As a pregnant mother approaching the arrival of our newborn baby, I know, as any mother does, that I am going to face the suffering of labor and childbirth. There is great anticipation as we await meeting our newborn daughter face-to-face, but I know that to get there, there is going to be some pain. Love and life, as it turns out, go hand-in-hand with suffering.
Something that has been particularly helpful as I approach the birth of our baby is the Church’s understanding of suffering with Christ and joining with Him in redemptive suffering. When we suffer—whether physically, emotionally, or spiritually—we get to join our suffering with the suffering of Christ and offer it up for the conversion of sinners. We get to cooperate with the grace God gives us in suffering that He may offer His grace into the life of another—even the grace of conversion. As Christians, we are not to shy away from suffering, but to take whatever suffering He places upon us and give it back to Him to use as He sees fit. The gift of suffering was emphasized in a class I took from the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation. We do not get to choose what crosses we will bear, but we do get to choose what we will do with the crosses placed upon us. We must change our understanding of suffering—in whatever form it may take—and thank God for the gift of suffering, as suffering truly joins us to Christ and conforms us to Him. We become Christ when we suffer willingly and offer our life with His, as part of His Body, for the redemption of the world.
St. Paul writes in his letter to the Colossians, “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” (1:24). Jesus’ sacrifice is no doubt the perfect sacrifice, but what Paul refers to here is that we join in Christ’s sufferings for the good of the Church. God offers us a chance to participate in redemptive suffering. The Catechism of the Catholic Church reads:
The cross is the unique sacrifice of Christ, the “one mediator between God and men.” But because in his incarnate divine person He has in some way united Himself to every man, “the possibility of being made partners, in a way known to God, in the paschal mystery” is offered to all men… In fact Jesus desires to associate with his redeeming sacrifice those who were to be its first beneficiaries. This is achieved supremely in the case of his mother, who was associated more intimately than any other person in the mystery of his redemptive suffering. (618)
As ones who are joined to Christ in His Body, we actually get to suffer in and with Christ. Our suffering matters not only because it joins us to Jesus, but because, with Jesus and with Mary, we suffer for the life of the world. If we let pain come willingly as from the hand of God, we can ask God to use that pain for the redemption of another. We can ask Him for the grace to suffer well, and with that suffering we experience, for Him to bring new life to another.
All too often, my response to suffering of any kind is to complain. It is an instant response, like a reflex. Trying to change my response is quite difficult, because I can be so reactionary. But with prayer and time and lots of grace, I hope I can change my response to suffering to be one of gratitude. I pray that with every pang, I remember that it is for life that I suffer, and out of love offer it to God to do what he wills. I pray He will purify my suffering and bring new life into the kingdom with the grace of conversion.
Suffering is not unknown to God. He knows what to do with our suffering; we simply need to offer it all to Him.