Christians, above all other men, should know the mysterious meaning of suffering. Too often, however, popular Christian theology and music is incapable of dealing with suffering, promising instead a magical peace, happiness, and better you. But just as a good story can’t be told without conflict or tension, the good news of Jesus Christ can’t be told without suffering.
So crucial is suffering is to God’s revelation of Himself and His love that we might even dare to speak of “The Gospel of Suffering.”
While suffering is often seen as a reason to reject the existence of a good and loving God, a study of God’s revelation of Himself in the Holy Scriptures yields 3 incredible, transformative insights, which, together, constitute “The Gospel of Suffering.”
- That far from being a sign of God’s non-existence, apathy, or impotence, human suffering is transformed by Christ’s Incarnation into a sign of God’s presence, love, and power.
- That because Christ has become man and suffered to redeem man, suffering is a primary means of participating in God’s nature and being united to Him.
- That as Christians partake of Christ and His suffering, their own suffering is transformed by God into glory and joy.
Hear then, the Gospel of Suffering.
I. Far from being a sign and symbol of God’s non-existence, apathy, or impotence, human suffering is transformed by Christ’s Incarnation into a sign of God’s presence, love, and power.
Many people have honest questions about human suffering. However, many assume that suffering is a proof that God doesn’t exist or is not good or powerful enough to do something about human suffering. But God does exist, He is loving and good, and He has powerfully done something about human suffering.
And what He has done is to send His Son into the world to take on human nature, suffer for us, and redeem this suffering. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).
When sin, evil, and suffering entered into the world, God did not sit idly by and watch His children suffer. In the fullness of time, God the Father decisively entered into human suffering and showed His Fatherly love by sending His Son to take on human nature and its suffering, redeem human nature, and restore it to union with Him.
In assuming human nature in order to redeem it, God revealed His essential goodness. God is, indeed, very good - so good that His nature is always to take evil and transform it into good. As Joseph told his brothers, whose evil had caused him so much suffering: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Genesis 50:20).
Christ suffered for us, that we might be united to God and experience the joy of God’s presence once more. Everything that Jesus did as the Christ, He accomplished as the prophesied Suffering Servant who suffered whenever He deprived Himself of the good things that were rightfully His. He experienced every genus of human suffering and truly suffered when He:
- Emptied Himself and took the form of a helpless, infant human
- Was homeless and hungry, tired and poor
- Was tried and condemned unjustly
- Endured mocking, spitting, hitting, and scourging
- Was rejected, betrayed, and abandoned by His countrymen and closest friends
- Died an excruciating death
Jesus Christ endured and took upon Himself all human suffering: He suffered and died to redeem every bit of human suffering.
Suffering, therefore, is how we see Jesus, for it is how He has revealed Himself to us. If you want to see God the Father and know His kingdom, power, glory, and love – then look at Jesus Christ, who is the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15). For Jesus says, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). When we see the Suffering Servant, we are seeing the face of God, the glory of the invisible God made visible in the anguished visage of Christ, the Son.
The Father’s love has a form, and that form is Jesus Christ, the Son. The Son’s love has a shape, and its shape is that of suffering. Christ’s suffering, therefore, is a sign of the presence of God in His power and love.
The Crucifixion of Christ, the incarnate God, is the worst thing man has ever done.
But the Crucifixion of Christ is the best thing God has ever done.
What man means for evil and which causes suffering, God means for good and transforms to glory and joy.
And what does this Cross lead to for the human nature of Christ? St. Paul says that Christ “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow” (Philippians 2:8-10).
Because the Son obediently offered Himself as a sacrifice for the sins and suffering of mankind, God the Father exalted Him to glory. By His suffering and death, the Suffering Servant has established His everlasting Kingdom and dethroned the usurpers – sin, death, and Satan. What Satan meant as a way of humiliating and harming Christ, the Father meant as a way of glorifying Christ and exalting His human nature to His right hand, where glory and joy abound forevermore.
