In these recent posts we dove into the question of evil using Pope John Paul II’s letter On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering to lead the charge. With the help of Scripture and the Church’s Tradition, the Gospel message of mercy and hope shed light on the problem of evil for us. In this final post of the series, I want to speak into the Christian meaning of our suffering more directly. Christian revelation provides us a battle plan to bring about the Kingdom of God, and this plan proclaims the ultimate victory of God in the world through Jesus Christ.
We know all too intimately the reality that “in the world [we] will have trouble” (Jn. 16:33). When discussing the real, lived situation of mankind in the world today, the Church states this in its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World:
The whole of man’s history has been the story of dour combat with the powers of evil, stretching, so our Lord tells us, from the very dawn of history until the last day. Finding himself in the midst of the battlefield man has to struggle to do what is right, and it is at great cost to himself, and aided by God’s grace, that he succeeds in achieving his own inner integrity (GS, 37).
When the Church looks through the wellspring of Christian revelation (Scripture and Tradition) in order to see the world clearly, she characterizes our experience in martial terms. We often use this type of language when describing our own experiences of trial. Think of someone going through cancer treatment, we speak of their “battle with cancer.” When we endure hardship at work, we often use terminology of “testing” or “fighting through the day.” The aspects of struggle, fight, and strife often capture the experience we live in striving for virtue. In the realm of politics we fight “the war on poverty” and “the war on drugs” and “fight for justice.” When looking for cures to diseases, again, we see this as a battle against “disease-x”; even with the coronavirus COVID-19 the language of “fighting a silent enemy” and “battling against this pandemic” blitzed through the press conferences. All of this captures something very profound about humankind made in the image of God revealed through Jesus Christ who fights evil with good.
We see in Jesus Christ the undoing of evil in the world from its “transcendental roots” with The Fall to moral evil and even the evils of sickness and death. Jesus did indeed enter the “battlefield” of life to bring God’s kingdom with requisite power in the Spirit. When we fight against evil, sin, injustice, lies, and the like – especially through our own lives of repentance and constantly turning to Jesus Christ anew – we continue the task of God’s kingdom. Taking up the mantle of the Christian vocation, we engage the world to bring God the Father’s will “on earth, as it is in heaven.” Through Jesus Christ, God the Father enlisted both you and me in His army, equipped us with His Holy Spirit, and sends us forth for mercy, healing, peace, charity, and faith. This battle does not seek to tear down, but to build up, restore, console and save what was lost. Christians do not seek the destruction of the world, but its transformation through Jesus Christ until he comes again.
And, here we make an unpopular but true point: This battle will continue until all things come to fulfillment in the ultimate return of Jesus Christ. Evil confounds us because we desire the end of suffering, and, yet, with every advance we encounter new battles to fight. In paragraph 671 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church we read this:
Though already present in his Church, Christ’s reign is nevertheless yet to be fulfilled “with power and great glory” by the king’s return to earth [Lk. 21:27; Mt. 25:31]…Until everything is subjected to him, “until there be realized new heavens and a new earth” in which justice dwells, the pilgrim Church, in her sacraments and institutions, which belong to this present age, carries the mark of this world which will pass, and she herself takes her place among the creatures which groan and travail yet and await the revelation of the sons [and daughters] of God” [2 Pet. 3:13; Rom. 8:19-22; 1 Cor. 15:28].
Jesus Christ won a perfect victory over sin, death, the powers of darkness, and disease through his life, cross, resurrection, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. This victory continues with each step of the Church who bears his mission of Good News. The Church knows we need times of rest, healing, edification, training, etc. Each season of life will present its own degrees and landscapes of victory and defeat. But, being Christian does mean entering Jesus’ victory with a persevering heart, trusting in the Good News enfleshed by our lives of faith.
The early Church encountered real battles of life and death when spreading the Gospel. The apostles of the Church, through their own battles, received inspiration from the Spirit to invite us into an apostolic vision of our own sufferings for the Gospel. Jesus discipled them time and again with startling words like, “Whoever does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Mt. 10:38; 16:24).They new that part of the suffering included the difficulty in learning new skills, practicing and failing in new mission fields, and the difficulty we all face when having our narrow ways of thinking uncomfortably stretched (Heb. 12:1-7). These sufferings can feel unpleasant because old ways surrender to the new, death gives birth to life, and it can often seem like the unpleasantness is about the difficult, when in fact it is a sign of faithfulness on our part to pick up that cross daily. When following Jesus, speaking the truth in love, becoming “outcasts” because we do not engage in sins that others deem “natural” or “normal” or what “everyone does,” we taste the cup of apostolic suffering (Phil. 3:8-10). This apostolic suffering means that we suffer for the sake of the Gospel, because we both live and spread that Gospel, even in the face of backlash from others (Mary Healy, Healing: Bringing the Gift of God’s Mercy to the World, p. 128). Apostolic sufferings reveals the freedom of martyrdom; a freedom from that ultimate weapon of fear the enemy uses to silence us, death. When we pick up our cross to spread the Gospel in both word and deed, we take a stand before evil and choose the good no matter what. This is true freedom shaped by responsible and mature love. This is the freedom of the children of God that live untangled and unbound by the enticements and intimidation of evil.
