Sacrifice in Suffering

Sacrifice in Suffering
By Most Reverend Anthony A.M. Pearson, COFE
Most believers have, at one time or another, questioned why they are suffering. This is especially true when they are in the midst of a trial, test, or other suffering, or having to watch their loved ones’ suffering.  Is God mad at us, so much so that he afflicts us or those we love?  Are we weak in faith? Is God punishing me for it? The answer is plainly taught in Scripture.  Of course, the heretical “Health & Wealth” gospel preachers pathologically heap guilt on us, stating that if we’re suffering it’s because we don’t have enough faith or that it must be God’s punishment for some sin we’re hiding. They’re wrong!
“There is another reason also why the soul has traveled safely in this obscurity; it has suffered: for the way of suffering is safer, and also more profitable, than that of rejoicing and of action. In suffering God gives strength, but in action and in joy the soul does but show its own weakness and imperfections. And in suffering, the soul practices and acquires virtue, and becomes purer, wiser, and more cautious.” (St. John of the Cross, Dark Night of the Soul, 149)
Nothing could be further from the truth! In fact, Christians are called to suffer. It is the best seminary education we could ever receive. It’s the closest we will ever walk with Christ Jesus in this life! And it is in the furnace of life and on the anvil of heartbreak that God forges His tempered saints into instruments He can use. I know, because I have, am now, and will continue to be in that furnace that burns away dross, consumes weakness, and hardens brittle self-focus, leaving behind a glimmering weapon of our authentic self – forged in God’s image.
Out of sufferings great saints were formed. Out of trials, testing, and sufferings, we become one with the Lord of sufferings who was the “Man of Sorrows, Acquainted with Grief,” who shows us the way of suffering and how we are to handle it.  “Love proves itself by deeds, and how shall I prove mine? … I can prove my love only by scattering flowers, that is to say, by never letting slip a single little sacrifice, a single glance, a single word; by making profit of the very smallest actions, by doing them all for love. I want to suffer and even rejoice for love, for this is my way of scattering flowers.” — (St. Therese of Lisieux, The Story of a Soul, 4-5)
We read this exhortation from God through St. Peter, a man well acquainted with both our Lord’s sufferings and his own terrible sufferings. He is writing to the Church Militant, sorely afflicted in the sufferings of Nero.  They were persecuted, prosecuted, tortured, violated, humiliated, taunted, fed to wild animals, and treated as a public spectacle for the gory, blood soaked, cruel “enjoyment and entertainment” of the pagan crowds!
Men and women, boys and girls, infants and the elderly, pregnant women and very ill, all were treated as vermin!
To this suffering Church the first Bishop of Rome communicated exhortation and encouragement. In 1 Peter 2:21-23 we read, “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in His steps. He committed no sin; no guile was found on His lips. When He was reviled, He did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten; but He trusted to Him who judges justly.” (RSVCE)
Our Lord Himself had warning for His Apostles, the Proto-Catholic Church whose holiness and power would arise out of the midst of what appeared to be a terminal, unjust failure. We hear Jesus telling the Apostles, “ . . . saying, “The Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” And he said to all, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake, he will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?” (Luke 9:22-25) The lesson: no pain no gain, no suffering and death, no resurrection and ascension to a higher state spiritually.
Bishop Barron notes, “Friends, our Gospel today from Luke lays out Jesus’ conditions for discipleship: ‘If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.’ How do we overcome pain? How do we attain joy? Not from a Stoic resignation, nor from a Buddhist negation of the self, nor from a Platonic contemplation of the eternal forms, but rather from the sacrifice of the self in love. Jesus is going to Jerusalem in order to give himself away, to sacrifice himself in love for the other—and in this, he will become a source of life to others.
Ronald Knox talked about the sign of the cross this way: the first two gestures form the letter “I” and the next two cross it out. That’s what the cross of Jesus meant and means. The path of discipleship is the path of self-sacrificing love—and that means the path of suffering.” (Bishop Robert Barron, Your daily Gospel reflection, Thursday, February 15, 2018, Word on Fire Catholic Ministries)
My patron Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska, the “Apostle of Divine Mercy,” knew this truth well! She wrote of her commissioning to that ministry that Jesus said to her, “My daughter, suffering will be a sign to you that I am with you.” (Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska, 669) We are always afraid of having to suffer. I don’t like pain of any kind, and I fear being abandoned and alone. We must learn to trust that God won’t abandon us in the midst of our sufferings, but that suffering is a sign that God is with us in a special kind of way, walking along beside us, holding us up in His “Everlasting Arms.”  May God help us all to trust in this truth and not run away from our trials. He is never closer to us than when we are in the midst of some type of suffering.
“We live in a fallen world. We must therefore work out our destiny under the conditions created by sin. Did we but realize this truth, we would accept each of life’s trying changes in the same spirit in which we accept the penance from the confessor. Were we truly convinced that our hope of pardon, and consequently our salvation, depends upon repentance, we would willingly undergo all the sufferings of life’s warfare.” (John A. Kane, How to Make a Good Confession, 81)
God’s promise is sure, “ . . . even to your old age I am He, and to gray hairs I will carry you. I have made, and I will bear; I will carry and will save.” (Isaiah 46:4) And again, our Lord speaks through His leading Apostle to His suffering Church, in 1 Peter 5:5-7, “Likewise you that are younger be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’ Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that in due time he may exalt you. Cast all your anxieties on him, for he cares about you.” (RSVCE)
The blessed saint quotes Jesus as saying all this succinctly, “You are not living for yourself but for souls, and other souls will profit from your sufferings. Your prolonged suffering will give them the light and strength to accept My will.” (St. Maria Faustina Kowalska Diary, 67)
Our spiritual state & prayer depends greatly upon our recognition and acceptance of these truths.  We must recognize that we are “called” to accept our suffering by committing ourselves in deep and abiding trust to God’s control and sovereignty. By faith, a courageous faith that trusts God’s goodness and love, we are able by prayer to seek God’s light and strength to accept His will for our life. Life was never promised to us to be fair, entitled, or an easy journey. By faith, trust, and a daily commitment in prayer, we form a life that sees and accepts the value and profit of our sufferings as a means to deepen our relationship with Christ.
It is in prayer that we develop the type of mind (attitude, paradigm) that commits even our individual existence to prayer for consecration and a daily life that truly exists for the redemption of sinners, the reparation of sins, the reunion of all Christians, and the salvation of our eternal souls. We must constantly remind ourselves that we are not to live for ourselves alone; we are to live in love and dedication to God, and consecrate ourselves without question to our responsibility to work together with our triune God, the blessed eternal virgin, and all the holy angels and saints, for the salvation and good of all mankind.
My prayers for you and me today are these: may we continue to abound in every good grace, deepening our relationship with our victorious suffering Savior, and His plan for us all; may God bless you with every spiritual gift in Christ Jesus, as you walk the way the saints have trod with Jesus as their guide, the way of victory over the selfish dominance of our flesh, the corruptions of the world, and the deceiving attacks of the forces of Satan, through the way of suffering.
(Cf. United In Spirit: OFE Newsletter, November 2018, Vol. 3, Issue 1​)