2 Cor 4:13). The reference is to a verse of Psalm 116, in which the psalmist exclaims: “I kept my faith, even when I said, ‘I am greatly afflicted’” (v. 10). To speak of faith often involves speaking of painful testing, yet it is precisely in such testing that Paul sees the most convincing proclamation of the Gospel, for it is in weakness and suffering that we discover God’s power which triumphs over our weakness and suffering. The apostle himself experienced a dying which would become life for Christians (cf. 2 Cor 4:7-12). In the hour of trial faith brings light, while suffering and weakness make it evident that “we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord” (2 Cor 4:5). The eleventh chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews concludes with a reference to those who suffered for their faith (cf. Heb 11:35-38); outstanding among these was Moses, who suffered abuse for the Christ (cf. v. 26).Christians know that suffering cannot be eliminated, yet it can have meaning and become an act of love and entrustment into the hands of God who does not abandon us; in this way it can serve as a moment of growth in faith and love. By contemplating Christ’s union with the Father even at the height of his sufferings on the cross (cf. Mk 15:34), Christians learn to share in the same gaze of Jesus. Even death is illumined and can be experienced as the ultimate call to faith, the ultimate “Go forth from your land” (Gen 12:1), the ultimate “Come!” spoken by the Father, to whom we abandon ourselves in the confidence that he will keep us steadfast even in our final passage.
(My emphasis.) Indeed, suffering cannot be eliminated; it goes hand in hand with the decision to love. Any attempt to eliminate all suffering in my life leads to my isolation, and the cutting off of all ties of love, and ultimately an eternity of loneliness, bitterness, and despair.
But personal suffering can be embraced, and offered up, and become redemptive. Paul said,
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church… (Col 1:24)
Mind you, I’m not advocating needless suffering. If you’re suffering due to a cause that’s fixable, by all means fix it. (For example, I do not suggest you stay with an abusive partner just because it’s an opportunity for redemptive suffering. Prudence applies.)
Christ died, once for all, and his sacrifice suffices; but of his grace and generosity he allows us to participate in his sacrifice. Without this, our suffering is meaningless; with it, we are participating in the salvation of the world. Glory to God!