Through this experience of trial, suffering, and pain the Church also recognizes that not all the evil we endure involves overt persecution. Many of the sufferings come from pains and evils both small and large, shallow and deep, whether strapped financially, difficulties in relationships, misunderstandings, illness, or the loss of a loved one. These do not constitute an “apostolic suffering” per se, but they remain enfolded in the mystery of Jesus’ redemption. This redemptive suffering, offered up in faith, joins us as co-workers with Jesus’ saving work as Paul describes in Colossians 1:24: “in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church.” When enduring suffering in faith we “present [our] bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is [our] spiritual worship” (Rom. 12:1). In joining these sufferings to the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, we do not take on suffering as if suffering is itself a good, but, rather, we choose good over what evil might spring from that suffering. In speaking about redemptive suffering, the Church does not indicate that suffering itself is a good or that evils might be a good “somehow”; rather, in redemptive suffering the Church calls you and me to choose the good even when it is most difficult to do so. This deserves a little flushing out for us to truly appreciate the wisdom of the Church’s take on redemptive suffering.
For some people, the prayerful practice of redemptive suffering brought meaning into their lives during difficult moments. But, too often this rich mystical tradition became distorted by a false believe that it was then “wrong” to not want to suffer. For instance, when illness afflicts someone who also carries a distorted version of redemption suffering, they may not ask for healing, because they feel that they are betraying Christ crucified by asking him to take the illness (looked upon as a cross) away. This is, I am happy to say, not the truth of the matter. Jesus’ entire mission was about healing, salvation, and deliverance. When we go to Jesus asking for healing in faith, we come to him as our Savior. Asking for healing honors Jesus, it deeply honors the King of Kings who endured suffering for our sake and pours out upon the Church the riches of his love. Redemptive suffering does not mean we should feel guilty for wanting the pain to cease, the illness to disappear, or the dead to rise. Rather, redemptive suffering takes into account what was stated from the Catechism above: the world will continue to engage in a battle for good until Jesus comes again. We know from the agony of loss that our prayers are not always answered when praying for people. Redemptive suffering does not call us to desist from interceding and reaching out to pray for healing. But, redemptive suffering shows us that grace remains even amidst the suffering. In “offering it up” as a mystical practice, while striving to battle against evil, we uproot evils of impatience, anger, despair, doubt and fear that too often accompany suffering. When someone choose redemptive suffering, keeping in mind the truth about Jesus’ love, we do not take that offering to mean that the evil is a gift but that the offering is the gift, our choice to not be defeated by the suffering is the gift, our faith that participates in the redemptive work of Jesus for sinners is the gift. I encourage everyone to have this purified sense of redemptive suffering so that “offering it up” becomes a battle cry instead of a defeated whimper. And, I encourage everyone to continue to pray in hope for healing and to right wrongs even amidst suffering. Even when “offering it up” we still go to the hospital when we are sick, we still seek forgiveness where there was sin against us or God, we still seek safety if someone is harming us. Redemptive suffering does not mean offering up abuse, but rather seeking justice, safety, and protection to end abuse, injustice and wrong. We offer that process of justice, with its many conflicts, “up” to Jesus trusting that he desires us to be healthy, safe, at peace and in his mercy. He is, after all, a very good Lord!
The Easter season calls out to us and speaks of a victory won and battles that lead from grace to grace. In this life we will endure trouble (Jn. 16:33). But, we know, through these series of posts, that evil does not come from God. We know that God continues to work in the world and has brought his mercy to complete victory in Jesus Christ. We have also witnessed to our own mission in the face of evil. As Christians we take up the apostolic mission to spread the Gospel everywhere, by word and deed. This mission of speaking about Jesus, inviting people into communion with him, and, firstly, living that communion with him in a mature faithfulness, will entail suffering. In the imperfection of the world, one that awaits the end of evil at Jesus’ Second Coming, we have the gifts of the Holy Spirit who brings mercy, healing, deliverance, and revival to our time. In the midst of the spread of the Good News, not all evils will be conquered, but we can allow even those “defeats” to be turned into victory through the power of the Cross of Jesus. Just as Jesus is the revelation of God’s answer to the problem of evil, you and I are God’s reply to that same question. When we live the Good News, immerse ourselves in the life of the Spirit, come to know Jesus Christ, and change our lives to live as he lives, then we demonstrate God’s power and love that never ceases doing good for His beloved children. Onward, Christian soldier!
Peace & Prayer,