Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The Call of the Gospel: Suffering

Perhaps you would rather read about love, joy, and peace, but suffering is also part of the call of the Gospel. In a sense, it is actually the highest form of love, for if one can have a profound peace and even joy in the midst of suffering, then one’s love has been purified of all self-interest, superficiality, and desire for emotional fulfillment. The price you’re willing to pay is the measure of the depth of your love.

In case you’re not convinced that suffering is really part of the call of the Gospel (have you ever heard people say that Jesus suffered so that we don’t have to?), let’s look at a few examples. “One is approved if, mindful of God, he endures pain while suffering unjustly… For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps” (1Peter 2:19-21). Evidently, then, Jesus suffered not so that we don’t have to, but as an example that we should follow! Those who love the Lord and understand something of the mystery of the Cross even desire to share in his sufferings, which both manifested his everlasting love and brought salvation to the world. “…that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10-11).

St Paul several times speaks of actually rejoicing in his sufferings, either as a means of growing in virtue (Romans 5:3-5; see also James 1:2-3) or as an offering for the good of the Church (Colossians 1:24). He also made it a condition for our future glory: we are “heirs of God and fellow heirs of Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:17). Now, we may not yet have attained the level of spiritual maturity at which we can rejoice in sufferings, but we ought at least to accept them without complaint and make an offering of them to God in union with Jesus’ sufferings on the Cross. To accept the inevitable is perhaps not the highest virtue, but it is certainly better than raging against it! You surely have experienced that in this life suffering is inevitable. “Do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal which comes upon you to prove you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings…” (1Peter 4:12-13). “You will suffer in the world; but take courage, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).

OK, enough biblical support. We have simply to accept that taking up one’s cross and following Jesus is essential to the meaning and practice of the Gospel. That cross may come in various forms—usually unexpected ones—but come it will, for no servant is greater than his master. We can’t eliminate freely-accepted suffering from the elements of genuine Christian life. If the way Jesus chose to manifest his love for us was “obedience unto death, death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8), then sacrificial love must be the best way there is. So when He calls us to take up our cross and follow Him, He’s asking for an expression of love and trust that is perhaps beyond unaided human ability, but which is possible with the grace He richly bestows upon us. Nothing less than a total self-offering was Jesus’ gift to us, and He asks nothing less than that in return. It will cost us, make no mistake. But He also promises that sorrow will turn to joy (John 16:20).

So make sure you integrate suffering into the joy and peace and the other elements of the call of the Gospel. The saints, the mystics, those who were most in love with the Lord, all endured profound (and often prolonged) sufferings for his sake. But because they loved Him and knew his love for them, they could easily say with St Paul: “I consider that the sufferings of the present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18). When we finally see what God has prepared for those who love Him, our only regret will be that we didn’t offer Him more…