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).
When I first read St. Paul’s words to the people of Colossae, I was stunned and I’m sure that I’m not alone. Is he actually stating that Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross was somehow incomplete? Did Paul have to suffer in order to somehow complete the Lord’s salvific mission at Calvary? Furthermore, what’s this about rejoicing in his sufferings? In order to better understand this confusing passage, let’s explore the Catholic teaching on redemptive suffering and its importance in our daily lives. After we’re finished, I think you’ll agree that it not only makes sense, but that it really is possible to “rejoice in our sufferings”.
Before anyone misinterprets St. Paul’s statement, let’s set the record straight. The Catholic Church teaches that the suffering of Christ has infinite value and was fully sufficient to cover all of our sins. In other words, He did His job completely. By dying on the Cross in atonement for our sins, Jesus made it possible for us to go to heaven – period! However, in His infinite wisdom and mercy, Christ allows all those incorporated into His Mystical Body (the Church) to suffer with Him and assist in the process of redemption. Fortunately for us, this very simplified explanation of redemptive suffering is all we need to know in order to take advantage of it!
As we explore the importance of offering up our suffering, it’s important to first acknowledge two facts:
1. Everyone has some form of suffering in their lives.
2. All earthly suffering is temporary and will come to an end.
One of the biggest mistakes we make is failing to recognize suffering in our daily lives. Sure, we can recognize the “big stuff” such as cancer, unemployment, broken relationships and death, but we often fail to recognize the “little things” such as remaining quiet when we feel like arguing, waiting in a long line at the grocery store, sitting in a traffic jam or performing a charitable act when we’d rather relax. By not identifying these minor inconveniences as forms of suffering, we miss many opportunities to offer them up.
When it comes to offering up these “little things”, few people were better than St. Therese of Lisieux. Rather than complain, she embraced small inconveniences and used them as a way to climb up on the Cross with Jesus. She understood that, by doing so, she was able to assist Him with the salvation of mankind. In the same way, Jesus calls all of us to join in His redemptive mission. We each have unique sufferings that only we can bring to the Cross.
In addition to small inconveniences, many people are suffering to a much greater degree. Unemployment, job dissatisfaction, loneliness, divorce and illness are a regular part of many lives. Despite prayers asking for relief, it may take days, months, years, or a lifetime for the suffering to disappear. How can we continue functioning when faced with days of misery and pain? I’ve discovered that a great way to make suffering more bearable is to remember that it will pass and to look at it as a gift. Now, before you accuse me of being out of my mind, let’s explore this a bit further. Every one of us owes Jesus a debt that we could not possibly repay. He died a painful and agonizing death on the Cross so that we could live forever in heaven. Without His sacrifice, this would not have been possible. Furthermore, His bloody sacrifice was necessary not for His sins…but for OUR sins! All of the sins (both venial and mortal) that we have committed (and continue to commit every day) are the cause of Our Lord’s painful death on the Cross. Doesn’t it seem right that we should do something to help Him? Shouldn’t we hurt a little bit also? Thanks to the gift of suffering in our lives, we can do just that. By accepting our suffering and offering it up, we are able to share in Christ’s pain…and His mission.
In addition to uniting our suffering to Christ’s, we should also remember to ask for His help. The Lord doesn’t expect us to carry our crosses alone and will provide the graces necessary for us to continue moving forward, even when it’s difficult. St. Paul was very aware of this when he penned the words, “for when I am weak, I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10). Sometimes we get caught in the trap of trying to suffer alone, thinking that asking for God’s help will decrease the effect of our sacrifice. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Our sacrifice lies in the fact that we are willingly offering up our suffering, not that we make it as painful as possible. If God wants to give us peace in the midst of suffering…let Him! The Lord knows that we can’t do it alone and provides us the needed graces through prayer and the reception of the sacraments. Not taking advantage of His help often borders on pride, thinking that we can do it by ourselves!
If you don’t have any major suffering in your life, be grateful and offer up the dozens of minor inconveniences that you experience throughout the day. If you do have major suffering in your life, take consolation in the fact that one day it will end. Until that day arrives, you have the great privilege of sharing in the redemptive suffering of Our Lord, Jesus Christ! Even though it seems illogical, we should strive to be thankful for the gift of suffering in our life and make use of it before it goes away. Since our suffering might end tomorrow (we might find a new job, meet that special “someone” or recover from our illness), why miss the chance to offer it up today while we still have it? By uniting our suffering to that of Christ, we can all win the crown of salvation and live with Him forever in a kingdom where there is no suffering or pain!
“Suffering is a great favor. Remember that everything soon comes to an end…and take courage. Think of how our gain is eternal” (St. Teresa of Avila).
(© 2011 Gary Zimak)