Human Suffering and the Paschal Mystery
Suffering presents one of the greatest challenges to faith. Why would God allow suffering if he loved us? Why would God the Father send His Son to have to suffer? How could there be a hell if God wants everyone to be saved?
We cannot know the full answers to these questions without understanding Jesus’ suffering. Jesus answers not so much with words but with His actions, especially the work of the Paschal Mystery.
The grace of the Paschal Mystery enfolds all human suffering into God’s redemptive love.
So what does this mean? The answer to this question is going to require us to look honestly at the different ways human beings suffer.
As teenagers, you probably have seen many examples of humans suffering that come from human sinfulness. We have only to look at the times when we have violated the fact that God made us in his image and likeness. We can hurt ourselves with addictions, self-loathing, deprive ourselves of God by ignoring Him in our lives or by being mediocre in the practice of our faith. When we don’t find happiness in God, we look for it in things that can never give it to us. We end up suffering one way or another.
You have seen how people can be cruel to each other. People steal from one another, mock each other, manipulate each other, or use each other for honor or pride. We see even more examples of horrible sin that inflicts deep, sometimes permanent suffering on others. Adultery, fornication, abortion, abuse, injustice, rape, terrorism, and many forms of violence. Obviously, human sinfulness causes much suffering. Why? Because human beings are created in God’s image. As such we all were created to be loved, to be respected, and to be treated with justice and love. When we don’t get these, we suffer. Unfortunately, since all humans are fallen, we all participate in creating suffering. It is part of human free choice.
When Jesus offers the grace of the Paschal mystery, he is offering us forgiveness for those times when we sin against others or ourselves and cause suffering. Yet how does God’s redemptive love reach the victim, the one who is suffering? Sometimes the sinner apologizes and tries to make amends for the wrong. In this case, the victim experiences some satisfaction. Sometimes the sinner can be punished. This punishment often serves as a way of redemption for the criminal. This also may make some satisfaction to the victim. Yet most of the time, there is no way to totally fix the problem. So what can grace do about this?
This answer is very hard. Ready for this? The victim could himself forgive the sinner in a totally generous and free act. This would be a great grace and a great act of mercy. Remember, one of the beatitudes is, blessed are the merciful, for mercy shall be theirs. Blessedness is happiness. Jesus allows us to be happy in our broken world by participating in his Paschal Mystery. Forgiving someone is hard, hard work, but the paschal mystery allows us to do the hard work of forgiving someone who has caused us suffering. This in turn leads to the new life of happiness that comes from being merciful. Forgiving others makes us free. All this is rooted in our freedom to choose the grace of the Paschal Mystery.
But saying God is merciful is not saying that suffering magically goes away. God’s justice is a part of his mercy. How does this work? Again, the suffering that comes from sin can have many components. For example, when a teenager gets drunk at a party, there is the obvious potential punishment of getting caught by the police. Parents might punish their child. There may be a deep disappointment on the part of the teenager that he has violated his parent’s trust. Perhaps the teenager doesn’t notice that some or her peers who do not want to engage in such behavior will simply choose other friends. In the state of drunkenness the teenager has voluntarily given up the human gifts of freedom and reasoning. In other words, drunk people are in a state of punishing themselves. Furthermore, sin reinforces selfishness in the soul of the person. Such selfishness tendencies will have to be removed somehow either by the person repenting and then making different hard choices to change this selfishness or repenting and having God strip away this selfishness in the next life in purgatory. All of this involves suffering that leads to the purity and holiness that is necessary to see God. Suffering is part of conversion.
What happens to the unrepentant sinner? Remember, they have the freedom to repent, and to reach for God’s mercy too. Well, God’s justice will always be accomplished, even if we don’t want his mercy.
So those that are gravely, that is seriously, sinful and do not repent, have destroyed God’s love and grace in their heart. They refuse, by choice, God. This is hell. For hell is a state of being that is a complete rejection of God. But for a creature that is created to be united to God in love for eternity, to reject him would be the most fundamental eternal misery there can be. It is NOT God who sends people to hell. This is totally the person’s choice. This is important to know. Love is a choice. God respects our free choice. We all want to be free. But to be free means we must accept all the consequences for our choices. God doesn’t force his truth, love, goodness upon anyone. He offers it as a gift. Can we blame God when someone refuses His gift? No.
