Below is a slightly different approach to a topic on which I've written several books in the past. When someone orders a copy, I slip it into my books on coping with illness or some other physical, mental, or emotional adversity.
Have you seen the TV commercial where a man who has suffered a previous heart attack has a hospital gurney following him around everywhere? A reminder that, like it or not, some kind of medical or surgical event probably waits for us around the corner.
Regardless of whether we are Christians, none of us can go through life without facing physical affliction. Something in or on our bodies or minds or emotions eventually becomes disordered through illness, abnormality, accident, environment, or other circumstances. Suffering is a stop sign—a Whoa! Stop—Look—Listen! Our attitude and our faith in God, or lack of it, will determine whether we will treat it as a Woe! –a negative experience always to be rejected—or a Wow! –a spiritual opportunity to grow in Christ.
Our temporary bodies are created by God; they are mortal and therefore terminal—death is our earthly end in every case. Although we grow from the time of our conception, the visible part of us nevertheless starts degenerating [decaying, diminishing, being destroyed and spent, in other translations], Saint Paul in 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 describes us as being both “the outer man” and “the inner man”—the former is our body of flesh, the latter our immortal, eternal soul or spirit. Whatever the trauma we suffer in our flesh, or to whatever degree, if we put it in Christian perspective, we should agree with Saint Paul that it is a “momentary, light affliction” when compared with our eternal state in glory. The good news is that ultimately these ailing, painful, and inevitably aging bodies will be resurrected and changed!
After my encounter with cancer surgery over two decades ago, I wrote and published a book which I subtitled “Discovering meaning in physical distress.” I was at that time a sincere, Bible-believing, evangelical follower of Jesus Christ and trusting in His love and providence. I offered my readers the best I knew of spiritual and practical help to cope with the trauma of whatever illness they might be experiencing.
I am still a sincere, Bible-believing follower of Jesus Christ trusting in His love and providence—but I am now a Catholic Christian by conviction. The principles I offered my readers previously were basic and valid and biblical, but they were only the first few rungs of the ladder to understand suffering in the lives of Christians. Just as the patriarch Jacob in the Old Testament story dreamed of a ladder which reached to Heaven, there are MORE rungs to climb on the suffering ladder all the way into God’s glorious presence.
Before I climb a ladder, I need to be sure I place it where the foundation is firm so it won’t wobble or be dangerous as I ascend. My sure foundation needs to be my personal faith and trust in God. Then I can climb peacefully and without fear. In hindsight, my basic premise for the above-mentioned book was sincere but a little shaky. Along with many of my Bible-believing friends, I took for granted that illness, pain, and suffering could never be God’s will for His children. Such things were thought to come from the devil and ought to be rejected as quickly as possible. Suffering was an aberration and therefore had no meaning. It seemed clearly to be a Woe! Healing and good health were at the top rung of the ladder to be vigorously pursued.
The Catholic Church teaches, along with the apostles and Christians since the time of Jesus, that there is intrinsic spiritual value in suffering. It is called redemptive suffering and is not without meaning nor should we automatically reject suffering because we can’t imagine how it could be in God’s will. The Scriptures don’t teach that God causes suffering, but that He sometimes permits it for His divine purposes.
At the same time, God can and does heal—but not always. When He heals, we thankfully and joyfully accept His decision, although we realize it is always temporary—realistically, our bodies will eventually die. We should not be presumptuous to demand healing or pout when God answers our prayers in some other way. God is God and we are not; we are His created ones. When we are not healed, it is not necessarily because our faith is deficient. Suffering, pain, affliction, illness, disease, weakness, grief, loss, and other adversities are our common human lot in this fallen world.
Nevertheless, we can climb some higher rungs on the ladder of understanding and responding to God’s plan of redemptive suffering. The Scriptures declare that we are privileged and obliged not only “to know Jesus and the power of His resurrection” but also to unite with Him “in the fellowship of His sufferings.” (Philippians 3:10) This is another of the “both/and” mysteries to contemplate.
The “Serenity Prayer” can give us a boost up the first rung. “God, grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, and Wisdom to know the difference.” For the things we cannot change, there are higher rungs on the ladder of suffering to climb. The Scriptures teach that those who belong to God are interrelated members of the Body of Christ. (Romans 12:5; Ephesians 4:4) The Catholic Church teaches that thus bonded to one another, we can offer up or surrender to God our suffering to benefit others who are suffering or in need of God’s mercy, strength, and love. “My sufferings for your sake” writes Saint Paul. We may not understand the spiritual logistics of how that happens, so it is one more mystery that we accept by faith.
Beyond trying to cope, stoically endure, or persevere when going through suffering, is the element of actual joy—the Wow!—another rung higher on the ladder. “Count it all joy” writes Saint James. Saint Paul wrote, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of His Body, which is the church….” (Colossians 1:24) That is another richly mysterious declaration that we should not misinterpret. The verse does not imply that Christ’s atoning death on the cross was defective, insufficient, incomplete, or lacking in any way. No one can ever add to Christ’s once-for-all sufferings for our salvation. Nevertheless, we can share or participate on some level in His sacrifice for mankind. As Christ identified Himself with the suffering Church in Acts 9:4, so we can identify with Him through our suffering. That Colossians verse has depths to plumb that are hard to understand, but it is the inspired Word of God. Let’s simply admit that with our finite minds we can’t fathom all the infinite designs of God. Trust that God is in control and has a purpose for everything He allows in our lives.
Let’s climb still another rung higher: the Church teaches that we have accessible to us in our times of affliction not only the intercession of our Christian brothers and sisters on earth, but the prayers of our departed Christian loved ones and friends including those in Christ who lived in past ages now in the presence of God. This describes the oneness of Christ’s Body which includes not only Christians who are alive on earth today, but also Christians departed from this life who are being purified on their way to heaven, together with those who have arrived in heaven. This Communion of Saints has been an integral part of the Christian Creed since the days of the apostles and the early church. The Church teaches through the authority of the “keys” given to it by Christ through Peter (Matthew 16:19) that those who have left this life and are already in God’s presence are available to present our petitions to God the Father through our One Mediator, His Son Jesus Christ, assisted by “the groanings of the Holy Spirit that cannot be expressed in speech.” (Romans 8:26, 27 and Revelation 5:8) Let us understand that there is a difference between “mediator” and “intercessor.” People can intercede for us, but only Christ can mediate with the Father.
The final rung on this ladder is reached in Heaven when “we shall know as we are known.” The answers to the complex questions surrounding our common experience of suffering and pain endured in these mortal bodies on Planet Earth will become clear. As a Catholic Christian, I find these fuller dimensions about suffering biblical and historically, theologically, and spiritually compatible with the Scriptures and with the Christian faith I have embraced over a lifetime.