Far from being a sign of God’s non-existence, apathy, or impotence, human suffering is transformed by Christ’s Incarnation into a sacrament of God’s presence, love, and power.
II. Because Christ has become man and suffered to redeem man, suffering is a primary means of participating in God’s nature and being united to Him.
So closely has God come to man that St. Peter teaches that we have become partakers of the divine nature (2 Peter 2:14). Jesus shares this new, “divinized” human nature with the Church, who partakes of Christ and has a blessed union with Him. The Church is called “The Body of Christ,” for Christ is truly in us through His Spirit. We have become “one flesh” with Him so that we are not only the Body of Christ but also his Holy Bride.
After Jesus’ human nature ascended into heaven in Acts 1, He sent His Holy Spirit into His Body to make it the living Body of Christ on earth. All throughout the book of Acts, therefore, the Church teaches and does what Jesus taught and did, since Jesus is living in and through the Church.
When the Church in the book of Acts and the Church today (for the Church is one) suffer, they suffer as Jesus Christ. The language Jesus uses when He called St. Paul on the road to Damascus is striking: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” (Acts 9:4.) So closely does Jesus identify with His Body and Bride the Church that even though Saul is persecuting the Church, Jesus ask Saul why he’s persecuting Him. The Church, therefore, as the Body of Christ and in union with Christ, suffers for, with, and as Jesus Christ.
We are especially united to Jesus Christ and His suffering through the sacrament of Baptism. St. Paul teaches: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Romans 5:3-5.)
But when we are united to Christ in Baptism, we are united to all of Christ: first His suffering, then His death, and then His Resurrection and Ascension. Recapitulating the life of Christ, we suffer afflictions, and trials which then ultimately lead to glory and joy. For this reason Peter teaches: “But rejoice insofar as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:13).
At your baptism, the sign of Christ and His suffering was place upon you in the shape of the Cross, which also represents the Name of the Holy Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. At your baptism, Christ shared His Cross with you and has bound you to Him by it.
Because we are spiritually and mystically united to Christ, we will suffer as His Body. The suffering of the Church is, therefore, a sign that she belongs to Jesus Christ. We might even say that suffering is a sacrament of God’s presence. When the Church suffers for Jesus Christ, it must be because the Lord who suffered for us is very near.
The suffering of the Church is sacramental because it is a true participation in Christ and His sufferings. Our suffering is Christ’s suffering, and His suffering is our suffering. His Cross is our cross, and our crosses are His.
When we suffer, as members of His suffering Body, we each carry with us a splinter of the One True Cross. Unlike the medieval forgeries of the splinters of the Cross, however, each Christian who suffers is carrying a holy relic, a splinter of the suffering of Christ on the Cross.God’s blessed and mighty redemption for us is, therefore, something He not only does for us but through us, for we are the Body of Christ, and God has made us partakers of His nature and redemption.
If God’ redemption were simply something He did to us, we’d be rocks.
If His redemption were something He did for us, we’d be children.
If God’s redemption were something He did with us, we’d be men.
But since God’s redemption is something He does through us, we are members of Christ’s Body.
Because of this, the Church also suffers as Christ, united to Him as His Body.
Many Christians believe that their suffering doesn’t count – that somehow the suffering that “counts” is only the suffering of those who are persecuted for Christ’s sake. But Christ has come to redeem all of our suffering, and all of our suffering is united to Christ by His suffering.
There is no suffering so small that it doesn’t count. All Christian suffering counts and is being redeemed by Christ!
Because Christ has become man and suffered to redeem man, suffering is a primary means of participating in God’s nature and being united to Him.
III. As Christians partake of Christ and His suffering, their own suffering is now not only humiliating and painful but also transformed by God into joy and blessing.
Christ’s suffering, therefore, is a sign of God’s power and love and is a means by which Christians are united to the life of Christ. But the final amazing act of grace has yet to be revealed, for God has promised that those who partake of Christ’s suffering also partake of His glory and joy.
