We live in a society that defines the goodness of life by the experience of pleasure and the absence of pain. However, we all know it’s impossible to avoid suffering, pain, and tragedy on this side of heaven. So how do we suffer well? Today, Dave “The Mystery of Redemption” VanVickle and I discuss the mystery of suffering from a Christian perspective and what we’ve learned in our own trials. We provide you with practical guidelines to help you navigate your sufferings with the hope of Christ.
Snippet from the Show
While we cannot avoid suffering, we don’t have to be corrupted by it, for Christ’s story did not end with the crucifixion.
The Mystery of Suffering
- Modern man is inclined to mitigate all suffering and discomfort, but if we try to mitigate all suffering we take away its meaning.
- Suffering is meaningful because of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross.
- At the core of western civilization is God who is crucified. While we cannot avoid suffering, we don’t have to be corrupted by it.
- Suffering, pain, and tragedy are grounding because they remind us that we live in a fallen and imperfect world because of sin.
- Suffering is often the chisel that God uses to strip away sinful areas of our hearts.
- Modern man no longer discovers meaning in God, he invents it himself. However, invented meaning cannot endure the flames of profound suffering.
- We define the goodness of life by the experience of pleasure and the absence of pain and we live in a culture that worships pleasure.
- Suffering is an amazing place to be Christian witnesses because we know that God is not unsympathetic with our suffering. God himself suffered in Christ Jesus, so God is not alien to our suffering.
- We know that Jesus’ Resurrection has set us free from the bondage of sin and death.
The Sources of Christian Ethics talks about the subject of “Suffering” from two systems of morality, the modernist Obligation-centered moralities or the classical Happiness-centered moralities.
The manuals of moral theology have little to say about suffering. In his book The Law of Christ Father Bernard Häring approaches it only by way of particular questions sickness, anesthesia, childbirth, the difficulties of marriage, repentance. Reading these works gives us the impression that suffering has no particular relevance or purpose in moral theory. True, it can be seen as an occasion of merit, but by preference it is relegated to dogmatic theology.
As we read in Scripture, however, and especially the Gospels and the letters of St. Paul, it becomes clear that suffering holds a central position in the life and Passion of Christ, and in the lives of his disciples, who are called to carry their crosses and follow him. Without this central role of suffering, the Gospel message would be incomprehensible, and there would be no way of explaining the Christian life. Even the Beatitudes turn upon various forms of suffering. Paradoxically, they are described as approaches to the Kingdom: poverty, affliction, and mourning; hunger and thirst, persecution and calumny.
To a certain extent, human experience corroborates the Gospel on this point. It is suffering, whether physical, emotional, moral, or spiritual, that brings us in the last analysis to confront the problem of the meaning of our life and to question ourselves about our moral and religious values. The just man overwhelmed with misfortune is scandalized by the success of the rich… (Psalm 73). We remember Job, too, and his debate with his friends and with God: the entire moral universe was being weighed in the balance.
The problem of suffering has a metaphysical dimension as well. It leads us to question God’s goodness and, in the end, even His very existence. For us, suffering is the concrete shape of the problem of evil. St. Thomas’s first objection to the existence of God is the fact of suffering. The experience of suffering can overturn the moral values of a lifetime, penetrating deeper than our habitual ideas and emotions. By the thrust of its ambiguity, it challenge us to a decisive existential choice: either suffering will destroy the roots of hope in us and bring us to a more or less articulate despair, or we will discover in it and beyond it new, strong values, notably Gospel values, which will engraft in us a ‘hope against hope’ and give us ‘the courage to be.’
Think of the a person who has never known suffering. Is this person real? Or even happy? It seems that solid moral values cannot exist without the experience of suffering, and that suffering is the only gateway to them. The problem of suffering, of sorrow, is one of the major themes of ancient philosophy, to which all schools of thought contributed, as is shown in Book 3 of Cicero’s Tusculanae Disputationes. It is the point of departure for Buddhist moral thoughts as well.
How is it that many ethicists have not grasped the importance of suffering and have built up moral systems that bypass it? The explanation is simple enough: once the idea of obligation becomes dominant and determines the scope of morality, the consideration of suffering becomes marginal, since it is not a matter of obligation.
On the other hand, if the idea of happiness is the initial consideration in moral theology, the place of suffering will be obvious, for it is precisely the reverse of happiness. Suffering will then be an element of moral theology from the very start. Moreover, the question of happiness does not arise for us until we experience trial. Without suffering, the idea of happiness would be too romantic, too much a thing of the imagination; happiness becomes real only when we are confronted with suffering over the long haul. This is the indispensable experience that lends genuine authenticity to any moral theory based on happiness.
