When I was in college, one of the activities in which I was involved was parliamentary debate. Parliamentary debate was a lot of fun for me because it had a freewheeling style. You could interrupt your opponent while he was speaking and most of the thinking that you did was on your feet. In addition, going to debate tournaments usually involved traveling, either to New York, Washington or some other city on the East Coast.
I will never forget one particular debate tournament at Columbia University. I was debating against physician-assisted suicide. I knew that I was in a difficult position, but I felt like I had solid argument. When interrupted and while pushed hard by my opponent, I remember saying, “You know, there are worse things in the world than suffering. Suffering helps us to reflect about what’s important in life, it makes us realize that most of the time we live for things which are, quite frankly, superficial.” As I looked in the judge’s eyes, I realized she wasn’t buying it. So I continued, “You might ask yourself, what can a nineteen year old college student know about this? Last summer I spent a lot of time with my mother when she was receiving chemotherapy. I began to appreciate what suffering was. I learned an awful lot about what was really important in life from that experience.”
The judge did not find the argument convincing.
Reflecting on the experience with my atheist Jewish debate partner, I told him that what I wanted to say was that in Jesus Christ, suffering can have a redemptive value. Yes, suffering is horrible, but when God chose it as the means by which we are saved, He made it the definitive revelation of His love for us.
Unfortunately, I could not introduce into the debate the words of St. Paul, “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 the church.”
Paul is not trying to say that Jesus’ death on the Cross is objectively lacking that Christ’s blood is insufficient to pay the price for our sins. That would contradict what he wrote just a couple verses before in Colossians. While Jesus’ death is enough to save us, God the Father’s plan for our salvation involves our cooperation with His saving will. He wants us to be instruments to bring His grace to others in His Holy Church.
We become Christ’s instruments by becoming like Him: Jesus prayed frequently, if want to be like Jesus, we must pray frequently. Jesus forgave those who wronged Him, if we want to be like Jesus, we must forgive those who wrong us. Jesus accepted and embraced suffering on the Cross. If we want to be like Jesus, we must beg our heavenly Father for the grace of first accepting and then embracing our sufferings. And when we allow grace to help us welcome suffering, we become channels of God’s saving love.
Think about it for a moment. Suffering is an unavoidable part of life. We might be able to avoid suffering here and there through our industry and determination, but it is impossible to escape it altogether. Our choice is not whether we will suffer or not, but how we will respond to it. Will we become bitter and selfish or will we receive it as an opportunity to come out of ourselves and become more loving?
When one puts it like this, all of us would like to choose the way of love over the way of bitterness. Our experience with suffering teaches us that it isn’t easy. When we suffer, we come face to face with our mortality. We realize that our bodies and souls lack something of the life that they were created to possess. Suffering is a vague premonition that one day we will die. And before the dark uncertainty of our mortality, we want to grab onto something, even if that something is a self-righteous anger, questioning God why He is letting this happen to us.
The good news of Jesus Christ for us today is that we aren’t alone we when face suffering. We are not alone when we face death. Jesus is with us. Just as the three angels of the Lord came to visit Abraham’s house, at our baptism, the three persons of the Blessed Trinity came into our souls and live within us. They remain there, provided that we stay in a state of grace. God is closer to us than we are to ourselves. And it is this divine closeness that has the power to cast out all our fear of suffering.
When was the last time that you we aware that God was in you? When was the last time that you felt his presence touching your heart?
The noise of the business of our daily lives does a good job of drowning out God’s gentle, still voice. Like Martha, we like to think that it’s all about us and about what we do: our sports, our job, our children, the grades we get in school, the friends we have, the car we drive, the house we own. But, in the end none of that will really matter. In the end, when we stand face to face with God on judgement day, he will ask us one simple question, “Do you love me?”
And when we love someone, we want to become like Him. We spend time with Him. We do things together with Him. When we love Jesus, when we really, truly love Him, we just don’t look at the Crucifix and say “Thank you, Jesus, for saving me from Hell.” No, we look at the image of our Lord’s body, broken for our sins on the Cross, and say “My God and King, you suffered and died for love of me, grant that in my sufferings, I may live and die for love of you.”