by Nilo A. Lardizabal, OP
As a Catholic pastor, I have heard a lot of stories from people of all ages relating their struggles with making sense of suffering. Now the sufferings they say are sometimes light in nature, but some are really intense. I for my part try to provide a listening ear because sometimes that is all they need. Many times Bible passages fall short of comforting them at the moment. Then everything goes down to the question of “why”. “Why did God allow this?” “Why am I in pain?” “Why my family?” “Why me?”
Of course I give it gently to them that I do not have the answers to these questions. But I do know two things: 1) The Lord will never give us something beyond our capacities, and 2) the Lord will never abandon us even at the most trying moments of our lives. This is definitely easier said than done or believed, but one’s faith will make him or her cling to the reality of God’s love.
According to the Apostolic Letter Salvifici Doloris by the late Pope John Paul II, suffering is more than just experiencing pain, “it includes both physical suffering and moral suffering – grief, loss, injustice, loneliness and powerlessness” are some examples. And unfortunately, many people share these emotions one time or another. In confessions and counseling, many people, young and old, cry out their intense emotional and physical pain. They struggle to the depths of their being with making sense of suffering.
Did not the Lord Jesus himself cry out at the garden? Left alone to weep and uncared for by his sleeping disciples, didn’t he beg the Father to “take this cup from me?” (cf. Matthew 26:39) This is Jesus himself facing and seeing the shameful suffering He is to endure. Yet it was the same suffering which brought our redemption – every drop of blood and every tear shed is culminated in the great act of LOVE.
Our present Pope, Benedict XVI wrote a very significant document about the meaning of Christian suffering. He himself said that in human agony there lies “the very heart of salvation itself.” How so? It is because the Lord Jesus, though God-made-man, willfully and lovingly endured the pain of the cross because of love.
Look at any crucifix, gaze at it and see and feel the torment that Jesus felt. He did that for us.
Faced with this reality and historical truth, can we also say “why”?
No one excels in relating the reality of suffering than Job himself. He was at the point of blaming God for all his miseries. Yet he trusted all the more. It was the only thing he could do.
Job chapter 6, verses 2-3 shows the great remorse and suffering of this poor man. Yet he came to a stark realization. Like a good parent, God allows hardship to strengthen the suffering soul. God speaks through suffering. “Man is chastened with pain upon his bed...” (Job 33, 19). And Job 36: 15 – “He delivers the afflicted by their affliction, and opens their ear by adversity.”
So we learn, like Job, that suffering does not mean being abandoned by the Lord. Yes, it may be a form of testing of faith. So be it! Suffering will make us strong. Not that we have to want it or wait for it. But this may be an opportunity for the individual to trust in the Lord.
Pope John Paul II again, relates in his very beautiful Apostolic LetterSalvifici Doloris – On the Meaning of Human Suffering, that “the significance of suffering is not a punishment for evil (that we have done); but it does call for a recognition of evil (in the world), and so it calls us to conversion, to turn away from evil.”
This was what Job tried to realize, and was successful in it. The Lord never abandons us; nor does He totally allow that we suffer without any meaning. There is significance in suffering, and it is supposed to make us stronger Christians. Yes, sometimes we learn about life the hard way. Yet there is always the mystery of love in it.
Years before I entered the seminary, I asked the very same thing. As an active lector and commentator, I always thought the Lord was at my side. Then a horrible thing happened. My father was involved in a terrible car accident. My whole world crumbled and could not accept the incident. Faced with the difficult truth of the matter, confusion gave way to anger – anger at the Lord. I even had the guts to say to His face that I have been serving in Church actively – “why did you allow this to happen?” Yes, it was the same ‘why’ we always ask the Lord. But to make a long story short, it was the Lord himself who proved that he never forgets his promise of care for all those who love Him. My father was alive and it was a miracle!
Looking back and fitting the pieces of the puzzle, my suffering began to make sense. The Lord was teaching me and my family that above all the material possessions and all the plans, it is His will which is done. Jeremiah 29: 11 says: “For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans not to harm you, but to give you a hope and a future.”
Isn’t this comforting? Even in the midst of difficulties and sufferings, the Lord assures us of the benefit that may result from it. Pope Benedict XVI says that “suffering makes us better”. Better and harder Christians – ready to face trials with complete trust in the Lord.
Again, we cannot but trust. The option is either to suffer more due to despair and depression, or to see the light hidden in the dark cloud. No one will make this decision. One must abandon oneself to the Lord. He knows what He is doing. Isaiah 55: 9 states the following: “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than my thoughts.”
If this is so, what then can the suffering Christian do? It is the Lord Jesus himself who answers:
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matthew 11: 28-30).
So many action words! As action, it must be done. “COME”. Those who are suffering can draw close to the Lord. Never be afraid to weep or cry. The Lord understands. “TAKE”. Jesus himself said this at the Last Supper – we partake of the same Jesus who gave himself as bread to nourish our souls. “LEARN”. Jesus was not alien to suffering. But he trusted in the Lord. “REST”. The Lord asks us to abandon ourselves to His caring arms and we will be comforted. But we must decide for this.
Allow Pope John Paul II in his Letter to end this article:
In Christ, our suffering is not only human but also supernatural. It is human because, in suffering, we discover ourselves, our own humanity, dignity and mission. It is supernatural because it is rooted in the divine mystery of the redemption of the world.
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