The moral theory of the Beatitudes bears this out. St. Thomas, too, gave an important place to suffering, but we do not find his theories in the manuals. In the treatise on the passions he devoted 25 articles to sorrow and pain (IaIIae qq 35-39). Further on the analyzed courage, with its attendant virtues, and the gift of fortitude. The culminating point was Christian martyrdom, where courage was directly related to the Passion of the Christ (IIaIIae qq 123-40).
Those who stress a moral theory of obligation would probably maintain that they in no way downplay the importance of suffering in the Christian life, but that they simply situate it within the framework of asceticism or, better still, pastoral theology for the sake of those who suffer.
This is exactly what I have been describing: a moral theory that excludes the question of suffering, and happiness as well, relegating them to a related science as if they were merely material for specialists, while in reality they are fundamental human experiences. Actually, this banishment of the consideration of suffering from ethics is an outgrowth of a rationalistic conception of the human person. Its thesis is that our interior world is divided int two areas: on the higher plane are the reason and will, which constitute the proper field of morality, established by law and its imperatives; somewhere below this lies the area of the affections which includes desires, love and suffering. The second pane, a realm of sentiments often in disagreement with reason, is only indirectly related to morality and must be dominated by it.
In setting up this dichotomy between reason and appetite, rationalism misunderstands the existence of what might be termed spiritual sensibility, which supersedes reason and the will’s imperative. Spiritual sensibility is associated with direct perception – a kind of instant or nonnatural knowledge- and with the unique movement of selfless love which is the love of friendship a far cry from sensible love. It is in this sense that St. Thomas spoke of “reason’s instinct.” And delightedly he called the gifts of the Holy Spirit “instincts of the Holy Spirit” in both intellect and will (IaIIae q 68). Are we transcending moral theology here and entering the field of mysticism? But what kind of moral theology would it be that first assumed superiority to all sentiment, even spiritual, and then became too lowly even to approach such heights? This is a serious problem rooted in the anthropology of modern rationalism. It appears even in theologians most strongly convinced of their faith.
I shall close with a quotation from René Le Senne. “Our moral life takes its rise from an awareness of suffering and failure. The first conclusion reached from our self-examination is that we cannot pretend that suffering does not exist, because everything begins there historically… Either such a theory will succeed in doing away with suffering, which is quite incredible, or it will fail, and its failure will be its finish.”
To the question of suffering we must add that of death, the reverse side of the question of life’s meaning. The question of death is keenly present in our society with its problems of suicide, capital punishment, euthanasia, war, the afterlife. Death is in our midst despite all efforts to ignore it. We cannot reduce this question to difficult cases of conscience or to theoretical or sentimental stances. Everyone has to face death sooner or later; we must dare to face it openly. Moral theology needs to deal with it frankly; all life’s strands are caught up in it. This applies above all to Christian ethics, which must transmit the Gospel message of Christ’s death- for believers, the source of a new life.
- Try to find meaning in your suffering
- Remember that God himself suffered in the person of Jesus Christ, so God is not alien to your suffering.
- Rather than ask Why? Ask- how can I love the most in this moment? While we may never understand why we suffer, we can continue loving and remaining faithful.
- Read St. Pope John Paul II Letter- Salvifici Dolores, On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering
- Suffering can make you think you are the center of the universe. Remember you are not the only one who suffers, there are many people suffering around the world.
- If you are accompanying a loved one who is profoundly suffering, make sure you also take care of yourself.
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Meet Your Hosts
Michael “Gomer” Gormley
Michael has been leading evangelization and ministry efforts for the past ten years, both as a full-time parish staff member and as a speaker and consultant for parishes, dioceses, and Catholic campus ministries.
Mike is also the founder and creative director of LayEvangelist.com, and the producer and cohost of a Catholic young adult podcast Catching Foxes, which discusses the collision of Faith and Culture.
He is married to his college sweetheart, Shannon, and they have about 1,000 children and get about 3 hours of sleep a night, which is alright by him.
Dave VanVickle fell in love with the Lord at the age of fourteen and has since dedicated his life to bringing others into a radical relationship with Christ.
He is a speaker and retreat leader who focuses on proclaiming the universal call to holiness, authentic Catholic spirituality, spiritual warfare and deliverance. Additionally, Dave has over ten years of experience assisting Priests with their ministries of exorcism and deliverance.
Dave resides in Pittsburgh with his wife Amber and their five children: Sam, Max, Judah, Josie and Louisa.
How Do We Suffer Well? Thank you so much for this wonderful podcast! My family is in a particular time of suffering. Listening to it gave me a new perspective! Thank you so much! May Our Lord continue to bless & lead you as you try to bring Him to others!
Well-written, hope-giving article. I do want to mention, however, that it seems as though there are many intelligent, healthy people with little to no faith who love their work, which provides them much happiness. Do they have true joy? Probably not. But they are the happiest people I know, and seem to suffer only minimally.