God’s promises to transform suffering into glory and joy are so incredibly wonderful that we might not believe them, had not God clearly revealed them to us in His Word. St. Paul reveals the Gospel of Suffering when he writes: “Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (Romans 5:3-4. See also Matthew 5:10; Colossian 1:24, James 1:2-4, and 1 Peter 4:13.)
Having united Himself to His Body, the Church, Jesus Christ continues to live His redemptive life through us. His life, therefore, is the pattern for ours, both individually and corporately. Only after the humiliation of God becoming man, the degradation of being born a helpless infant in a beast’s feeding trough, and the deprivation of suffering and dying, was Christ raised to glory (see Philippians 2.) In fact, it was because Jesus obediently suffered in love that He, in His human nature, was raised to the glory of the Father. “But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death” (Hebrews 2:9).
Perhaps the most beautiful and surprising thing of all is that Christ’s glory and reign began at the very moment when it looked like He was most humiliated and lost: at the Cross. At the Cross, Jesus was raised up and exalted, and the Cross became a Tree of Life. Thus, the Cross is the sum and symbol of God’s transformation of evil into good and suffering into glory.
Since Christians are truly united to Jesus, through suffering, Christians are to live in a state of joy. The suffering doesn’t magically go away, but its meaning and effect in our lives are transformed. What was once humiliating and painful is now joyful and blessed.
How can this be? Because suffering unites us to God, and being united to God is the end of man and the source of all true joy.
Now you know why Paul and Silas were singing for joy at midnight when they sat, mildewing in a Roman jail in Philippi: they knew that they have been counted worthy to partake of Christ’s sufferings. They knew that by their suffering, they were united to their Lord. Now we know why we, too, can rejoice with James in trials and tribulations: by them, we partake of Christ and His nature and character.
We rejoice because suffering is the World’s Greatest Mnemonic Device, which reminds us of God and His goodness. For while we tend to forget God when things are good and hallucinate that we are gods, suffering evaporates our mirages of self and reminds us of who we are. Being deprived, poor, and needy, remind us better than anything else that are, and forever will be, dependent on God and His mercy. Every pang of suffering in your life is God’s reminder to remember Him and turn to Him.
Suffering is also the Angel (“messenger”) of the Lord, announcing that God is very near. If suffering proclaims that we share in the fellowship of Christ’s suffering, it also trumpets that we are truly in the presence of the resurrected, glorified Christ. And, therefore, we rejoice!
It’s no wonder, then, that Christians see God especially in their suffering. It’s no wonder that we often most deeply experience God and His love in our suffering, and not when things appear to be going well.
This Mnemonics of Suffering, as we may call it, is embodied for us in the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper. We remember Jesus Christ every time we partake of Him in His Supper, for the best way to remember someone is to have that Person present before you.
The Lord’s Supper, or Holy Communion, is a partaking of the sacrifice of Christ, including not only His death but also His suffering. But the Holy Communion cannot be a partaking of the suffering and death of Christ without also being a partaking of His Resurrection. Truly partaking of the crucified Christ in the Holy Communion, we receive as well the very life of Christ and are raised to glory with Him. Truly partaking of the Bread of Life and Living Water at the Wedding Feast of the Lamb, we rejoice with exceedingly great joy!
We rejoice, finally, because suffering is the Measure of God and Man. The immense sufferings of Christ are a measure of man’s sins, for with His suffering and death Christ paid for the sins of the whole world.But suffering is also, therefore, a measure of the magnitude of God’s mercy. For as great as our sins are, God’s goodness and love are even greater. Suffering is also a measure of the size of the glory to come. For, St. Paul teaches, “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18).
Far from being a sign of God’s non-existence, apathy, or impotence, human suffering is transformed by Christ’s Incarnation into a sign of God’s presence, love, and power. Because God united Himself in Christ to man and his suffering, suffering is now a means of union with Christ and participating in God’s nature. Because Christians partake of Christ and His suffering, their own suffering is now transformed by God into joy and blessing.