What about purgatory? Purgatory is for those that have repented for serious sins but either have not repented all their minor sins or have not sufficiently allowed the grace of the Paschal Mystery to turn them into the selfless beings that can see God face to face. Purgatory is the punishment of being separated from God as all selfish attachments are stripped away from us. It involves spiritual suffering, not physical. But it is real suffering. In purgatory souls feel anguish at the selfishness that has kept them from totally loving God and others. It hurts. It is temporary because at the end of it, all these souls can purely give their whole selves to God in love.
This purgatory is taken from us the more we take on the voluntary suffering of conversion in this life. We can live of a life of penance, sacrifice, and prayer that makes us so detached from our selfishness, that we can purely love like God does. This hard hard work is made possible when we continually choose to accept the free gift of God’s grace that comes from the Paschal Mystery.
Have you noticed what just happened? Suffering has gone from simply being caused by sin, to something that can purify us from selfishness in order to love.
Think about it. When we choose to love in this world, it requires sacrifice and voluntary suffering. Every act of love is an act that participates in the paschal mystery when it is voluntarily offered.
Sometimes when you have done your service hours, you have experienced the inconvenience, awkwardness, discomfort, helplessness, and sometimes the ingratitude of the people you served. It is hard work to love. Your little suffering is an act of redemptive love sharing in the Paschal Mystery.
Do you always feel like praying? Well, giving your love to God even when you don’t feel like it is an act of participating in the redemptive love and grace of the Paschal Mystery. Praying is hard hard work.
Ask anyone who loves by giving themselves as a gift. Ask anyone who gives the gift of their limited time, money, or abilities for the good of others. Ask any spouse, any parent, any priest, or any religious sister or brother. Look at the lives of every saint. Love involves some suffering.
All the many sufferings that come from acts of love to others or God, are obvious great graces. But do you know what happens when you habitually keep doing this? Love brings happiness. Your sacrifices feel less burdensome because you think less of yourself. You can then take on harder and harder acts of love. Suffering becomes a way to happiness. What a paradox. Suffering is the road to heaven, just as the passion and the death of Jesus was the road to the resurrection. Salvation only comes by way of Jesus’ cross. That is why when we look at saints and martyrs, we see them able to undertake tremendous sacrifice and yet see them do it with peace, love, and joy. We who still have along way to go to holiness cannot even imagine how someone can do this. Well no one can without allowing the grace of the Paschal mystery to slowly change us.
So what about suffering that comes upon us? What about things that happen like sickness, accidents, disease, someone close to us dying?
This perhaps is one of the greatest opportunities for grace. For Jesus’ Paschal Mystery enfolds all human suffering in His redemptive love. Yet this part requires much faith. Jesus enfolds our suffering into his redemptive love in two ways. First, he is present inside of us through the grace of baptism. He suffers in and through us, uniting our suffering to His suffering. He allows us to offer our suffering to Him as a sacrifice, a prayer, and as an act of love united to his paschal mystery. We can take our suffering, no matter how small or how large and be like The Blessed Virgin Mary or the Apostle John at the foot of the cross and unite our anguish to Jesus.’ We participate in the Paschal Mystery and extend God’s redemptive love into the world and give to God the gift of our wholes selves.
The second way Jesus enfolds our suffering into his redemptive love is by allowing us to participate in God’s love for those that suffer. Every effort to care for the poor, work for justice, comfort the sick, elderly, or dying, is an act of redemptive love. Look at how people respond to natural disasters and to the suffering of others. The suffering of others will often bring out heroic love in those that have tuned their hearts to the amazing love Christ has for us. God allows human suffering to continue in a broken world to bring about our sanctification, our holiness in love. This is self-gift and sacrifice. It is the very life of Christ in us. It is what makes us Christians. It is what heaven is made of.
What a gift that Jesus gave to us to be able to share in his redemptive suffering. This is why he said that to be his disciples, we must pick up our cross and follow Him.